The Vividness of Memory

On September 16, my daughter will fly to California to begin life at UC Santa Cruz. These days, I find myself reliving much of her childhood in my memory: The rainy winter night we brought her home from the hospital as a newborn. The January morning she stood up in her crib in our room in Paris and patiently waited for her dad and me to awaken. The bright summer day we went bicycling in the Green Mountains. The crisp fall morning we started homeschooling.

I can remember everything in vivid and brilliant detail: The green and gold striped jumper I dressed her in before bringing her home for the first time. The pink and teal portable crib, and how we lugged it across the country from California to Connecticut, and then to Paris and Amsterdam. The Paris light. The sandbox outside Notre Dame. The baseball shirt and helmet she wore biking. Our excitement sitting in her room on the turquoise carpet, beginning our lessons on her first day of school.

My recall has always been very vivid. A photograph can awaken a whole array of visual, sensory, and emotional memories.

I have a photograph of my mother standing outside the door of the house I grew up in. It is 1966. She is standing in a sundress on the landing, leaning against the railing. My brother appears behind the screen door. He is five. Whenever I look at that photograph, I feel as though I could simply walk through that screen door and everything would be as it was. My parents, now passed away, would be in the kitchen drinking instant coffee, and my brother and I would decide what game to play, or whether to go down to the drugstore for candy and baseball cards. I feel myself there, a girl of eight or nine, innocent and hopeful about everything to come.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that my capacity for such vivid recall is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s as though no part of my life is ever really gone. I can go back in a moment and relive the memory as though it had happened just a few minutes ago. I can see it, smell it, taste it, feel it. On the other hand, there is the jarring moment when I realize that it’s gone and that I can’t go back, not really. Is this why I’ve taken so much for granted about time? Is this why I’ve always felt that things would go on forever — because they seem to go on forever in my memory of them?

Until yesterday, I’d always believed that everyone experienced memory in this way. But when I described the way I remember to my therapist, she was amazed. She kept saying “Wow!” with a look of intense surprise, as though she’d never heard anyone describe memory in the same way.

The way I relive my memories is why I can become very emotional about events and people from the past; the memories don’t fade into obscurity. Old events can creep up on me and give me great happiness, or deep pangs of regret, or tremendous sadness.

These days, I’m painfully aware that all of my vivid, precious memories are in the past. My little girl is no longer little. She’s no longer even a girl, but a young woman. And while I am excited to see her begin college in a beautiful place that we both love — and while my vivid memories of my own college years only add to the excitement of this moment — I’m also sad to feel time passing, and to know that so many things will never come again.

New things will take their place, certainly. But I loved the old things. And I still do.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg blogs at Journeys with Autism, and presides at Autism and Empathy.

The Vividness of Memory appears here by permission.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Memoir is The Uncharted Path.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 09/15/11 in featured, The Unconscious | No Comments | Read More

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