One of the signature aspects that separates humans from other mammals, or for that matter other animals, is our ability to recall, to remember. And with that remembrance to anticipate future events.
My dog has a memory. For one certain thing, she knows she doesn’t like the camera, when I get it out and aim it at her, her ears go down. We live in a relatively small neighborhood with less than 50 houses. There are three blocks total to our neighborhood, and the walking routes we take with our dog vary between the “lower” block or the “longer” block. She knows which routes we tend to walk at certain times of day, including which direction to head out away from our house. On the lower block there is a house where a family lived with a black and white shih-tzu named Oreo.
Tipper took an interest in Oreo, who took an instant dislike to Tipper. Every time we walked past, Oreo went ballistic, hurling himself at the window, barking furiously. Tipper responded by prancing rocking horse fashion by the house. But the family moved away and Oreo along with them. Tipper does not know that—she only knows that that house is where Oreo lives/lived. And every day she prances by. Of course, no dog hurls itself against the glass, as the current owners have two cats, no dogs. So my dog’s memory has imprinted in a particular fashion that doesn’t include the flexibility to alter the memory based on new information.
Of course, other animals have memory too, but it is humans that can consciously and knowingly recall memories. Memory plays such an important role in our lives. Recently, when I was visiting my father, he remarked that the older he gets, the more he is inclined to ruminate on memory. I completely understand that. I am not as old as he, obviously, but I too find myself replaying memories.
I have mentioned previously that after my mother died, one of the activities that really seemed to help my father through the process of grieving was that he began to write his memoirs. His life has been unusually full. He titled his memoirs FROM MODEL Ts TO MODEMS: Keep Lying to a Minimum.
Thankfully, he has given each of his children copies of these memoirs, so that we have a source for exploring some of the stories of our lives. One of the first things he acknowledges in his memoirs is that the memories he taps into will be HIS memories. Psychologists are aware that two or more children growing up in exactly the same circumstances and environment can have different memories of those events. So, my father’s recall may not be shared by all who experienced his life events with him.
I am astounded at the level of recall my father has. He recalls names from many of the contacts he has had all through his life. I sometimes find myself hard-pressed to remember my students’ names from one semester to the next! And some of the stories that my father tells are simply wonderful. Herewith an example from when he was 18 years old:
We were on a two lane highway and had been going downhill and uphill, like the highways are in western Pennsylvania. We crested the top of one hill and I saw we had a long straight stretch down that hill and up the next. And I thought I would let the car and trailer roll. I had been coasting like that quite a bit in western Pennsylvania, holding the clutch down, then letting it out again.As people age, one of the greatest fears many of us have is losing our memories. Or just our memory—our ability to store information from day to day and to recall it at will. That, of course, is one of the worst symptoms that characterize various types of dementia. I remember visiting a great-uncle of mine in a nursing home. He had always been a wonderful scholarly courtly man, but as he aged, he suffered from some kind of dementia. When I would step into his room, he had no idea who I was.
But for some dumb and inexplicable reason this time I foolishly slipped the car out of gear. We started rolling, faster and faster. By the time I realized my foolishness we were going too fast for me to force the transmission and get the car back in gear. So I just hung on to the steering wheel, freewheeling down the hill at an ever faster and faster speed. Part way down the hill a car was coming toward me up the hill. And he started nosing out into my lane to pass a slow moving truck. I lay on the horn and the car pulled back in, and we went whizzing by. I was afraid by then to try to brake because we were pulling this trailer, and I was afraid the trailer would start to whip or saw back and forth, or jack knife. As it was the trailer followed as true as a die with no whipping or
sawing. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill we were traveling 80 miles per hour, a 1930 Chevrolet with five sleeping passengers and one just turned eighteen year old boy, a very apprehensive driver, trailing a two wheeled trailer. The hill up the other side was quite long and we had slowed down to about forty miles per hour when we crested that hill, enough that I was able to "rev" the engine and slip clutch the car back into third gear and regain full control. And the whole family slept through it all.
Our conversation went like this:
Uncle: And you are. . .?
Me: Yes, your brother John’s granddaughter.
Uncle: John? PAUSE. Oh, John.
After a minute, he would say again: And you are?
The long running Broadway musical Cats had a fantastically decorated theater, humans in costumes mimicking every possible type of cat, and little plot. But one stand-out song emerged from the musical: the song Memory. While the song is sung by an old once glamorous cat named Grizabella, the lyrics of the song resonated with every person who has ever had that twinge of recognizing that, as time passes, we lose much but if we are fortunate we can retain memory.