I have been thinking a lot about memory lately. Considering why some moments remain vivid, while others fade slowly away. There are whole years of my life from which I do not retain a single memory. And this bothers me.
My mother’s memory dissipated in chunks. The first thing that went was short term memory, which sometimes led to hilarious and frustrating encounters. For example, she would ask the same question, “Do you want onions on your salad?” five times and not remember that she’d asked it. But then she could remember things from forty or fifty years prior perfectly clearly.
Toward the end, my mother didn’t seem to recognize any of us on a consistent basis. During my last visit, she would ask me, “When is Erin coming to see me?” I began to feel like a ghost, but I wonder if my current physicality just didn’t match the daughter she remembered, the blond-haired colt of a girl whose pants were always too short.
Why do some things hold in our memories when others go? Was it less painful for my mother to think of me as the young girl she could dress in nice clothes and whose hair was consistently combed? Was her memory loss entirely organic or was there something else involved? And why, oh why, can I remember so little from certain periods of my life? What have I put into storage and then thrown away the key?
The first poem of Every Atom includes the lines: “The world we are born into / is not the one that clings to us as we leave.” We change the world by moving through it, by the stories we choose to tell, by the ever-widening ripples of our actions. Sometimes, I go back through old notebooks to remind myself of what my world contained during different times. Sometimes, I go back through old notebooks to remind myself who I was in those worlds.
Sometimes I don’t recognize any of it. But there it is, in my own handwriting, like a river ebbing and pulsing, continual and irreversible.