Young at Heart: The tricks our memory plays

IN a book I am reading, a young woman is recalling her life. She says, “Some of my clearest memories are of the briefest moments. I have years of life that have left no traces, and minutes that are so ingrained in my mind that I relive them every day.”

Memories play tricks on us every day.

I cannot imagine how a witness in court could recall with any clarity something they experienced or observed years ago. It must be frustrating in the extreme for lawyers to prove their witness is telling the truth as it really happened.

I suspect, however, that there would be instances of recall, those “briefest moments’’ which would immediately bring anguish and horrendous flashbacks. Those of sexual and domestic violence would be at the top of that list and recall would be vivid.

Our children remember only snippets of childhood. They recall flashes of all the fabulous camping holidays we had, driving around and settling somewhere in a coastal camping ground, from Pambula, Lake Tyers, Mallacoota  to Robe and Beachport.

Endless days of swimming, sitting around an open fire at night with family friends , singing along with a guitar played by Julie from New Zealand... they do recall brief moments, thankfully, including games with shuttlecocks, board games on wet days, dinner shared around that fire at night and a billy boiling on the fire all day.

The birth of my children is an indelible memory, and flashes still return when I hear the cry of a newborn baby. I cannot remember with any precision the following months although I can recall the exhaustion, the utter weariness until a baby slept through the night and the world tilted back on its axis.

A song or a smell will prompt a flash of memory, and I can often recall, however briefly, where I heard the song or savoured the smell. The snippet of memory is still vivid for that short space of time. It carries its own emotion with it.

When our family gather for Christmas today I can recall flashes of my own childhood Christmases which gathered cousins, elderly relatives, and grandmothers together. Dad carved the chooks which had been killed and plucked that week. Watching my mother plucking and gutting the chooks is still a vivid memory. I don’t remember the presents I was given, but I remember the laughter as we came together.

I believe we have a great capacity to also forget, as a survival mechanism. How else could survivors of the Holocaust or survivors of rape and violence still manage to go on, smiling on the outside, and having the strength and courage to continue living through another day?

My memory these days is a little akin to a card index which is still there, but the cards have sometimes been placed back haphazardly. I can recall lots of stories, but not always when and where they happened.

I will begin to share the memory with a friend and they will contradict me, and probably these days we'll both wrong!


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