August 31, 2004

who are you, again?

I recognize the woman Tiny Coconut describes, the one with huge lacunae where memories of college friends, high school antics, junior high shenanigans and elementary school buddies are supposed to go. I recognize her because she is me.

Oh, I remember some highlights, sure, but… well… when I went to my tenth college reunion, a man came up to me, gave me a big hug, "Tamar! I was hoping you'd be here!" I smiled, went completely blank. I had to admit I had no idea who he was. His face crumpled. I felt so bad. I'd just essentially told him he was a cipher. Which he wasn't -- far from it. But we talked a bit that night and again the next day and by the end of the weekend, not only did I like him once more but I even sort of remembered him.

Then again, this may be a common problem. That weekend, I ran into someone I remembered rather well from various classes and lunch colloquys. Not a friend, not exactly, but a companion, a cohort, a fellow History and Lit major. So I waved, said hi. He gave me a big smile. "Hi, Debby!" Um. Yeah.

Last weekend, we visited my fellow Calhoun alum so the kids could enjoy a play date and we could reminisce. He brought out old yearbooks, which I devoured. I was in some of the photographs, peeking out from behind a pole or looking sullen in the back row. But who were these other people? Some names I recognized. One, a girl I remember as a good friend, lots of sleepovers and secrets shared. And yet her face? Only faintly registered, and more in a "Oh, that's right," sort of way rather than that instant recognition I expected. And then there were the names that meant nothing, but the faces? I saw them and had an instant sense of who this person was. Character and voice and how I felt about him or her. But my actual relationship with this kid? What we did together? Blank. If there's a fold of my brain that's saved for that set of memories, it's been creased and mutilated so many times I can't read it anymore.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Yes, I'd like some more of those memories back. Not so vivid I have to relive them (it was, after all, middle school, not a stellar set of years) but solid enough I can visit from time to time with a smile or a frown. Tangible enough I can have an emotional response. I think what I'd like most of all is the ability to go back there, the me I am now, and sort of eavesdrop on that girl while she went about her school day. Maybe armed with a remote control, so I could fast forward past the most embarrassing bits. But yes, I'd like some of that back if I could. I'd like more of my history. I know some inevitably fades, not just as you get older (after all, that college reunion was only ten years later), but as the people and events are no longer important to your identity. The lack of memory in a way means we no longer define ourselves by that. And by so doing, we recreate our own past to fit our current self-image.

This can have drawbacks – if you're in a particularly bad frame of mind the few years after college, say, you may only remember the worst moments, and then they become indelibly etched into your brain as The Way It Was. Then later when you gain confidence and just plain like yourself better, you can't go back and exchange the memories for pleasanter ones. And so what happens instead is that you say to yourself, "Well, that was a bad patch, I wouldn't go back to being that person!" when maybe if you did have that wayback machine, complete with remote control (I picture myself floating in the air, somehow, crosslegged, like some wise floating observer), you could instead redefine what was and frame your life in different terms.

I think this may be the value of reunions and, yes, letters unearthed from a musty cardboard box. That they remind us there was more to us than we remember.

Posted by Tamar at August 31, 2004 09:54 PM

It's also the value of keeping a journal... I've found that to be the closet to what you describe about going back, as you are now, to eavesdrop on who you were then.

Posted by: tracing at September 3, 2004 10:48 AM