Service of Memory

July 12th, 2010

Categories: Memory, Nostalgia


We drove by a remarkable orange and magenta sunset backing a mountain view. A man had pulled off the road to take some photos and at first I was annoyed with myself for driving in the country with neither my camera nor my phone.

To console myself I remembered how I tend to best recall missed incredible photos more distinctly than most of the thousands I’ve taken and put away in albums or boxes. The mother and daughter on horseback early in the morning in either Upper or Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds is another example. I had no film–it was that long ago–but I see the two of them emerging from the fog, dressed for the hunt.

We have selective memories. If a doctor or nurse asks me details of some disease I’ve had I have to think long and hard to remember the year or details. I know folks who can relate every gruesome detail. I may recall a childhood event neither friends nor relatives do. Conversely, they reminisce about a party or conversation that seems new to me, yet they assure me I was there.

politicianCan you imagine being a politician, being held accountable for details you really can’t remember? “You said this in 12th grade when you ran for treasurer and stood for that at overnight camp! You belonged to the such and such club as a college freshman and your first job out of college was at XYZ, tisk, tisk, and didn’t you once baby-sit for the so-and so’s?” [Actually, I remember all of that…but I shudder to think what I’ve forgotten.]

I’m amazed at some of the insignificant details I do recall–a psychiatrist would either have a heyday or fall asleep. [I’m of average size now, went through a few too-thin periods and was a blimpette until I was 14. I vividly see myself sitting in assembly hall in school looking down at the fattest thighs in America–through senior year.]

I tend to try to remember happy events or interactions and on occasion test unhappy ones-as you might touch a black and blue mark to see if it still hurts or has healed. What a fabulous feeling of relief–as when Advil erases a headache–when something that had me swiveted to the Nth degree no longer bothers: That boss or friend who lied or took advantage, for example.

anger2I’ve heard that it’s bad for your health to masticate past upsets and forever grind them around inside, keeping them alive for years. Resulting anger makes you grumpy. It’s probably best to be grouchy sometimes to protect you from the fate described in the saying “Only the good die young,” but best not overdo.

Do you tend to brood endlessly over the negative or select the happier moments from your memory bank? What seemingly insignificant details do you remember from the past? Why? Are you shocked when an old friend or long lost cousin recounts hilarious tales that your memory has dismissed?


11 Responses to “Service of Memory”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    Indulging in good or bad memories greatly depend upon ones mood. Common sense dictates that dwelling in past unpleasantness can easily ruin an otherwise beautiful day. With that in mind it’s best to develop the ability to swiftly trash nasty recollections.

    If the ugly scene brings back a heinous individual, it’s helpful to realize that one is acknowledging this person and according him undeserved space in one’s life. Reliving a hurt only enhances an enemy’s power, not a comforting thought.

    There’s nothing more annoying to have a Mr. or Ms. Nightmare show up from time to time. Trying to forgive or forget the unforgivable and/or unforgettable is not always possible. The person who murders a close friend is neither a likely nor deserving candidate for largesse. Best to trot out a crossword, a good book, or lose oneself in a project in an effort to slam the door on this unwelcome intrusion.

    The Dalai Lama is the model of forbearance. He looks pleasant even after being thrown out of his country and seeing thousands of his people slain. Consulting some of his writings may provide a clue as to how to deal with the impossible.

  2. CKC Said:

    I had to laugh at the questions you posed. Just this afternoon I was exchanging memories with a dear college friend. Neither of us remembered the particular memories that the other had. Funny isn’t it?

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There is a trick to obliterating bad memories, though I haven’t learned what it is. They tip toe in on occasion.

    As you point out, they tend to come out according to mood. On a sunny day, where you have just won the Lottery, added two incredible clients to your business roster, have great news of the health of everyone in the family and have plans to go to a great movie and dinner at a favorite restaurant afterwards, you probably won’t think of bad stuff.

  4. Lucrezia Said:

    Not going to happen, but it’s a nice thought. Win the lottery and someone close gets sick or dies. They recover or come back to life, a Madoff appears and you’re on the street corner with a cup. Life refuses to be perfect. If it were, we’d be bored to death, so let’s sit back, enjoy the challenge, and not forget to smell the flowers along the way!

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    At times, I’d prefer being a little less bored…..Try me!

