On Memory: First Person
I’ve been thinking about memory lately, how it works, the gaps, the things that stick, and why there is mostly a blank before a certain point in my life. People say that a traumatic event can affect one’s memory. Did I have a traumatic event that erased my past? If so, it is lost in the parts that I don’t remember. I wonder if those months of heavy crack cocaine use can have left long term memory damage, but Google doesn’t help with that question. It seems to mostly present answers about memory and active abuse, not memory and drug abuse from 35 years ago. What do I want to remember? Anything in particular or just a general sense of how it felt to be me when I was a child? I’ve been working on personal essays in the form of mini-memoirs: how can I write memoirs when I have very few memories from before I was about 12? Why does it matter to me? At the very least I’d like to be able to nod along knowingly when a relative says, “do you remember that time we all spent the summer in Boothbay Harbor, and we had days playing on the rocky beach while Mom read her books and drew little sketches of shore birds?” “Do you remember when you were a flower girl at Aunt Jane’s wedding?” Well, no. I don’t remember. I remember being told that we spent a summer in Maine; I’ve seen photos of myself as a flower girl, but that’s not the same as remembering it. I see photographs from my childhood, and I either remember seeing the photograph before or I don’t. But I don’t actually remember the events or time that surround those photographs. Our house burned down when I was in college, so there are not even that many old photos around that I can test my memory with.
What do I remember? I remember a dog named Hercules, a golden retriever who chewed a hole in the wall of my brother’s bedroom. But do I really remember that? Or do I just remember being told about that? We lived in Ipswich then. So it happened sometime between 1968 and 1971 … I do remember finding grandad’s hunting dog hanging from a chain, dead. I was alone. No one else can have told me this story. The dog had been on a chain inside his kennel run, and had jumped the fence and then hung there until he died. The other dog in the kennel moaned and mewled and whimpered. I was both interested in and repelled by this first close look at death. I definitely remember a recurring nightmare I had during those years, because, again, no one can tell me about it but myself. There was a horse with a metal file edge on one of his front hooves and a knife blade along the other. He was large and scary and dangerous, and I was running from room to room to the yard outside and down towards the river to try to hide from him. Are there deeper meanings in dreams? Why does a childhood nightmare still cling to my memory when so much else has slipped away?
On Memory: Omniscient
It was the 1980s. That’s the only explanation for the events of that summer. Cocaine was everywhere, and the girl had stopped being the good girl, the student, the athlete, and had fallen into a group of friends who drank, smoked pot, dropped acid occasionally, tried psychedelic mushrooms, did cocaine at parties. And for her, the cocaine was the drug that most appealed: it pulled her out of herself; she laughed; she was funny; she felt like she sparkled. But then one time the usual sources of coke were all dry, and she was told about this new form of cocaine — they called it rock — it was even better, they said. A high like no other, they said. Let’s just get some and give it a try.
Had she given a thought, before saying yes, to what the consequences might be would she have gone ahead and tried it? How much different would her life be now if she hadn’t gone along with her friends that July 4th? If she knew that the next few months of drug use might erase her childhood, would she still have done it?
As an adult, decades later, she would wonder these things and, of course, never have an answer. Trying to second guess our past actions never gets one anywhere, nor do “if only’s” and “what if’s.” A pointless exercise in navel gazing and revisionism. But she has learned one cannot revise the last, especially when one cannot even remember large chunks of it.
She can tell you every place her family ever lived since her birth, including some of the actual addresses, but she cannot tell you the inside layout of most of those homes and only a vague sense of what the yards or neighborhoods were like. The places she went back to and visited again as a teenager or adult are clearer in her mind, but those are newer memories. The original ones are lost. And now she is trying to regain them — whether the loss is from drug use or trauma, she doesn’t know — because she can’t remember an actual point when the memories disappeared. She tried that recently: asking herself, “When I was in high school, did I remember being a young kid? When I was in college did I remember?” But she can’t remember when she stopped remembering, and she wishes sometimes that she knew the what and the why for sure. Most of the time, however, when she thinks of it at all, she feels only vaguely damaged in an ineffable way.