The Forgetting I Remember Most


As I struggle to give my memoir form and substance, I thought I’d share more photos and, again, how it feels to not remember well, to not recall clearly, to lack the detail needed to flesh out a narrative.

Daddy and I, summer 1963

Inevitably, having a traumatic childhood (a father with a mafia affiliation) makes for an interesting story, but trauma can also interrupt ones ability to remember.  To construct a memoir around fragments of memory, around bits and pieces of  past I barely recall, is far from easy and, more often than not, downright maddening.

Daddy and I, February 1965

Below is a poem I wrote about my memory issues–about the fact that I forget more than remember.  It’s a poem I’ve fiddled with for ages and am still struggling to revise.  Hope you enjoy.

The Forgetting I Remember Most 
 
Wall to wall
                memory is platformed
                into rows
 
      (or not)
 
Now asleep
Now awake
Now a place not namable
                (asleep)
                                the jagged vertebrae
                                a spine
 
                The rock, tooth, decay–
                A cave
                              where memory goes
                              to sleep.
 
 
 How well do you remember your own childhood?
 

50 thoughts on “The Forgetting I Remember Most

  1. Kathy, I honestly think you are too hard on yourself about your memory. The more I think about my childhood, the less I seem to remember. Often, when I have a memory, my Mom negates that memory, “That never happened.” Whose right? Whose wrong? Or is this merely a reflection of our relationship now?

    I did not (as far as I remember) have a traumatic childhood, at the same time it wasn’t a perfect childhood either. Perhaps remembering specific details is less important than the impact that your fleeting glimpses had on the rest of your life.

    Your story is amazing, whether told with full narrative flow or bits and pieces of memory.

    Lisa

    Like

    • True, but details are essential to an engaging narrative. Without details, writing is boring. I read tons of memoirs and people include massive amounts of detail. Do they make that stuff up? If that’s all I have to do and that’s acceptable, that’s fine. I can do that. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

      Like

      • I think they make a lot of it up. And, sometimes when I read a memoir I get distracted by the details because I don’t believe anyone has that good a memory. I mean, come on, they remember every piece of clothing they’ve ever worn? Unless you have pictures to prove it, I doubt that. For me, there are few pictures of my childhood, so I can’t remember those details. I’d rather read a story like yours, which shares true memories or your struggle with memory than one that is so precise I don’t believe its real.

        Like

      • Wow, this is really interesting to hear. Maybe I should experiment with both and see what happens– imagined details in one version, and another with only the detais I’m certain of–and see which works better. I hadn’t even considered that details might distract. Wonder what others think?

        Thanks so much for pointing this out, Lisa.

        Like

  2. I’m with Lisa, Kathy. From what you’ve shared so far with us, your writing is right on track. As the reader, I don’t feel you’re being too vague or need more details. You’ve written what you know to be true and most importantly you’ve written with the emotion of a child stuck in a confusing and adult atmosphere.

    Like

  3. I think you remember more than enough to weave a fascinating tale, Kathy. Your memoir already contains enough drama, intrigue and human emotion to draw me in and keep turning the pages.

    And, I love these photos. What I like best about old pictures is seeing the fashion trends of the day. That couch! The lamp! The coffee table…even the ashtray. They’re all fascinating relics of a bygone era.

    Like

  4. Adorable photos, Kathy. My memory is sporadic when it comes to my own childhood. It would probably really bother me if I were writing a memoir. What really bothers me now is that I’m getting worse at grammar. It was never a great subject for me and now I feel that I’ve lost the little I had. Maybe it’s an age thing.
    I know nothing about writing so I can’t comment to that aspect. I am intrigued with your story, that’s about all I know.

    Like

    • I’m shocked to hear you think you aren’t good at grammar, as I have NEVER noticed anything grammatically incorrect in your blog–ever! And I also think you know a lot about writing, certainly enough to write well, my friend. Take care, Marianne. Talk to you soon.

      Like

  5. It’s like your forgetting is another character in the story. All the research you’ve done to fill in the gaps, the recent trip with your mother. It adds another dimension to the whole, and I love it.

