I spent an hour on the phone with my mother this morning talking about her visit with one of the boys who is in Florida to be part of a family wedding this coming weekend.
She related how much she enjoyed seeing him, how handsome he is, how loving and attentive he was, and how much she loves him.
She then told me that try as she might yesterday she just couldn’t recall any other times they’ve spent together. She knows they have spent time together (a great deal of it in the first few years of his life, before his mother died), but that she just can’t bring up any of the memories in her mind. She knows she loves him, but can’t remember doing anything important with him.
“What happens to a memory?” she asked. “How can something as important as that just disappear from your mind?”
Scientifically, there are explanations for what happens to our memories. Recent ones are stored in an area of the brain called the Hippocampus. How long they reside there is up for debate. But eventually the Hippocampus, after telling our brains how to recall that memory (the details of it that become embedded in our minds), the memory is then parceled out to the Cortex, where it lives on, although over time certain aspects of it can be revised or can even fade from our ability to recall it.
An alternative theory suggests that the Hippocampus stores ‘episodic’ memories, with layers of detail such as smell, taste, color, etc., while the cortex stores ‘semantic’ memories which are more steeped in factual knowledge than anything else. The Hippocampus might tell us that we lived in a brown, two story house in a row of houses with a rolling green field across the street where we spent many hours as a child running through the grass that rose up to our waists and chests and shoulders and beyond during the long summer months. We can still recall the sound of summer insects singing their songs and almost feel the warmth of the sunlight that streamed down from above and played with the tips of the grass shoots. Eventually this might be reported to another in much more general terms such as ‘There was a field across the street from my house. I used to play there.’ and little more.
Before the time when the written word became a more wide-spread form of recording and sharing events and history, people relied on the spoken word. Stories would spread from person to person, from village to village, passed down from generation to generation, so that the deeds and words of others would not wane with the passage of time. In this way, stories being passed to me by my parents, I know many things that otherwise I might not as they were never written down anywhere. I know things about myself from a time before I began to remember them and store them inside my own mind.
“I don’t remember my life before here, before coming here. I know I had a house, and I lived there for many years, but I can’t even recall what it looked like inside.” Mom said.
“Close your eyes, Mom, close your eyes and picture something in your mind and tell me what it is, with as much detail as you can.”
“I see a boy – he’s about five or six years old. He has dark hair. He’s sitting in a corner reading. There’s no one else in the room, but he’s just sitting there with a book.”
“That boy is me, Mom. You always said that when I first learned to read, anytime after that when you wondered where I was, you could always find me sitting in a corner, usually behind a chair, reading a book.”
“Yes – yes that’s right. I always loved that about you, that you loved to read as much as I loved to read – and still do. Do you?”
“Absolutely. I always have a book going.”
“Good. Then that’s something we’ll always share. Something we love about each other.”
“Then that’s your answer Mom.”
“My answer to what?”
“To what happens to a memory. Just like you said about your grandson being there and not remembering times you’ve spent with him, but you know you love him and enjoy being with him. Just like you pictured me just now reading in a corner and said it was always something you loved about me, my love of reading. That’s what happens to our memories. Even if we can’t recall them.”
“You think that’s it?”
“I don’t know for sure, but – perhaps we carry them in our heart as the love we feel for others, and that way they never really fade completely.”
“I hope you’re right, Son – but even if you aren’t, I think I like that, and I’m going to choose to believe it.”
Winnie The Pooh said, ‘If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.’ Science might not know what happens to our memories exactly, but our hearts know what they know.
Even though memories may fade, love never will.