    If I win the lottery I promise not to be bored or to go near a Madoff-type–a few millions invested in safe [if there is such a thing as municipalities are crashing and burning all over the place] tax-free vehicles spinning off enough to start a charitable foundation would tickle me no end.

    One thing I know: I’d never stop working because like you, I hate being bored.

  6. Stanley G. Said:

    I have a weird kind of memory, and that is not always helpful.

    Since early childhood, I have been incapable of successfully memorizing anything, even eight lines of poetry or a few vocabulary words in a foreign language.

    However, I seem to know a vast clutter of obscure information ranging from Enrico Caruso having sung the Fourth Act basso “coat” aria in a live performance of La Boheme in Philadelphia and the audience not realizing that he had done so; to Jefferson Davis having been President Pierce’s Secretary of War, to Moe Berg, multilingual sometime catcher for the Washington Senators American League Championship team in 1933, having been, while working as a spy for the OSS, at a physicists’ symposium in Zurich, Switzerland in 1944 that was attended by the chief of Germany’s wartime atomic energy effort, Werner Heisenberg. None of these titbits of trivia are of the slightest use to me or to anyone else, but they do fascinate me and I seem to be able to remember them effortlessly.

    Years ago, I adopted a practice which has reduced the clutter in my brain but occasionally causes fits for those with whom I live. I decided to make no attempt to remember things that I thought I did not need to know, like telephone numbers.

    Last Sunday, I was making a bed consisting of a box spring and a mattress, on a steel frame. The box spring on this particular bed was covered with a piece of cloth, the word for which I have been told a thousand times but always forget, that falls down around it to the floor on three sides. When I try to tuck a sheet or blanket in, this piece of cloth inevitably rides up and I curse it. My wife overheard me and became annoyed with me, not because I was cursing the thing, but far more because I had once again forgotten its name!

    She was of course entirely justified in being annoyed. I really should make an effort and learn the name of the damn thing.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think you were trying to think of a bed skirt, which once was called a dust ruffle.

    However, what you remember sounds far more important and interesting than the name of that piece of cloth. Tell your wife to take deep breaths or get a life. You must be very good at games involving trivia. Have you ever appeared on any of the game shows on TV?

    I, too, would love to know the secret of making a bed with a bed skirt. If anyone knows/remembers, please share!

  8. Stanley G. Said:

    You are being too generous! My wife was right. Incidentally, are you married? If so, you have a very lucky husband.

    No, I have not been on any TV game shows. I am the wrong demographic and have the wrong personality for those shows.

    By the way, I thought skirts were what ladies and Scotsmen wore? Are sure beds wear them also?

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Thanks for the compliment. Yes, I am married. You can see what my husband looks like and read about him on my website.

    Your last comment might generate another post on the Service of Words, in which we pick a few and note how they have changed their meaning in a relatively short period of time.

  10. Claire Coleman Said:

    The most annoying part of memory is the way a name just won’t come when you want it and then a few minutes or hours later when you’re talking about something absolutely different all of a sudden the name pops into your head. There seems to be no logical explanation for these so-called “senior moments”.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I wish I could tell you the reason for this. It may be related to the following that has nothing to do with age in my case because it’s happened all my life.

    When I look for something–especially if I am in a panic–I can’t find it. Turn to look for something else and there is the item I originally looked for. Often, it happens when the phone rings and someone asks for information, so I grab a file, closing one that’s on my desk, sweeping everything else in it, including the now lost one. I just haven’t paid attention to the “everything else.”

    Sometimes, I don’t see something that is right there. One of my most memorable examples of this happened in my early 20s. A new Air Force wife, my husband had to be on base at 5 a.m. and he couldn’t find his wallet with his license, money and ID, all essentials to drive the car and get on the base. We ran around the small apartment we shared and scoured the place. Where did we find it? On the bedspread–where we’d looked a zillion times. Writing about it now, it seems unimportant. But the fright of his being late in a new position in what was for us a strange, new world made its mark on my memory.

    Back to your comment: When in high school, someone said if, when taking an exam, you can’t think of the answer, put your head down on your desk. It had something to do with the blood going to your brain. In any case, while it may look funny if you are at a cocktail party–to run to a table and put your head down on a table–but maybe that will help.

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