Memory is selective

12 May 2014

I recently read Penelope Lively’s excellent memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites. She is now 80 years old and she discusses memory at some length. One of her observations is that memory is selective. “There are memories that induce shame, guilt, where I wish I could tweak the record … there are memories about which I am dubious – maybe I have invented or elaborated this; there are those that I return to, savour, but with a certain melancholy; there are those I wish I didn’t have … they are in no way chronological, and patently I am not in control of them.” She then goes on to search through her eight decades and describe a memory from each as a way of showing how memory shapes who she is at 80.

Can I do the same from the vantage point of my sixth decade? I thought I would give it a try. I have always been close to my brother, who is just 18 months younger. I have a memory of the two of us standing at the window ledge of our parents’ bedroom in the early morning looking at the trees and birds outside. We both have thick thatches of very blonde hair and are about the same height. I point to the mynah birds saying “Look at the mini minors” and he replies “Not mini minors”. When I insist, he says “OK then, where’re the wheels?” This is one of those dubious memories. I have a clear recollection of the two of us at the window but the dialogue was repeated to us over the years by our amused parents. They were demonstrating how cute we were but also, I suspect, pointing to his early acuity for words, which he has developed into a career as a university professor of English and sought after editor.

I am on my way to primary school. I walk down the road towards the bus stop but am distressed because I am late and feel dishevelled. Sure enough the bus goes by. I turn for home. My mother, who does not have a car, marches me back down the road and up the hill towards the school. I am reluctant – I will be late, I will have tear tracks down my cheeks – and I would much rather skip that day and start again the next day. A car stops and one of our neighbours kindly offers to drop me at the school gates. My mother upends my suitcase (no school bags in those days) into the back seat, pushes me in and shuts the door. By now I am crying in earnest and put my hand into my pocket for my hankie. But the pocket is empty – another indication that this day is not going well. I always put a clean, ironed hankie into the pocket of my school dress before carefully arranging my books, lunch box and bag of marbles in my school suitcase. I cannot now remember how the rest of the day panned out but I was happy at school and a good student, so I’m sure it was fine. What I vividly remember to this day is how awful I felt and how furious I was at my mother for not ensuring I had my hankie and for mucking up the contents of my suitcase.

My three good high school friends and I are at the beach one Saturday afternoon. We are only about 13 but have been allowed to go by ourselves provided we stay together and get home by five o’clock. We’ve had a lovely day, swimming, lying in the sun, chatting endlessly about nothing in particular. We’ve sought some shade on a bench under an awning. One of my friends suggests going to the shop to buy ice-cream. My heart sinks, I don’t think I’ve got any money. I never have money and going to the beach is free. I scrabble in my bag for my purse and find a few coins. I follow the others and, while they are choosing their ice-creams, I calculate that I have enough to buy a popsicle, which is what I buy, pretending that’s that what I want. What I really want is what they have. I can still feel my dismay at being different and my sense of inadequacy. Why didn’t I just tell them I hadn’t enough money for an ice-cream? We were good friends and they probably wouldn’t have minded lending me a few cents. But I didn’t and I couldn’t have predicted that this would become one of those memories where I wish I could tweak the record.

I am still a teenager and am waiting in line to register for my first year university courses. I eventually get to the desk and am met by a bored, supercilious, little man who tells me to list my 101 courses. I am flustered by his demeanour and nervously write down my chosen papers. I misspell ‘psychology’ and he gives a snort, implying that I’m not fit to be a university student. I go bright red. He’s probably right, I’ll be a failure. This memory still induces shame, despite going on to gain a Master’s degree in the same department in which this little man was a lecturer (he delivered his lectures in the same bored, supercilious manner). Sometimes I mouth ‘p – s – y’ to reassure myself that I know how to spell ‘psychology’.

We are in our early twenties. We ride out to a lovely beachfront spot on his new motor cycle, we have something to eat, we get on very well and enjoy each other’s company. We talk, and talk, and talk. I cannot now remember exactly where we went, what we had to eat, or indeed what we talked about for so long. The crux of this memory is how easily we could talk to each other. We have now been married for over 30 years. We still talk all the time and about all sorts of things. And we’ve never tired of each other’s company.

We are celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. We have a two-year old daughter, who is being babysat by her grandparents for the night, and I am seven month’s pregnant with who turned out to be our second daughter. We are eating delicious food in a seaside restaurant where the music is provided by a live Spanish band complete with castanets and foot stamping. I pass my husband a small square parcel – a Neil Young CD featuring a song with the lyric
Because I’m still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I’m still in love with you
On this harvest moon
We are happy. We have one beautiful child and another one we are looking forward to meeting. This is a memory “highly polished, in frequent use”, to use a Penelope Lively phrase.

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