Try to remember…

Collage of people and places from memories of my past

As I write this, it’s a few days before Easter and Passover. Seems timely to focus on remembering.

The whole idea of celebrating the Passover is for God’s people to recall afresh how He led them out of bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. It’s noteworthy that in the Bible account, even as the people are in Egypt getting ready for the event that will finally get them out of the land, they are told how to celebrate future anniversaries of the Exodus so that their children and children’s children will know what happened and how.

In short: This is going to be big and we must not forget it. Ever.

For many years I didn’t journal. I did earlier and then there was a long stretch where I didn’t. Then one day, in the midst of dealing with major medical issues in our family and seeing how things were provided from the most unexpected sources, I had an epiphany: “I must write this down. If I don’t, we’ll forget. And we won’t remember all the wonderful people who helped us along the way when things were so tough. I need to document what all God is doing in our lives.”

So I started journaling again. (Read more about my journaling here.)

A friend who came to the US when her family fled Cuba during the revolution will stress that what matters is what’s in your head. They can’t take that away from you. All the other things — home, furniture, cars and so on — that can be gone just like that.

Memories and experiences, as well as thoughts and feelings, define us as persons. Essentially, thoughts, feelings and wishes are in the present. Who I am right now. Who I want to be. But as soon as they are expressed, they’re in the past. Memories is the sum total of everything in our past.

What happened an hour ago. Yesterday. Last week. Last year. It’s all memories. Our brains are amazing in their ability to store away even the most trivial items.

We can recall so much of what happened and what we did in the past. Sometimes very obvious and big things. Sometimes the most obscure little detail.

When I write things down, that act helps reinforce the words and anchor them better in my memory. Reading what I wrote many years ago can release other memories and fill in details that I would otherwise have thought forgotten and lost forever.

Pictures work the same way. They trigger “the rest of the story”: Look at an image from way back and you may recall not just where you were when that image was taken, but what was happening that day, the events leading up to the picture and what happened afterward.

Many of our memories aren’t even conscious. As in we don’t recall them regularly.

Where I grew up, a creek ran right by my parents’ house. In the ‘70s it was discovered that a chemical factory a few miles upstream had buried hundreds (if not thousands) of barrels full of toxic sludge right by that creek. Those barrels were leaking, poisoning the water. It was the Swedish version of Love Canal. At the time, my parents didn’t talk much about it. We had connected to city water and so weren’t all that concerned, although each winter the creek would flood onto our property and especially the vegetable garden area.

It wasn’t until over 25 years later that I learned how my mom really felt about that whole disaster. She was 90, in the hospital after having fallen and on heavy pain meds when this conversation took place. She recounted that toxic waste scandal and what needed to be done to bring justice. Her brain, shook by the fall and loosened up by pain meds, was releasing a stream of memories. She was back in 1976, taking on the environmental disaster!

You might say that it was a case of medically induced confusion. Of course it was in the sense that she thought she was back in the old house 25 years earlier. But all the details she mentioned were spot on! Little things. Her observations and experiences at the time. How she felt. Those memories were all there and had now been released.

Fortunately once she was off the pain meds, her mind went back to normal. At the same time, that whole experience provided an great insight into what’s hidden away in our brains. We really know much more than we at any moment think we can recall! Or are able to recall without some prompting.

When I was in college, my aunt Margit and her son Hans-Gösta came to the US to see me. It was the farthest one of her many travels and she was so thrilled to make the trip (while in the US, she kept trying to figure out which young woman among my friends to match me up with — but that’s another story).

Many years later I was visiting with her when she told me that she knew she had been to the US. Hans-Gösta could remind her of it. She had pictures from the trip. But she couldn’t remember any of it. She recalled trips she’d taken around Europe. But there were no memories of traveling to the US. She chalked it up to some weird quirk of life. She knew she was getting more forgetful. But this was a whole major event that had gone totally missing. As if it never happened.

Part of the devastating effect of dementia and Alzheimers is that a person loses their memories, their context, their personality. That’s a real challenge as this often comes at the same time that person is also losing their mobility. So as the world shrinks, the person doesn’t even have memories to fall back on.

To me that makes it all the more important to share and record memories. Both for me now and for others. I record events in my journal to help etch them more firmly into my mind so I’ll remember them better. I’ve written about how I was able to record hours of video of my mom talking about her life and my early years. We still have that, long after she’s gone, not just for me, but for my daughter as well. A connection to our heritage.

Holidays are part of our heritage. If there wasn’t something worth remembering to start with, we wouldn’t have a holiday to celebrate. We’re remembering events from the past that shaped who we and our community are today. Easter and Passover are vital in that.

Memories are created as we experience, do and feel things. They are reinforced as we retell them, sharing them with others.

Where would we be without our memories? Without our past. The past is neither lost nor boring. It’s the key to who you and I are today. A compass if you will. Your memories shape who you are, just like mine shape who I am. And when we find commonalities, we connect.

What are you doing today to create new memories? How can you make even regular activities more memorable?