    Like

  6. I agree with Lisa, Tori, and Mark. What you write is fascinating along with the admissions that you wish you could remember more, which is part of your story. You bring this memoir alive with your feeling and beautiful writing not with precise dates and thoughts or time-stamped reactions, for example. Though if you had those, too, you might write about them.

    If you wanted to, you could probably speculate in places, or imagine and name it as imagining, given your dedication to honesty. But I don’t think the story’s crying for it.

    You have to shape your own vision of how this works, but in case you find any interest or inspiration in it, a Canadian author, Michael Ondaatje, recently released a “fictional novel” about his life. I haven’t read the book but in an interview I heard he said that he couldn’t rightly call his book a memoir because of his own faulty memory and artistic license. It’s an interesting take… It’s stated with less emphasis on the non-fiction here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/28/michael-ondaatje-the-divided-man.

    Like

    • Fascinating link, Rose. I read the article and am kind of blown away. I would likely never fictionalize to that degree, but it’s an interesting alternative. What a fascinating man, what a fascinating story. Really–I can’t thank you enough for sharing this.

      The strange irony is that I can likely get things like exact dates–hell maybe even transcripts of wiretapped phone calls, but then this becomes almost another genre altogether–nearly biography. However, that may be what sets it apart and makes it interesting–even gets me the book contract in the end.

      Like

      • It could well be. It will certainly make it interesting. I can’t wait! You could even preface it with your own memory frustrations if you wanted to…

        Also, I’m really glad you liked the link. I don’t know him personally or anything, but he seems like a thoroughly fascinating but kind man.

        Like

  7. I liked Rose`s comment and link.
    Don`t worry about it. Remember what you can. I had a rule not to take the kids anywhere expensive before they were 11 because they wouldn`t remember it. It`s true. The stuff we did they don`t remember. Unless it involves me punishing them in some amusing way.

    Like

    • How interesting. And I certainly remember a lot fewer details from before that age.

      However, why does it not surprise me that you came up with interesting ways to punish the kids? Those probably make for some great stories!

      Like

  8. I’m jumping on the bandwagon. The memoir authors who resonate the most with me are the ones who have a compelling message. The memories themselves are, of course, important, but they are important in supporting the overall message. Your message, even from just these few pieces you’ve shared, is starting to develop quite well. The memories will flow or not. The message will remain.

    Like

  9. I agree with Mark and Rose. I am really enjoying your story just as it is. I really enjoy the part of your story about the holes you are trying to fill – and the effort you are going to, to fill them. They make it more real for me.

    Your photos are delightful – I just love your father checkered shorts and the checkered couch.

    Like

  10. Pingback: Reflections on Memory « Woman Wielding Words

  11. Gosh, Kathy, my memory is not-so-good either. I’m not even sure I had a childhood, although I still have two parents and two brothers to prove it happened. It’s all a foggy mush with only certain moments coming forward. I had an untraumatic childhood, too. No, that’s not true. Let’s just say I made my own trauma. Wondering if I’d had a traumatic childhood how my memory could be much worse?

    P.S. Love stopping by your blog and reading your stories.

    Like

    • Ha,ha–not really sure if you had a childhood. That’s a perfect way to put it. Maybe if you had had a traumatic childhood, you would have memory that dipped into the negative–sort of a mnemonic black hole. I’m so happy to know you enjoy my blog.

      Like

  12. I’m often amazed by the power of memoir writers to recall the details of conversations and events that happened decades ago. I don’t even remember what I ate for breakfast this morning.
    I don’t know if this would be of any help to you, but I have a book of writing exercises that I’ve kept since my MFA days and there is a section about memoir/ biography. These are some writing prompts to get you thinking about relationships. The exercises suggest writing two pages, but if you just write a paragraph, I won’t tell anyone. 🙂

    Write two pages of…
    something you can’t deny.
    what got left behind.
    something you wrote or did that you no longer understand.
    apologizing for something you didn’t do.
    a physical characteristic you are proud to have inheritedor passed on.
    something you had to have.
    humiliating exposure.
    a time when you felt compassion unexpectedly.
    what you have too much of.
    when you knew you were in trouble.

