Recently, one afternoon in the car with Grace, a song came on the radio and I heard her wistful voice from the backseat, “The first time I heard this song was with Audrey on the way to the Solstice.”

I nodded.  As it often does, my mind hopscotched to another place, thinking about how often a song has triggered a memory for me too.  And also of one of the topics I mull the most often: the confounding nature of memory, and the peculiar way that most of our lives blur into a colorful slurry of recollection while certain moments stand out, brilliant, crystalline.  And of the ways that these moments are very rarely those we think they’ll be. They are often the smallest moments, insubstantial as we live them.  Very rarely I can recall being aware, even in an experience, that I will always remember it; there’s a shimmer in the air and a corresponding tingling like every cell of my body was especially porous.  In those moments I always think of Wordsworth: “In this moment there is life and food for future years.”  But far, far more often, I am amazed by the memories that endure, bright and complete, and, equally, by those that do not.

I am fascinated by what we remember, and why.

I’m sure there is some message in the moments that remain after our memories of the rest of our life sifts through our fingers.  I just haven’t discerned it yet.  They still seem random to me, shifting around like shards in a kaleidoscope, different ones rising to the surface, bidden by any number of small triggers (a song, a smell, a person, or something less identifiable).  I keep thinking of the night sky, and how you squint to see stars, and by drawing lines between them you discern constellations.  I’m sure that could be done with my memories, but I don’t yet know what shapes they form.

All I have as of now is these bright pebbles of memory, shined to brilliance by being turned over and over in my mind like a stone in my hand.

Like sitting in my college roommate’s parents’ car outside the grocery store in Nantucket, waiting for another one of our friends, the sun hot outside, singing along to Edwin McCain singing I’ll Be.

Like the sensation of goosebumps running up and down my arms and then the wild, unbidden, uncontrollable tears as I walked down the aisle at the end of my grandmother’s funeral, my cousin, who held her ashes, walking right in front of me.

Like the bewilderment I felt as I spoke to Hadley on the phone on my way home from Trader Joe’s, a 10 day old Grace in the backseat, as I answered the simple question of “what did you get?” with a long pause as I struggled to remember.  And then, “Wine.  And almonds.”

Like the ache I felt as I sat at preschool in Paris and watched my mother’s back disappear through the schoolyard’s large green gate.  As the moments ticked by I held her image in my head, imagining her walking down the street, back to our apartment.

Like the certainty that descended on me as I stood on the steps of Blair Arch, the most famous and dramatic architectural feature on a campus full of them.  It was a hot, sunny Labor Day, 1991, and I said firmly to my father, “Dad? I want to go to school here.”

Like the sound of hundreds of school girls singing “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” leaning out of classroom doors into the great hall fronted by an enormous organ, the air full of celebration and holiness, of youth and energy of a tangible sense of Christmas that I have neither forgotten nor matched.

Like the smell of candles and centuries in the crypt of the Assissi Cathedral as I battled sudden and unexpected emotion.  My sister, standing next to me, caught my eye and in a single look made clear she understood that I was feeling something big and inchoate and that she was right there.

And now, I know Grace is beginning to string memories like pearls on the string of her life.  Like hearing a song on the radio while driving to the very last Solstice Ball.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you remember, and any understanding you have as to why.



33 thoughts on “Memory”

  1. My memories are a bit like a box of crayons, blocks of color. My earliest childhood memories are filled with golds and yellows, a sunny ranch style house with shag carpet and wild flowers. Then come the greens of elementary school, playing alone in tunnels I carved through brambles, racing along the running trails in Eugene. The colors shift to smoky blues and grays as the melancholy music of the late 70s threaded through the disintegration of my parents’ marriage, the pang of silvery weeping making its way up to me as I tried to sleep. Angry reds in high school…it goes on, but my happiest is this time now. Watching my girls, knowing that snippets of our life will come back to them through a song or a smell, or perhaps a color. I long for peaches and limes, but know that even the dark colors have a beauty.

  2. This is so beautiful, Lindsey. Like you, songs trigger memories for me. Also certain clothes. I can remember what I was doing when I was wearing a certain outfit. I feel like I don’t remember my life events as much as I wish I could so I try to be in the moment as much as I can. I have a tendency to remember the bad/shameful moments more than the good–I am working on that.

    Thank you for your beautiful words and inspiration.

  3. Many of my memories revolve around food. Not sure what that says about me.
    I also seem to remember the words that people say to me, especially if I had an emotional response to them.
    I often wonder what my children will remember about their childhoods. I’ve noticed already how my teenagers’ recollections of something that happened years ago do not always match with my own.
    Another great post, Lindsey. Gets me thinking.

