I’ve been thinking about memory of late, and nostalgia. I found myself not five feet from a guy I had a bit of a crush on in high school. Should I say hello? Would he remember me? Does it matter? Why would I want to talk to him anyway — do I really care what he’s been doing for the past forty years? He’s wearing a suit, checking his phone. He was a good-job-wife-and-kids kind of guy. Maybe he’d remember me and have some interesting story to tell of his life in the five minutes he might have to talk, or he’s had a boring life, or maybe he wouldn’t remember me at all — after all, I was the one with the crush on him, not him on me. I said nothing. He didn’t notice me. Why do people have the urge to revisit old connections?
I went to a college reunion several years ago. There were a couple of people whom I was really looking forward to seeing. They loomed large in my memory in terms of my enjoyment of their friendship. They were friendly when I saw them, but clearly the warm nostalgia was not particularly reciprocated. In the end I had the most fun with people I hadn’t even anticipated seeing, nor even had had a particularly close friendship with in those four years, but were fun and smart and funny people whose company I still enjoyed. But the experience made me question my recollection. Were we such good friends?
I recently saw someone I shared a house with for a year many years ago. She was good company and it was a nice year. I recalled to her that she would make us pina colatas which we drank on the small brick patio. She didn’t remember that at all. She said she remembered all the mice, and the agreement we had that we took turns emptying the mouse trap, and the day I sat on the stairs one morning and said please please please don’t make me empty the mouse trap today. I feel embarrassed that that’s what she remembered and brought up. I saw another woman some time ago with whom I shared a close friendship for a time. The recollection of me that she chose to tell was in the midst of my admittedly prolonged heartache following a break-up during which I was, apparently, endlessly and boringly revisiting the details of the breakup. Apparently one day we were heading somewhere together and I started in on my lament, and she turned around to take me home because she didn’t want to hear it anymore, she wanted me to be present in the friendship that day, not reliving a broken relationship from the past. Again I was embarrassed that this was how she remembered me. Were those accurate portrayals of who I was then? Am now? But they’re both still fond of me, so it doesn’t seem like that’s all they recall of me after all. (I’m not such a pill after all?)
I wonder what it’s like for people who knew the author of a memoir during the time reflected in the memoir. Are they often surprised at what the author remembered, how they remembered it, who they remembered they were at the time? Memory is such a murky marsh, a faulty mechanism on which to understand the past, much less build the future. The writing of a memoir always takes place with our eyes on the rear view mirror. It’s impossible to fully capture exactly what the view out the front was, unless we have a diary or letters of our thoughts at the time. But even that is slippery evidence, as my opinions and perspectives change constantly.
I think people are drawn to write memoir because of a need to find patterns or trace trajectories, or just to tell the story we’ve been telling ourselves, revising with each stage in our development. But all perspective on the past is fiction, and all projection on the future is fantasy. Even capturing the current moment is fraught — is this morning blurry with soft light and flighty with a light breeze or hazy with the threat of unseasonable heat and humidity and a dusty wind that’s stirring my allergies? And will my second cup of coffee change my opinion?
Writing memoir takes incredible choice-making. Ideally, when you come to the end of the first draft, you have learned something from the process itself. And all those people you were and are, and who others may have thought you were, will hopefully make some kind of sense through the telling. Do you then go back and edit the memories in light of the new understanding? And what then is “the truth”? Maybe in my memoir, he had a crush on me too…