Memory

Dot writes: as surprisingly compelling soggy reading over the past couple of weeks I’ve been moseying my way through Michael Palin’s diaries for 1980 to 1988. Surprising because it’s not spectacular laugh-a-minute stuff, nor suspense-filled nor racy; but he is an agreeable companion and this in combination with the structure of short entries makes one always ready to read a little more. The period is also an interesting one for me because it’s the period in which I began to be aware of events in the wider world; as the diaries go on they increasingly mention news that I remember. I’ve a very vague memory of the Miners Strike, for example. I certainly remember hearing about the King’s Cross fire and being horrified. The 1987 hurricane is one event that I actually experienced. I recall waking to the noise of the wind and coming downstairs in my nightie to join my mother as she watched the thrashing trees from the window; I was excited rather than frightened, and I felt grown-up to be sharing my mother’s vigil. In the morning our next-door neighbour’s greenhouse was twisted and smashed to bits and the road was choked with fallen trees.

My oldest official memory goes back to before I was two: going to the old doctor’s surgery in my village, a datable memory because the doctor in question died slightly before my sister was born. Only I’m no longer sure that I really remember it, because I’ve talked about it so often I suspect I’m now remembering the story rather than the experience. I think this is how it can make sense to talk of collective memory, because individual memory in any case blurs into shared stories and is modified and rearranged in the light of what other people say. Stories are often more vivid than experiences anyway, when time has passed, and the narrated memories of others can seem almost as real (or, vigorously told, realer) than our own hazy recollections. But they do weaken as they get passed along. I bought a copy of My Naughty Little Sister the other day. The 1950s world of Dorothy Edwards’s books has always seemed quite familiar to me, though even by the time of my own childhood there weren’t too many coalmen coming to call: but my parents were children in the fifties and so this world was as real and detailed as my parents. When I was a child, if you wanted to reach a long way back in living memory you could get to the First World War quite easily, and there was an old lady living in the next cottage but one (when I was very small) who had been born in the 19th century. To my own children, however, the 1950s will seem like a very long time ago indeed; and the First World War has already changed almost entirely from memory to history. This makes me feel old.

I’d be interested to get comments on how far back readers remember – both personal memories and the earliest big news events that made an impression.

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15 thoughts on “Memory

  1. My first memory is of seeing my reflection in the sliding glass doors and realizing that that is what people saw when they looked at me. Kind of a “That’s ME!” moment, understanding that I wasn’t just mental entity, but that I had a physical reality which could be percieved by others. I must have been quite small, because my memory of the reflection is of a small toddler in pink footy pyjamas, with rumpled short hair. So I was probably around two, not much more. By three I had long hair.

    My other early memory takes place in my crib, but I don’t know how old I was. I was probably two or possibly even three (I’m not sure how old I was when my parents transferred me out of my crib). It was night time, and my teddy bear was sitting at the foot of my crib. In the dark, I saw a spark on his tongue (probably static electricity. I have a memory of my mother staying with me during a thunderstorm that is somewhat conflated with this memory, so it may have been the same night). I was convinced for YEARS that my teddy bear had been trying to communicate with me.

    As for politically meaningful memories, the fall of the Berlin Wall is probably one of the first news items I remember. I remember my mother remarking about it as she read the paper, and my parents seemed to think it was a big deal. I was like “a wall?”

    1. Also meant to say this – they believe that our brain organization rewires itself at around two-three years old, and that is why we have few memories before then. However, parents of small children below this limit sometimes find that their children remember events from when they were tiny babies. There are even accounts of toddlers recounting accurate details about their birth. It has been hypothesized that we do remember our birth and subsequent events until that reorganization of the brain, and the memories are lost as language develops…

      1. Dot

        My father has a memory that seems to be from his very early infancy: lying on his back as the doctor tickled his tummy, and not liking it. Now we can tease him that this is because his brain never reorganised itself. My mother already hypothesizes that he sprang fully formed from the spine of a dictionary.

        We had an English class themed on early memories when I was at secondary school. I was amazed to find that several of my friends claimed not to remember anything before they were six or seven. I wonder why? Possibly just caution in dating or lack of interest in consolidating and discussing early memories.

      2. Child psychologists who promote Attachment theory claim that how well you remember your childhood has to do with your attachment style to your parents – securely attached people remember their childhood, anxious-ambivalent do not, or somesuch. But I think that sounds like hooey. I can’t think of a biological explanation.

        My husband says he doesn’t remember much before the age of ten.

    2. Dot

      What a marvellous first memory for someone who went on to study psychology! Also interesting that your first big news memory is an international one, whereas mine are domestic British ones.

      1. Canada doesn’t tend to have very exciting news :-p

        My first memory of a Canadian political event is probably the onset of the GST (General Sales Tax), and that mostly because people were going around singing about our Prime Minister to the tune of the Loony Tunes theme.

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    World events? I remember seeing news reports of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. I would have been about 4. I was terrified, having confused Pittsburg (which was a 2 hour drive away) with BudaPest.
    I also recall hiding behind the couch the first time Elvis Presley was on the Ed Sullivan show. Remember I was raised in a family for whom Benny Goodman and Eric Korngold represented popular music.

  3. fascinating topic. My first memory is from when I was 2 1/2, from our first holiday to Holland. I was ill, I remember wearing a Dirndl dress and puking in the north sea breeze (which was meant to cure my bad chest). I also remember taking a photo at a fountain. Like you, I’m not sure if I remember this because we talked a lot about this holiday, me being unwell as a child, and because there’s photographic evidence that reinforced the image in my head. What I do know is that as an older child I remembered those incidents, while now the memory is like a memory of a memory.

    I studied child development and also memory at school and uni, and was told that memories from before 4 years of age are very rare, almost impossible. I’m not sure if I believe that because I’m sure of those two memories of when I was 2 1/2 (and there’s one more I have but I can’t remember my age).

    My first political memory is the death of Hans Martin Schleyer – I think that was in 1977, so I would have been 6.

    Our brain will only remember what is made into stories or schemata – which is a recurrent and consistent interpretation in the form of a story. This is why maybe recounting stories can lead to very early memories? If the memory is told again and again, it sticks better, but then we do have the dilemma that we can’t be sure if it’s a real memory or the memory of a story, or maybe that is an artificial distinction.

    1. My mother didn’t believe me when I told her I remembered being in my crib. But I described the layout of my bedroom to her and her mouth dropped open – I was entirely correct!

    2. kenanddot

      It strikes me that in our small sample we’re coming up with a lot of memories from the second and third year; so memories from before the age of 4 don’t seem that rare at all.

      The role of stories is very interesting. At what point in the formation of a memory do they come on the scene? Does one need a sense of story to organise the sensory information enough to remember it in the first place, and is that what gets rewired at 2-3 yrs?

  4. Katimum

    My early memories are mostly undatable – except none of them can go back before 18 months old as they all relate to the Bristol house and not my first home. The first dateable one was the Queen’s Coronation when my mother made both of us crepe paper dresses but only Helen wore hers in public, for some school ceremony in connection with the event – I was puzzled because I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. However, I must have been coming up to 5 years old then. And I can remember my first day at school (4 1/2?), and the boy who looked a bit like a squashed frog. I had a happy childhood, though, and a good secure relationship with my parents, though, so I don’t know where that leaves the Attachment Theory.

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