    Good luck! Have a great day!

    Like

    • Ah, Jackie, you are so sweet to leave this exercise. Thank you! I will give this a try.

      By the only way, the only way I remember what I had for breakfast, is that I just finished eating it. Give me another 30 minutes!

      Hope you’re having a great weekend!

      Like

  13. The further I get away from my childhood, a childhood that I think was utterly average, but maybe to others it would have seemed idyllic since I was the product of two loving, generous parents in a very stable marriage and being the youngest, both of my siblings doted on me. Yet, I recall less and less of my youth (and now much of my twenties is rapidly being deleted from my head). Unlike you, as you are working on your memoir, I spend little time actively thinking about my childhood, something that I am sure also contributes to the fading of my memories as they grow more distant. Add trauma to that childhood and I think it makes perfect sense why someone would be inclined to want to forget. This is possibly why you are suffering so much frustration now as you try to recall your deeply buried past. I agree with much of what your readers have said, especially Lisa’s opinion that no one can have that good a memory to recall so many specific details. It could be highly likely that other memoir writers are embellishing the truth. I also feel the same way as Mark about the photos you’ve shared with us thus far. There’s a time-travel aspect to the 60s era fashions and furnishings that does remind me of my own youth during that period. Just keep working on it. I think you’re on the right track.

    Like

    • Thanks, my friend! This helps put things in perspective. It’s true that memory fades with time. Somehow it comforts me to know that even folks with more normal childhoods forget. Glad you think I’m on the right track.

      Like

  14. I agree with what others have already said. Your story as you’re telling it now is engaging. And I think some of those details in the detailed memoirs are made up and somewhat distracting, too.

    I honestly don’t remember much about my early childhood. I know I went to Catholic school for 3 years because I was told I did, and I do have a flash here and there to recall it for myself, but that’s it. Just small flashes. And there are whole years that seem to have disappeared somewhere. Yet I can remember something that happened when I was 2-1/2 years old (fell and split open my chin, necessitating stitches and a traumatic visit to the ER). But when I was 8 or 9? No idea what went on. Some of the memories I do have are hard for me to pin down in terms of what age I was at the time. I know maybe one or two people who can clearly recall a lot of events of their childhood (my husband is one of them), but even they have gaps here and there. In my husband’s case, I think it’s because he’s still friends with people he grew up with from age zero and on. They fill in the gaps for each other. (And who’s to say the details of those memories are true? Everyone’s truth is different when it comes to what happened.)

    Like

    • Wow, this is so fascinating. I guess most folks really don’t remember. I can’t tell you what a relief this is. My question remains, then, how does write a memoir without the detail. I think it must be common for folks to take artistic license with that. I have read lots and lots of memoir, and they are all full of detail. Do these folks really recall entire conversations? They can’t. People must be reimagining what must have been said.

      Thanks for this valuable comment, Robin. I appreciate this feedback.

      Like

      • In the memoirs and auto/biographies I’ve read, most of them have had a preface at the start that speaks to the fallibility of human memory (and of translating memories into engaging narratives). It’s similar to the blurb that goes “not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice and care”. Truthfully, I think it is an acceptable narrative device to weave what you have together through narrative, even though you might not remember *exactly* what somebody said or *exactly* what day/time a situation took place. The overall message and theme of your memoirs is what matters the most, and like all of the other commenters have said before me– you’ve nailed this aspect so far!

        If I ever read a biography/memoirs and the author claimed to have taken ZERO artistic license with the words on the pages, I’d be highly suspicious. I’d actually have a hard time getting engaged with the story as a whole, so just relax and keep doing what you’re doing! It’s definitely working so far. 🙂

        Like

      • True. I’ve read those statements, as well. At the same time, when you try to write the story of your life, knowing you are taking liberties with these details, it just feels so weird. I don’t know how to explain it actually. I just feels bizarre to me. But, probably I’ll get used to it.