  4. I have been inundated, lately, with shards of childhood memories. Like yours, of moments that seemed so inconsequential at the time. A summer morning sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table, watching my grandpa make toast while getting ready for work, sun streaming through the window over the sink, Paul Harvey’s scratchy voice on the radio, the scent of butter. Sitting between my grandparents on the front seat of their Buick, wind blowing my hair, “Hey, Jude” playing, my grandma asking if I like “those Beatles.” Eating a tuna sandwich in my other grandma’s back yard, on bread she made, watching the glass of iced tea sweating in the sun. I call them shards because they are piercing. They bring tears. I am so grateful for them, even as they wound me. A mystery I’m trying to simply accept without needing to unravel it. I, too, wonder what beads of memory my children are stringing.

  5. We just returned from Trader Joe’s (baguette, coffee beans) and on the way (my) Grace said, “Do you remember when we were at a museum, and we were looking at a helicopter displayed on some rocks. I stepped too close and the alarm went off? Where was that?”

    I remembered it was at the Peabody Essex, and it was a palanquin. We had gone to see a display of kimekomi dolls. Wandering through the museum, I hadn’t realized how close her foot had come to the stones. I recalled the look on her face as a guard spoke sharply to us.

    “No,” she said. “It was definitely a helicopter. And Daddy was with us.”

    It was an innocent mistake. She remembers it as a negative, shameful moment, and has separated it in her mind from the otherwise very happy mother-daughter adventure, and changed details.

    Makes me question the veracity of my own recollections when she shares her memories.

  6. I think memories, whether of big or seemingly small events, are closely tied to emotion. The emotion solidifies the event in your mind. Great post.

  7. This post is so thought provoking! I love it! Memories, for me, are definitely linked with feeling. For instance, I remember riding home from girl scout camp on a school bus when I was nine. I was sitting alone, as I often did, fingering the beads on a friendship pin I had made, and feeling a mixture of loneliness and inner strength, like I knew that no matter what, everything was going to be just fine. But why do I remember that moment, apart from so many others? Like you, I’m still not sure.

  8. For me memory is cemented by emotion, but also by music. I’ve come to believe that music opens a channel deep into my hindbrain. Words spoken, by myself or others, while I attend to music get etched indelibly into long-term memory. Does not matter what kind of music it is, high or low, medieval or punk.

    Photos also anchor memory — or aid in the its construction and creation. I don’t believe that memory is anything like a fixed commodity. It alters as we use it, alters as we retrieve it, alters more as we ponder it and turn it over in our hands. It’s not like river stones. It’s like unworked clay.

  9. My memories often come from nature…images in an instant of faces, places, and moments. As a parent I think it’s fascinating to wonder about what our children will remember of these moments that seem so unforgettable to us, but could just be pieces of their lives that they never think of again. Beautiful post.

  10. Lindsey ~ I always have to wait til the house is quiet to read your posts, so I can savor them and think about them! I too have memories that come to me triggered by a song, or a smell (like the smell of kool-aid packets reminding me of summer). It is so magical to see how our children begin to connect their memories, and what triggers them. A few months ago in the morning, I mentioned the sun was coming up, and my 3 yo asked, “Do you remember when we were in Mexico {had been several months before} and we sat on the deck and watched the sunrise while we were quiet?”

    How do we select these memories? Such a mystery … like when my mom describes a vivid memory of when I was younger, and I have no recollection of it… where did that go? Amazing questions to ponder…

    Loved reading this and thanks for making me think of some great memories of my own.

  11. For me, it’s the aromas of my life that own my memory. And wherever I first encountered a whiff of something, that’s where the memory sticks. Walking down to Fresh Pond from Huron Ave through the pine trees puts me back in the woods in Maine, on the mossy path between our camp on the Carrabassett River and our nearest neighbors’ place. Any encounter with sun lotion that has a hint of coconut oil, and I’m back at the very first day of summer camp, swatting black flies. And oh, just a spritz of Channel No.5, and there I am, cross-legged in my pjs, watching my mom get ready for dinner out. Powerful pull, these memory-triggers.

  12. I too am fascinated by the nature of memory and am equally fascinated by your seeming awareness of when certain moments will rise to the level of indelibility. Since moving back to Connecticut, I have been overwhelmed by the number of places (and scents) that bring me right back to my childhood, but I’m not sure that I was all that aware of their significance at the time.

