On Memory

ed rosenthal
May 8, 2015

All my life, people have remarked on what a good memory I have.   When I was younger, I was often asked if I have a photographic memory.   Well, I don't and never did.  In fact, the so-called photographic memory of people's imagination probably doesn't exist.   What I do have is excellent recall, especially for moments that are emotionally important to me.   I remember vividly the night I broke up with my first wife, even though it was 1979.   No doubt many people recall such important moments.  I also remember the first fist fight I got into when I was a little boy and the time in seventh grade when I was told a cute little red-haired girl liked me.   ( I don't remember her name; the emotional impact is what I recall.)  All that sounds fairly normal, I expect.

Unfortunately, I also remember casual remarks that friends and acquaintances made to me months ago, especially if they said something I particularly wanted to hear, and I am cursed by a tendency to assume that whoever I was talking to remembers the same conversation.    As you might expect, this ability of mine  has led to a fair amount of misunderstanding and embarrassment and even some heartache over the years.   On the other hand, it has also meant that I have exceptional recall of my earliest years.  For example, I have a vivid memory of being 2 1/2 or so and being hoisted up to the center of a large bed by my father and surrounded by comic books.   The words are not in my memory, but I also have the impression of my father telling my mother that this was how I was going to learn to read.  (He was right.   I was reading by the age of three.)

About fifteen years, ago, my memory started to change.   Where once I could remember any phone number I needed simply by telling myself to remember it, now when I called a number from memory, one or two of the digits would be uncertain.  I started to have difficulty remembering names for the first time.   Failure to recall a name is now part of my daily life.  My reaction to all this was to reflect on what my earliest memory was; to see how far back I could go before it was too late.

First, some context; I was born in February of 1944.   The comic books incident described above would have happened in the summer of 1946 at my grandparent's house in Kingsville, Texas.   From September of 1944 until September of  1945, we lived on an army base in San Antonio, while my father worked for the Quartermaster's Corps.   I was pretty sure that all the early impressions that were floating around in my head were from before the summer of 1946, but which came first?  When you that young, you don't spend much time looking at calendars.

At first  I thought my first memory was of sitting on a kitchen counter next to the sink and saying  "airp'ane" as one flew overhead.   But then I realized I was remembering my mother talking about the day I said my first word.   So my first memory had to be the one in which I was sitting on a small chair on a small plot of grass and feeling proud that my parents weren't hovering next to me.   I would have been around nineteen or twenty months.   I know it's hard to believe, but it's a real memory.   I wrote the following poem to commemorate it.

smells good
lots of room, nothing around
but grass

cane chair,  my chair
pretty flowers painted on it
stiff strings to sit on
my chair

my cowboy hat
pulled tight under the chin
I wear my hat in my new chair and smell

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