Just got back from a nice little trip to St. Louis to see an old fraternity brother and his wife. The weekend was packed with museums, great food-and-drink, and nostalgic conversation. It’s funny, really. When you see someone you haven’t seen in a while, and it’s like everything just falls back into place as though a year or two was just a few days. That’s a bit cliché, I realize, but I think it’s humorous how I might walk down a St. Louis street with my friend Patrick and imagine we’re back at Wabash, or I might walk through Cambridge with Avery, and at any given moment, I’m worried about falling through an uncovered manhole, just because that was a danger we had to watch out for in Morocco.
When those memories come flooding back, they’re usually ephemeral for me. It’s more like they drip instead of flood. Like, for half a second, my mind flashes back to a very vivid image, but the image doesn’t stick; it’s not something I can turn over and chew on. More than that, the past is less something I can imagine, as in picture, and more oft than not, it’s something I only feel: a happy moment or a sad one all thrown together into a few milliseconds of colorful images somewhere in the fleeting recesses of my mind. I sometimes wish it would play like a movie, but it never does, and I wonder if I’m unique in this or if this is how everyone experiences remembering the past. Because when I say that I “remember” something, I really mean I have words that recognize that I was there, but to hold onto the memory is incredibly difficult, especially to hold onto it exactly as it was.
I guess that’s why we take pictures and videos, really, but I don’t think photographs can capture the raw emotion of a memory, or it’s rare that they do. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that watching an old family video or looking at a picture doesn’t feel as real to me as how I imagine it to have happened, even if I know my memory has distorted it and made it different from how it really was.
A few days before heading off to St. Louis, I had lunch with my friend Sarah along with her toddler, Ramsey, who I lovingly call “Ramsilicious.” I’ve been pretty skittish around babies for awhile, probably in part because Moroccan children were so mean to me but also because I find it so difficult to imagine having one of my own. I haven’t figured out if Ramsey has grown on me because she’s constantly smiling and laughing or if it’s just because she’s still so darn cute even when she’s not, but I’d murder anyone who tried to hurt her, and I told Sarah today that I have every intention of making sure she doesn’t listen to crappy music! So, when lunch ended the other day, and Sarah asked me to carry Ramsey to the car, she sneakily snapped a photo of the two of us just about the time Ramsey started crying over having to get in the car seat. It was my first time to hold a baby, ever. And in that sense, it’s something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
And yet, when she was finally settled in, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m not able to remember anything before, like, the year I was in the first grade. Ramsey will not remember being held or loved on as a toddler. She won’t remember having her diaper changed or doing whatever else it is that babies do. By the time she’s five, in fact, she’ll probably have forgotten what all that was like. I mean, maybe there are some weird folks out there who do remember what it was like being a few months old, but I’ve yet to meet any of them. The catch is this: just because we forget those early years doesn’t make them any less important. In a way, they’re the most important of all. In fact, I remember an episode of This American Life where they talked about how the first year of life could essentially determine how the rest of your life was going to go. In that sense, Ramsey may not be able to recall the memories she’s making, but they’ll be with her always regardless.
That got me to thinking that maybe the stuff we either forget or can’t recall can be more important than the stuff we think we’ve got down pat — that our emotional memory is just as crucial as the physical one with its deceptive, vivid images. And for me, there’s some comfort in the fact that whatever might be buried in my brain isn’t ever really “forgotten,” that every moment I encounter and experience is so, truly precious that I’m bound to carry it with me one way or another – whether it’s being held and having had my diaper changed as a baby or walking the cold streets of St. Louis with a dear friend.