        Like

  15. Because we are human and our memories are shaped not only by events but also by emotions, you may want to make a statement in the beginning of your book stating that any event in the book is a culmination of what you remember and the feelings/emotions at the time. One thing I do know from courses I’ve taken, is that you will have to put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book stating something to the effect of what I have copied and pasted here for you (website where I got it is at the bottom) if you fictionalize any part of the story:
    Natalie Sutherland argues, in her essay ‘The Fiction in Autobiography: Fantasy, Narrative and the Discovery of Truth’ that autobiography is part personal history and part literary narrative, requiring a mixture of truth and imagination. As she demonstrates, the role of imagination in autobiography should not be dismissed, or misunderstood to somehow reduce its credibility or value. After all, fictional narratives contain essential truths, characters that speak to the reader and ring true.

    Read more at Suite101: Writing Autobiography: Memory and Narrative | Suite101.com http://inga-simpson.suite101.com/writing-autobiography-memory-and-narrative-a228468#ixzz1d5UTEXWa

    Just trying to be helpful, and not meaning to take up this much space! Sorry!

    Like

    • Gosh, Miranda, please don’t apologize. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this! I needed to hear this. I will EAGERY look at the link. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is the kind of thing I need to read! Hugs————————

      Like

  16. Keep telling it as it’s coming out. I know I’ve said it before, but your story is coming out so true and quiet that it’s captivating. Please try not to compare your writing or your story to other memoir-authors. This is YOUR story, your words, your craft.

    Like

    • Thanks so much for this encouragement. I’m excited about tomorrow’s post, as my sister helped me remember something quite clearly. I think it will be the perfect combination of quiet truth married with concrete detail–my story, told my way. Hooray till then!

      Like

      • A lot of times our brains deliberately block memories from us, our body’s way of protecting us. I am one of those people who remembers details like nobody’s business, but recently recovered a disturbing memory. It happens quite a bit, especially in traumatic situations.

        Like

      • Yes, I know how trauma affects memory in an adaptive kind of way–attempting to protect us from what’s painful. Kind of amazing, isn’t it? Sorry to hear you’ve had a disturbing memory recently. Hang in there, my friend———————

        Like

  17. I remember bits and pieces of my childhood. Like most, family holidays account for a lot of my memories, probably running together over the years so that I can’t tie specific events to precise time frames. I remember a lot of seemingly insignificant moments too… being very young and shy and hiding behind a chair my mom was sitting in at a neighbor’s house – and her admonishing me for my shyness. I remember the rubber winter pull-on boots piled up in the front closet and a night when nightmares kept me awake and crying and it seemed like the morning would never come. There are lots of fun memories of summer and friends and times before the innocence crept out of my life. But I’m quite sure none of it would be very cohesive if I tried to tie it all together.

    Like

    • But, wow, Terri, you have just shared a lot. I think what I’m finding is that when you look at the past long enough it starts to make sense. Patterns emerge. You see things more clearly and remember more. I was very shy, as well–still am, in a lot of ways.

      Like

  18. I understand so well what you say. I remember these brief, glittering moments in the darkness, but most of what preceded my getting my first journal at 11 is lost to me. It’s only when my siblings say things like, “Oh, don’t you remember how Dad did [x]–?” that I find myself remembering little pieces.

    After 11, it’s easy to put things together, since I couldn’t put the pen down long enough to do much else but document my life. 😉

    Like

    • I didn’t start journaling till I was 15, but then it does get a lot easier. I just find it hard to believe what I did and didn’t record, however. There seemed to be lots that I was oblivious to and didn’t even mention. Sometimes I wonder why.

      Like

  19. Kathy, I too can remember little of my childhood. I’ve always accepted this as fact, and been fascinated when my sister relates anecdotes from our youth that sound to me like stories about someone else. It’s only recently begun to disturb me a little. I am currently studying to become a therapist, and so much of the theory that we are reading is about childhood development and it’s impact on the grown adult. I so wish I could remember more, it all seems so very much more important now. I feel your frustration.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s