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The way we remember it

On working with memory.

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This is the way I remember it: We’re all gathered in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, too many bodies for one small space, and my grandfather is telling stories. We clear the dishes as he starts recalling the first time he made mashed potatoes as a fledgling bachelor cook. He didn’t know to still the beaters on the electric mixer before they entered the bowl. The minute the fast-whirling beaters hit the boiled potatoes, the bowl’s contents erupted, flinging clumps of half-mashed spuds all around the house. There were potatoes on the floors, on the walls, on the furniture, in my grandfather’s hair. The kitchen roars as he remembers finding potatoes at random places around the house for days thereafter.

I’m quiet amidst the laughter, watching my mother, because I know there’s a character missing in this story. “Now wait a minute,” she says. “That’s not the way I remember it.”

Because it is my mother who was there in the kitchen with my grandfather that day, it was she who lowered the mixers as per his instructions, and it was she who protested that the speed was too high and was reprimanded for questioning his directions. She was 12, and they were both learning to cook for the first time because my grandmother had just left the family to live with another man. The mood as the far-flung potatoes were scraped off the walls was fury, not merriment. Only now, decades later, can the memory be warped, twisted for humor and Christmas revelry.

At least that’s the way I remember it.

And it’s that “way” that interests me most because it implies there are multiple paths to a moment in time. At some point, my grandfather chose one path to a memory, and my mother chose another. We could argue about whose recollection is right until we’re blue in the face, or we could roll up our sleeves and do the much more interesting work of asking why the paths to this particular memory diverged. Perhaps to my adult grandfather, juggling bills, a mortgage, a small business, and raising children on his own, this one small potato blow-out was a tiny irritation in a series of much larger problems; to my mother, failing her father over something as small as a bowl of potatoes carried much more mental weight. Perhaps my grandfather prefers to remember the cleanup more than the blowup. Or perhaps it’s simply that the memories we form in youth are a thousand times more powerful than the ones we form in adulthood.

 

We can only ever know the tip of our family’s iceberg. The only depths we can navigate are our own.

 

This, I think, is just one tiny example of how exhausting truth-telling can be, must be. Because for every pink dress you remember, someone will insist it was blue. For every funny story you hear at family gatherings, a darker backstory may lurk behind it. And at the end of the day, the only real truth I can tell you isn’t my mother’s or grandfather’s, but my own. The story of a daughter in a kitchen on Christmas Eve, knowing that no matter however many times I beg to hear my family’s stories, how much I poke and question and research, I’ll never know the whole of it. I’ll never know what details have been softened to protect me or others, how the tales have become more exaggerated over decades of retelling, which stories are too painful or too dark to tell. We can only ever know the tip of our family’s iceberg. The only depths we can navigate are our own, and even those require the utmost of caution when rendering them on the page.

Because memory will always be an unreliable narrator. Our brains log stories, not archival records, and every time we access each one, it could shift slightly in the telling. A pink dress becomes blue. A daughter’s hand becomes the father’s. When dealing with memory, the only guarantee you can make to the reader is this: I have worked hard to bring you the most accurate version of my memories as I can, and I can guarantee the emotional heart of this story is as true as I can render it. I will not play trauma for laughs, I will not omit details to make myself look better, and I will never lie to you about the feelings in my heart.

Now, this is the way I remember it.

 

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