    Very glad to be back in New England and reading your words, neighbor. xo

  13. So glad I stumbled upon this. I have been thinking about memory a lot recently. It’s almost 13 years now since I had my first child; now I have four. In all these years I have only really been moving forward – loving each new stage. The other day I spent a whole day at my youngest daughter’s preschool – a school her older siblings went to as well. Playing with all those kids really made my heart ache. I suddenly realized this was how my other children had spent so many of their days, playing in the sun. They seem so impossibly big now. I came home that day and reread a diary I’d kept when my first two kids were little – and was both happy and sad to see how many of the tiniest moments I’d recorded, things I have now completely forgotten. The funny little things they said, the songs they liked, the foods they ate, what they liked to do. It was like an unexpected, bittersweet gift to find all that again.

  14. I have been thinking about memories a lot recently. I feel like there is so much i don’t remember. So many tiny details that i always assumed i would. Of course, this doesn’t make me do anything about it –oh no-it’s much better to fret than actually take action. 🙂

    some of my strongest memories include: the moment i realized i was separate from my parents. it was halloween and i was in 1st or 2nd grade and it just hit me. i remember, coming off the bus in 9th grade terrified about the big paper i was going to have to write in the spring. i remember life before iphones. i remember having various penpals and the thrill of getting the letters. i remember going to spacecamp and my parents touring the south, just so they could be close as i was the kid that had a great deal of separation anxiety.

    Most recently, being told last year that i had cancer. that’s a memory that i’m just not sure what to do with. how to make it a part of my story, but not make it my story.

  15. That was incredible, Lindsey. I feel the same way about memories – it’s unreal to me how we live our lives each day and only hang onto tiny slivers of the time we have.

    I have bipolar disorder, and it’s unbelievable to me how my mind is able to recall fragments (and in some cases, large chunks) of memories from when I have been manic. To my family, I am undeniably sick and need medicine to bring me back to reality, but I’m able to recall certain thoughts that were running through my head during the mania.

    I found your blog via the post you wrote This is 38 on HuffPo. Looking forward to following your writing. I’m a huge fan already and I’ve only read a couple of your blog entries.

  16. Wow. What a powerful memory, of realizing your separateness, your agency. Powerful. I’m sorry to hear about your cancer diagnosis. I did not know. I am thinking about you.

  17. Oh, that brings tears to my eyes, thinking about that diary, that day in the sun. There is so much we forget, but thank God we write it down!

  18. Oh, how amazing, that your 3 year old had that memory. I love that. And it is just extraordinary to me to think about how they are curating their own catalog of memories, too, which are different than ours. The alchemy fascinates me!

  19. Yes, it’s a living thing, isn’t it? Always shifting, changing, as we look at it, shimmering in the light as we turn it side to side.

  20. Oh, wow. What a moment!! I have memories like that, too, that oddly (or perhaps not) combine the biggest, most essential realizations with the tiniest details. xo

  21. Yes, me too. For sure. But there are also some moments that I KNOW I was hugely emotional that I don’t remember at all. Peculiar!

  22. Oh, wow. I know what you mean re: the details and the veracity and their memories and ours. Btw I love the Peabody Essex!

  23. Oh, yes. I suppose that’s what I am trying to do, with this listing of memories, this writing about this topic: accept it, without needing to unravel it. These memories are what I have, for whatever reason. I’m fascinated by the beads (great image) my children are putting together, too. xo

  24. Oh, yes. The bad and shameful stuff rising to the surface, more automatically than the good stuff. I have that too, and it makes me sad.

  25. I adore the color imagery. Beautiful. The dark colors definitely have a beauty. I can see that in your writing, and when I do I’m reminded to recognize the same in my life. Thank you for that. xo

  26. I’m also so fascinated by memory, the ones that stick and those that do not… I love the line about your daughter, how she is beginning to “string memories like pearls” – how beautifully put.

  27. I’ve actually been thinking about the power of music to evoke memories quite a bit lately. I don’t usually sit down at my desk and let my music library take control. But recently I’ve let it shuffle through the soundtrack of my life. And as I listened to songs I had completely forgot about, I remembered some of the small and some of the enormous. And each memory for whatever reason seemed to be tied to a person and that person tied to a song. And even more amazing is the fact that new music has a similar impact. Sometimes songs seems to just capture people for me. And then the memories of that person come flooding in. And with those memories comes a flurry of odd emotions — some are very different than I remember. I guess that is the odd gift of hindsight and the even stranger thing that is memory. They don’t really stay frozen in time — they change as you change. And I think that we remember what we need to remember,

  28. I used to drive to a writing class every month that involved 5 hours in the over the course of a day. I would let the radio scan and land on random songs, and it was always a winding and surprisingly emotional trip into my own memories and history. So many associations with songs, many that I wasn’t even aware of, just as you say. Powerful. xox

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