How I Lost My Memory

By

It started with a kiss. In early 1987 my first wife’s lips lingered in a long goodbye on those of a close male friend as I emerged from the bedroom with two winter coats, one his, one his wife’s. As their lips remained engaged, I retreated into the bedroom, cleared my throat, paused another beat, and re-emerged. They chatted, the kiss vanquished. I said nothing and helped his wife on with her coat when she appeared from the powder room.

Months later in a new apartment, I said something. This much I remember.

I awoke, sweating, in the middle of a summer night, my anger swelling. I stole out of bed, tiptoed downstairs, and paced our study in a froth. For more than an hour I rehearsed my grievances and imagined my wife’s rebuttals. Incensed, I located her journal, paged to the time of the kiss, and studied subsequent entries for evidence to confirm my suspicions.

My wife eventually sensed my absence. When she found me and asked what bothered me, I denounced the kiss, and the argument I had imagined ensued. Except she denied any impropriety. I accused her of flirting with infidelity. I had nothing to worry about, she insisted. The kiss was nothing. Evidence from her journal suggested that she and our friend were becoming much closer, I countered. She castigated me for violating her privacy but admitted that she had expected such a breach of trust from me for some time. I apologized but maintained my righteous indignation over the kiss. I was fighting for our marriage, I said. When nothing she said assuaged my anger, she asked what more I wanted. An apology, I said.

“But I’ve already given you one.”

“You’ve done no such thing,” I said, or words to that effect.

“Of course, I have. A month ago when we had this same argument.”

I started to object.

“If you don’t believe me, check your journal. You probably wrote about it.”

No apology could exist from an argument that had never occurred. But after she returned to bed, I retrieved my journal. There, in my own handwriting I read of an argument, a vague reference to an apology, and her assurance that I should have no concerns over the kiss.

Forget for a moment right and wrong, fidelity and jealousy, and the tribulations of any marriage. Forget even the kiss. But do not forget the issue of memory here or the related issue of truth, or as much of the truth as we can corral. The truth about that night remains at issue.

I eventually crawled into bed and apologized to my wife, and she mumbled a sleepy acceptance. But I was flabbergasted. I lay awake, exhausted, and bewildered. My memory had never failed me so before. I had always been able to recall with accuracy events dating back to when I was two and three and four years old. I easily located those memories in the first house I lived in. Its empty barn that I explored. Lying on the sofa during a fever and watching a ballet on our hand-me-down television. When my mother asked why I was crying, I said, “It’s so sad.” And before that: my father’s picking up that very television from my paternal grandparents after they had purchased a new one. He grunted, bent over, in carrying it to our car.

And more. The backyard arbor in which I plucked Concord grapes and ate them straight from the vine. A church ice cream social staged on our front porch featuring a family singing group, complete with organ, and with light bulbs strung across the front yard deep into the night. The storm that gripped our house in crackling lightning and thunder pounding on my bedroom windows. Electricity etching the outline of a chimney on an elderly couple’s kitchen wall when lightning struck a tree outside their house. I do not remember hoisting a gallon milk jug up our rear concrete steps and tripping nor biting the doctor’s finger as he stitched my lower lip. My mother told me about that. But I was less than two then.

We moved from that house in 1956 before I turned five in November, the same year I witnessed Roy Rogers perform at the Ohio State Fair in August. Perhaps most important, at that house outside Celina, Ohio—in retrospect, it feels like a crisp, late fall day—I stood with a football under my right arm and announced that I would grow up to be Jim Brown, the star running back for the Cleveland Browns.

backyarddreams

My memory was my history. It spooled and unspooled on demand. It recorded. It explained. It kept score.

But I should have seen the end coming.

Sometime, probably in the early 1980s, during preparations for a Christmas dinner at my parents’ house, my mother directed me to retrieve a seldom-used pot from a small bedroom she used for storage. The room was piled with furniture and boxes and out-of-date clothing, but just inside the door the ironing board was stacked with a turkey roaster, a nightgown and blouses, and a dress box cockeyed across it. When I lifted the box by its corner, dozens of photographs spilled out.

As I gathered them, black-and-white prints of my sister and me as young children caught my attention. In one I posed in a heavy coat at the age of two. In another my sister stood on a chair and leaned across the kitchen table to blow out the candles on her cake. In a third, I knelt beside a little, gray suitcase.

Ah, the little, gray suitcase. Just after I turned five—the year of Roy Rogers and Jim Brown—my maternal grandparents staged a Christmas Eve celebration. After dinner that snowy night, someone knocked at the door of their farmhouse. When my grandfather opened the door, he announced that Santa Claus had appeared, and my sister and I ran to witness the marvel. Santa stood at the door in red pants, a red plaid barn coat, and a red stocking hat. To hide his identity, he wore the reddest, snarliest Halloween mask you can imagine.

