Remembering Memories

“Here it come again!”

My two year old nephew stood on the sand making an important discovery.

“Here it come again!”

At first he sounded surprised.

“Here it come again!”

But then he saw a pattern develop. He moved as close to the water’s edge as we grown ups would allow and watched to test his theory. Sure enough —

“Here it come again!”

— he was on to something. The entire mass of water as far as he could see from left to right slid away from his feet. And it —

“Here it come again!”

— came back. It came back every time.

He stood there for what seemed like an hour. Watching. Announcing with happy excitement.

“Here it come again!”

I think he was as thrilled with the faithful return of the waves as he was with himself for figuring it out. Pronouncing the s-sound remained as distant as the surfer on the horizon, but he had grasped the tide. He’d get his s-sound someday, too.

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My nephew is 12 now and the only time I’m assured he’ll make eye contact with me — real sustainable eye contact — is when I’m telling him one of these stories about himself. It’s not the “Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” half-a-glance-torn-from-a-screen type of listening that teens are so good at. It’s the intent kind of listening that betrays all coolness. It’s the paying attention that comes when a mystery is being unlocked. And what better mystery to captivate a person than that of his own identity.

I’ve collected dozens of these tales over the years about both my nephew and my niece. I haven’t written them down yet like I swore I would back around 1998, but the retelling has kept them semi-fresh. The kids don’t remember the events themselves, rather my repeated telling.

In my head, it’s a timeline of cuteness — back in 1997, “Don’t call me I’m a party girl!”; the following year, “I’m four! I was supposed to be BIG today!”; in 2000, “Connaw got ‘tuck by a bumbo-bee!” and later that summer,”It’ my ‘hadow.” I have entire episodes to go with each soundbite. I love telling the stories — need to tell them or I’ll forget the details.

It’s turning out, though, that the details are likely inconsequential. It’s not what I’m telling, but the telling itself that’s building a connection between me and my niece and nephew. My telling proves to them, “I saw you at a specific place and time. And I adored you so much that recalling those moments delights me.”

That’s not to say I go around fabricating events just to create a bond with a boy who would otherwise only have eyes for Call of Duty. All of the stories I share with my nephew are accurate to the best of my recollection.

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….the best of my recollection?

Recollection. It’s a topic as vast as the ocean and every bit as polluted. Here it comes again.

Even when we intend accuracy, aren’t we bound for failure?

Are Lerner and Loewe destined to be approximated at best? “You wore a skirt. I was in pants. You turned me down. You had a chance. Ah yes, I remember it well.”

Aside from physical manifestations and consequences, what’s the importance of actual events? Can’t impact be invented after the fact? Or perhaps a better question is: isn’t perceived impact all that matters?

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I think half of my childhood “memories” are actually planted by picture albums — not genuine memories at all. When I have images in my mind with no corresponding photographs, those are the fragile thoughts I handle with reverence.

  • Happily facing a full length mirror with my uncle while he tied my braids together under my chin, our reflections smiling at each other.
  • Two decades later, during his one night in Los Angeles on his way to Hawaii, walking slowly with him to the neighborhood restaurant. Seeing him order veal parmesan, hiding my worry that it may be too rich for him.
  • Three years after that, out hiking, receiving the call from his deathbed, climbing the trail higher for a better cell connection so I could hear him tell me good bye, so I could tell him good bye.

Those are memories. I have the absence of photographs to prove it.

While I claimed before the details may not matter, that what matters is the sentiment – the telling – it’s a whole different issue when the only person we have to tell is ourselves.

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This is an entry in Genie Alisa’s Living Out Loud project. You can read this month’s prompt here: Living Out Loud Volume 24: Total Recall.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Memories

  1. So many of my “memories” are formed or revised by photographs. It is so hard to know where internal memory (“real” memory) and external memory ends.

    I think when you tell your nephew your stories about him, you are creating and recreating him – giving him clues to who he once was in your eyes and making a connection to who he is now.

    I tell my writing students that all we do is tell each other stories – all day, every day. “Hey, how are you?” You answer with a story. “What did you do today?” Story.

    I think we are our stories – one story stacked on another, one memory stacked on another – until we see a self.

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    Thanks, Megan. I agree. Your last line here is beautiful. It reminds me of what I wish I had said with this post. I was just logging in to work on the topic some more in a new post.

  2. I also find my memories “clearer” when there are photographs and often wonder if it is preceived memory from the pics. I’ll bet your nieces and nephews do love your stories about them…everyone likes being the star. I know my kids love hearing about things they did as children. And yes, even I enjoy the tale (most of them anyway)that my folks tell me. Nice entry.

  3. Love this post. I know I remember episodes better when I have pictures (I think). Although I have several with no pictures that are just as vividly burned into my brain. I’m sure your niece and nephew will appreciate your memories of them as they get older.

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