The further one is from the source of a memory, the more likely time is to alter and rearrange things, rather like a well-meaning mental housekeeper who thinks the couch would look better over there. Most people never even realize that what they’re sure happened at a certain time in a certain place in fact did not. But because I have so much of my life laid out in the form of letters and other non-fiction writing over the years, I often run across incontrovertible evidence that what I was sure I remember clearly simply either didn’t happen that way, or didn’t happen at all. This is not pleasant, and it most certainly is not reassuring.
I think I mentioned this before, but I was absolutely positive that I had been in Genoa, Italy, on the day that the ill-fated Italian liner, Andrea Doria, set sail on her final voyage in 1956. I clearly remember looking up as our liberty boat passed under her stern, and wondering...rather presciently...how anything so huge could possibly ever sink. (Surely, I thought, the bottom of the ship would hit the bottom of the ocean before the water ever reached the superstructure.) It was a story I told many times and believed with all my heart and soul.
But on re-reading the letters I wrote my folks from our several times in Genoa, I find no mention of the fact and, on checking to see when the Andria Doria last left Genoa, found the ship on which I served, the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, had been nowhere near Genoa at the time. On reflection, the liner may have been the Constitution, which I do mention in a letter. Odd how the mind works.
Memory’s malleability can also be seen in the fact that, depending on the emotional makeup of the individual, our recollections of past events tend to either enhance the pleasant memories or intensify the bad. I now look back on my days in the Navy with far more fondness than my letters…and a closer look at reality…warrant. But I suspect that is simply because we are too busy living in the present to see its true impact on our lives with the perspective time provides.
How many times have we heard the caveat to live (and appreciate) every day as if it were our last? And how often, on hearing it, do we realize the validity of the advice only to have it almost instantly buried by the minute-by-minute demands of our lives. And though we may fully agree on the value and importance of letting those people in our lives know how we feel about them, we do not do so out of fear of seeming “odd.”
We seldom think, in the “now”, of how much we might some day want to remember how the events of our lives truly unfolded. Diaries and journals are the surest way of making sure that future memories will be accurate, but few of us keep them. In lieu of those, I have a few suggestions: take more photographs, even of things which do not seem at all important to us now. And with every photograph be sure to write down as much information about it as you can: date, location, the people shown. Of course we know all about them as the photo is taken, but again, the years will blur the details.
As with good wine, and anything at all collectible, memories age and mellow with the passage of time, and become more ever more precious as we reach the point in life where so many of the people who form the foundations of our lives are no longer there, and all we have of them are memories. Always remember that today is tomorrow’s memory, and do whatever you can to preserve as much of it as you can.