My sister and I screamed and dashed for the living room. She buried her face in my mother’s lap and I in the cushion of the easy chair. We cried and screamed, and I covered the sides of my face with my hands so that not one glimpse of that mean Santa’s face filtered through. Someone tried to pry my hands away. I would have none of it. My grandparents and parents tried to coax us into looking at Santa and at the big presents he had brought. I refused, even after the grown-ups claimed that Santa had left. My sister relented first. I did only after she started ripping the paper off her present. Mine was the package at the far end of the room, between the upright piano and the television.

badsanta

I peeked and was encouraged when something shiny and blue gleamed through the wrapping paper of my sister’s present. With one hand shielding my eyes in case the adults had lied about Santa’s departure, I walked to my present. When I ripped away the paper, a shiny, dull gray surface emerged with brushed aluminum protectors on the corners. My enthusiasm evaporated. No suitcase had figured on any Christmas list I had prepared. I struggled to show gratitude. I had already learned that we must be grateful for every present.

By the time I reached college, the story of that Christmas and that little gray suitcase had coalesced into a polished gem. That suitcase illustrated my meager beginnings as the son of a pastor who served small, evangelical Protestant churches and worked second jobs as a carpenter or truck driver or later a teacher to feed his wife and four children. The story of the little, gray suitcase was not quite my ur-story. The ur-story highlighted my parents’ prohibitions against alcohol, cigarettes, any game with a standard deck of cards, dancing, listening to rock-and-roll, taking the Lord’s name in vain in all its linguistic variants, kissing girlfriends, or holding their hands. The ur-story usually ended with an account of how my younger sisters spotted me in the school bus playing crazy eights with spades and hearts, clubs and diamonds, and then told my parents. For that transgression they forbade me to participate in the first track meet of my seventh-grade season.

But the story of that little, gray suitcase placed second. It was my sole Christmas gift that year, and the older I grew, the more that suitcase shrank, the less it held, and the more battered it became. I packed it for weekends at my grandparents’ or my aunt’s house, for the annual week of church camp, for road trips back to Ohio after we moved to Pennsylvania, for the one vacation we took before I was fifteen, and eventually for my first year of college. By then only my bed linens and a few towels fit in the suitcase.

As I studied the photo that Christmas day, I noted the date-stamp on the photo’s border: January 1957, just after I had turned five in November. Under that photo was another of my sister, fronted by a pile of Christmas toys and new clothes. Deeper still, one depicted me, kneeling in front of the Christmas tree at the new parsonage with my haul: my favorite toy tractor, the metal toy truck for transporting sand around our sandbox, a favorite sweater, piles of socks and shirts, the shiny fire engine with a flashing light and battery-operated siren that still sits on a chest of antiques in my home. Most of my favorite childhood toys appeared in that photograph.

And the date-stamp on that photograph was the same as that of the little, gray suitcase. That little bit of luggage had eclipsed all memory of receiving those toys the next day. When I showed the photograph to my wife, she grasped the implications. For a few days afterward, she and I revisited those implications, and then I forgot them.

But I still should have seen it coming, even two years after that mid-summer’s night argument.

Early in the summer of 1989, while poking among scholarly journals on a vague quest for articles about history and memory, I ran across the March 1989 special issue of the Journal of American History.

Two years after the kiss, but bear with me.

In that issue Robert E. McGlone argues that the children of abolitionist John Brown “introduced wholesale, if unrecognized, distortions into their family history. In so doing, they refocused their own identities and reconceived the family’s past…” in accounts of the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. The details in those accounts evolved over the decades as the sons struggled with their role or non-role in the raid, their misgivings, their actions, and society’s reactions to John Brown’s morally ambiguous feat. McGlone does not mention it, but I learned on a later visit to Harper’s Ferry that the first person killed in John Brown’s attack was an African-American man.

I read McGlone’s article two or three times and struggled to accept his citations of research into how the brain structures memory into narratives through mechanisms referred to as “scripts” or “schemata.” A set of unconscious rules guides memory formation and shapes autobiographical memory into a coherent narrative of the self, McGlone said. No, I said. The different accounts by Brown’s children were simply emendations wrought by time and minor inaccuracies of recall. The central facts did not change. Later that summer, though, the lesson began to take.

brainsselectivememory

This is what is recorded.

In a long journal entry dated July 29, 1989, I summarize a personal therapy session for which my wife had joined me and in which I asked for an apology for two wrongs done me years before, the kiss not among them. Ignore how long it took me to ask for this apology. That was what the therapy was for.

My wife stunned me, the entry reports, by claiming that she had apologized for those wrongs two summers before, and my forgetting her apology demonstrated “how my selective memory reinforced my patterns of thought.” She drove her point home with a dagger: she mentioned the Christmas photographs and the little gray suitcase.

