Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is It Important to Recall Memories Accurately?

I had an interesting conversation with my mother the other day. (Sorry mom, all conversations are writing / presentation fodder unless they obviously aren't or you instruct me otherwise!) I often use family stories to illustrate points about saving and preserving archives. Mom mentioned that I get her stories all mixed up sometimes when I write about them. Then she said to me, "Oh well. It doesn't matter. They will never know." We laughed about my deranged memories while I wondered, "Which do I get mixed up?" but I didn't actually articulate that thought. (I've got a feeling that we might have long conversation about this in the next few days.)

How important is it really to get the stories accurate? Are family stories just a matter of remembering our loved ones and having a general idea of what they went through? Or, are the details important? And to whom should those details be important?

Memories are like a game of telephone, especially with family stories. One generation relates tales of upbringing to the next. A mother tells a daughter what her mother told her. The story gets changed a bit in the telling. This happened with my own daughter the other day. I explained to her that like her, I was very good at math and I loved it, especially geometry. Then when I was in high school, I had a teacher for trigonometry with whom I didn't click. My interest moved away from rigorous study of math in part because of the teacher, in part for other reasons. Whereas, Daddy is a definite math type. He studies calculus for fun. I told my elementary school aged daughter that one day Daddy will be the one to help her with her calculus. Somehow, this got mixed up in her head and came out a few days later as, "Mommy you are not good at math like Daddy and me."

Never mind that I don't want to be remembered for not being very good at math, especially since I use it all the time for things like space planning and for adding the grocery bill in my head. How important is it that the detail that mommy was an excellent math student gets passed down one day to my descendants?

Information about our activities may never end up in a repository. The details of one's life may never be studied so that a researcher better understands society and culture. But, then again they might. Even if they are not examined by a wider community, I believe that the truth about our lives has a place in family memory. I almost titled this post "How important is it to record memories accurately?" And I think that is the point here. Record what you know. Keep the important details safe by having evidence of them. Allow the accurate memory to stand up for evaluation so that others can learn from you and have a better understanding of their own place in the family history. Do not settle for heresay.

Memory is a very funny thing. Of course even our own memories of events can be distorted by point of view and time. Two people who participated in the same event could have very different memories of it. I also love to think about how memory gets translated into documentation. How we choose to record our memories can impact how they get passed on and what bits are savored later on by us and by others.

...I'm just hoping that mom has saved those straight A math report cards as evidence.


  1. It's funny you bring this up as my husband and I were just discussing this very idea. My son is 13 months and every day he does something new. It is important to me to record the EXACT day he waves for the first time or pulls up to standing on his own. But is it really that important that it was October 8 or that I saw it sometime in October? I'm not sure...somehow my OCD still points to October 8!

  2. I agree that it is important to record what you know, while you still know it.
    It's also sometimes interesting to see how people remember something - even if they "remember" it wrong, like get the details wrong, etc. There is a reason why they remembered it the way they did, even if it was wrong. Words are funny. We can pick and choose our words very carefully but when sharing that story with somebody else, they might retell it with slightly different words with slightly different connotations, which can make longer accurate.
    Memory is definitely a funny thing!