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What Memory Tells Us

Friday, September 25, 2009
This morning, on my local NPR affiliate, they asked for listener responses to a presumably simple question: "What is your earliest memory?" I had an answer ready, but was in the car and -- while I may not obey ALL traffic laws -- I do believe that our state's prohibition against talking on a cell phone while driving is a good idea.

So, instead of jabbering away on the radio, I thought a bit about my ready answer and various implications of same.

Anyone with functioning eyes and ears knows that memoirs, as a genre, have become very big in the past few years (and not just culinary memoirs, a form I have abused with some regularity). This can be explained, in part, by the fact that the largest segment of the population -- the Baby Boomers -- are now at an age where they have something to look back at, and are beginning to realize that their memories may soon go the way of the dodo and passenger pigeon. Clearly, ego has a lot to do with the phenomenon -- but ego has a lot to do with all writing, doesn't it?

What memoir writing does for its writers is the same as what it does for writers of fiction (admittedly, neither genre is overly dependent upon adherence to the facts) -- it helps writers to learn something they don't already know.

We all have these little snippets of memory, which we catalog in our heads with short tags, such as "I was in the hospital." We often make the mistake of thinking that the tag is the entire memory. When we start to write about it, however, all the collateral parts of the experience, the location, the people, the time, the season, the smell, the complete texture of the experience, become visible again. Those tags are merely entries in an index, an index that allows us to access everything -- but only when we consciously revisit it through writing (or other art form).

The other thing that memoir writing does -- if we let it -- is give us a chance to think about why we remember certain things and what, if anything, those tiny fragments of the past tell us about who we are in the present. Which brings me -- after all this digression, fascinating as it may be (to me, anyway) -- to my own earliest memory.

The mind, as Steven Pinker believes, is not made of language -- even though we tend to use language to describe what goes on in there. So much of that is non-verbal, that Pinker is surprised that language works as well as it does. We have heaps and heaps of memory fragments, most of which have nothing to to do with words. They are strung together according to logics that are, for the most part, inexplicable to us. The string that permits me to access my earliest memory is a series of events from my childhood, each somewhat traumatic from a child's point of view, that all occurred in the same place.

When I was about eight or nine, I went into the hospital to have my appendix removed. The first bed I occupied, before surgery, was in a dimly lit hallway, its floor covered in large black and white tiles. As soon as I looked down, those tiles brought back a memory of the previous time I had been there -- when, at age three, I had my tonsils removed (apparently, I came from the baby factory with a lot of unnecessary parts).

In that section of the memory string, I remembered seeing those tiles even earlier.

I had been in that same hall, when I was eighteen months old (with bronchial pneumonia). Back then, the bed was a crib, complete with wooden bars to keep me from falling out. I recall putting my head through those bars, and looking down. On those black and white tiles, just below me -- but definitely out of reach -- was a single green Lifesaver.

To this day, the memory of that unattainable candy -- complete with its fully-imagined artificial lime flavor and aroma -- remains vivid.

What keeps the memory so fresh? Somehow, a child's dread of being left alone in a strange place has become attached to the longing for that candy I could not reach. I do not remember the terror, I just imagine that it must have been part of the experience. What fascinates me is that no part of this string of memories is verbal (it is only now, in its recapture, that the details are committed to words), that no one else is there, that the scene is profoundly graphic, with its bold composition in black and white, accented with green -- and that the thing that holds it all together is an imagined flavor, a longing for unattainable gastronomic bliss.

The fact that I spent much of my life as a visual artist, only to leave it to become a food writer (both occupations which require long stretches of time spent alone with one's thoughts), I leave for the amusement of those who are inclined to psychological speculation. Whether that early experience is the cause of what came later, or if the longing that led to the memory being preserved was already part of what I am, remains terra incognita.


Anonymous Cynthia Young said...

How very interesting! When I consider my earliest memories, they are mainly short, but intense moments with no words, and funny enough, no one else was there when I obtained these memories. I was on my own to experience the wonder or the terror of the moment.

September 29, 2009 at 1:49 PM  
Blogger Gary Allen said...

I wonder if ALL first memories are like that -- alone -- perhaps, not yet very conscious of other people, just beginning to try (and try to figure out) our own selves.

September 29, 2009 at 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, very interesting. One of my earliest memories also was in a hospital - I was less than 3, and in a crib out of which I kept climbing much to the annoyance of the nurses.

And the floor tiles were square, black and white! I would stand at the crib looking down at them. Why should little kids remember *tiles*?
I also remember a food tray being brought and that it was not very good.

October 19, 2009 at 11:13 AM  
Blogger Gary Allen said...


Being short (as all toddlers are), the floor occupies the major part of our world -- and maybe those black & white tiles were unusual enough for both of us to have noticed them.

I do not recall the dinner trays, or their contents (which is unusual, since I generally remember everything I've eaten), but the fact the green lifesaver was so appealing may be inmy response to the hospital's eminently forgettable food.

October 19, 2009 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger petersteel said...

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December 26, 2009 at 8:13 AM  

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