And that night two years before, that night of sweat and anger and apology asked for but apparently forgotten? My journal is mute. I do mention reading my wife’s journal, my apology to her, my concerns about her closeness with our friend, and the marathon argument. But no kiss, and nowhere do I report that she then instructed me to read my journal for a record of her earlier apology. In fact, when I trace the entries back, I find no revelation whatsoever “in my own handwriting” of my memory’s inaccuracy or her earlier apology. Even if the kiss happened and if I simply did not report it, my journal’s pages confirm next to nothing of my memories of the kiss, the argument, or its aftermath other than to say that my wife thought me paranoid for worrying about her and our friend.

The kiss happened. The argument happened. My apology happened. But what else?

Our friend would be little help. He may recall the kiss. Maybe not. Besides, the incident occurred nearly thirty years ago, and he is still married to his wife. We have all weathered the tribulations to which marriages are subject, and despite that, they are happily married, and my wife and I forged a marriage of twenty-four years with a child before my wife died of lung cancer in 2001. And the kiss is not the point.

After the kiss, the story.

My memory was never the same after 1987 or 1989 or whenever my wife told me to check my journal and I found or did not find confirmation of her apology there. But arguments with her changed. She somehow possessed no selective memory and never creatively reconstructed the past. Hers was the factual record, the precise explanation, the scorekeeper, whereas I acknowledged the uncertainty inherent in my memory. Until her death I lost every argument over whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever, and whyever. If I insisted on the accuracy of my recollection, she mentioned the little gray suitcase. Argument over. Victory declared.

With my second wife I started afresh, if hypocritically. I asserted the validity of my memory despite knowing that all memory is suspect. But she shares characteristics with my paternal grandmother who, almost until the day she died at ninety-four, could recall every grandchild’s and great-grandchild’s birthday and each spouse’s birthday and every marriage anniversary. My grandmother associated those milestones with public or family events, some catastrophe, or a presidential administration. She was a historian of milestones and more accurate than Herodotus, Thucydides, or Gibbon.

With my second wife I do not insist on the vagaries of her memory. There’s no future in it. Through two marriages I have, after all, learned a few things.

But memory’s uncertainty generates a corollary. My experience, itself a species of memory, suggests that people with an unquestioning belief in their memory often carry the biggest grudges. My grandmother remembered every wound, fault, or insult, and while she strove to forgive everyone because that was the Christian thing to do, she frequently recounted the fault before administering the absolution. I need no more grudges in my marriage, earned or unearned.

But a self-conscious attitude to memory may be a gift of sorts. Admitting memory’s tendencies toward storytelling, time shifting, and the emotional coloring of facts admits the potential for some forgiveness. Conceding the fallibility of memory, especially in the extended memory we call self, might make our personal relationships more tolerant and flexible.

History—rather, history-making—cannot escape similar implications. The last several decades of historians’ attention to the experience of the outsider or the common person in major events and movements have revealed “forgotten” perspectives, an often-intriguing response to the great man school of history. Yet almost as often as in more traditional histories, the primacy of memory—written or oral—is an unquestioned assumption. In the academic parlance of our time, memory itself remains privileged.

But what else have we? Perhaps we need an uncertainty principle of memory for the histories of self and humanity that we concoct, whether or not we acknowledge the story inherent in recall. Theorem: we cannot simultaneously be accurate about the emotions of a memory and the phenomena recorded in that memory. The stronger the emotion, the less reliable the facts. Or perhaps we need a quantum theory of memory: memory is a superposition of many simultaneous facts and emotions with many states of being from which the demands of the moment precipitate out a state and create a universe of self (the Copenhagen school) or simultaneously precipitate out one and many parallel universes of self still possible (the many-memories school). Or perhaps we simply should use perhaps more often.

Not for nothing did the ancient Greeks deem Zeus and his nine-night lover Mnemosyne, memory, the parents of the arts, history, and astronomy. Their progeny, the muses, inspire painters and sculptors, poets and writers, musicians and composers, dancers and choreographers, actors and playwrights, and memoirists and historians (Clio, that muse) to fashion creations steeped in memory, part divine, part beautiful hokum.

zeuszapszootcase

Whatever scalawag Zeus may be, never forget that Mnemosyne herself is a lying hussy. I know from sad experience. No matter how much I treasure the memory of that football on that lawn outside Celina, Ohio, late in the fall of 1956, it never happened. Just a few weeks after I watched Roy Rogers perform, my family moved to a parsonage near Tiffin, Ohio. In August. An independently verifiable fact.

And as if that were not enough, Jim Brown’s rookie season with the Cleveland Browns was 1957. More recent research in the family archives has turned up a photo of my sister on the lap of that ugly Santa Claus, smiling, as I kneel on the floor at his knee, smiling.

Come back, little gray suitcase, wherever you are.

***

Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.


Kenneth D. Cole has owned his now-famous name longer than the accessory and shoe designer has. This Kenneth Cole edited a university magazine to national awards and co-wrote a small photographic history of Atlantic City before becoming a professional fundraiser in New Jersey. He earned his undergraduate degree from Manchester University in Indiana and an M.Phil. in English literature from Drew University. More from this author →