There I am, back row center, with my fourth grade teacher and classmates at St. Edmund’s Academy in Pittsburgh. The photo was taken almost sixty-five years ago, and much to my surprise, I can still remember everyone’s name. How can that be when I struggle to remember a password I created last week or the dream I had last night?
Memory is a fickle friend: here today, gone tomorrow. I’d like to think my own memory is still reasonably sharp, but I can’t help but wonder why some memories stick and others fall off the cliff. I’m sure there’s a genetic component to memory, but beyond the good genes that have been passed down to me by a slew of ancestors I never knew, what else is at work holding the past in focus?
I’m pretty sure it’s not that over-the-counter pill that’s shilled every night on television. Nor is it the next fad diet or chair yoga or planetary alignment. More likely, memory is linked to brain chemistry. We experience an event, a person, or a place, and that encounter leaves an impression on us—good, bad, or neutral—not unlike a photographer’s ghostly negative. We file it away in a dusty drawer somewhere in the attic of our brain only to retrieve it when some external stimulus pries it loose—like when that old class photo suddenly popped up on my phone.
I haven’t seen any of those fourth grade friends in years, yet every face has a name and a memory. There’s a lesson in this: the impression we make today has the potential to make a lasting memory tomorrow. Let that thought sink in. And if that’s true, then isn’t it incumbent on us to make sure that every word we utter, every person we encounter, every footprint we leave is as positive as possible? I realize that’s far easier said than done, but it’s a worthy goal and these days, we need all the worthy goals we can collect.
Memories come in many different shapes and sizes: long-term and short-term; episodic, sensory, semantic, implicit, explicit. Memories are a moving target: sometimes, we’re able to retrieve them, sometimes, they escape our grasp. We can be prisoners of our memories or we can bask in the glow of their warmth. Memories are, by definition, shadows of the past, but they color our present and shape our future. All the more reason to cultivate the good ones and weed out the bad ones.
As for the balance sheet of my own memories, I rue a few and treasure many. I’d like to think that my bad memories have at least been instructive: my personal history of mistakes doesn’t need repeating. Or maybe memory is the tiller that will steer into the future and keep me on course. At the very least, my memories keep me in touch with my past and that, in itself, can inform my future.
Fourth grade may be long gone, but learning never ends. Mrs. Sussman was my teacher that long-ago year. Memory teaches me today.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.