Imperfect Memory and Family stories

How do we deal with imperfect memory when we collect, write, and share family stories?

The fallibility of memory has been getting increased attention in the press lately. Eyewitness identifications, for example, have been found to be erroneous.

No doubt, the legal implications of imperfect memory are far-reaching. But how does our memory’s malleability impact the family storyteller? How does it affect the memories you preserve?

Telling the Stories with Inaccuracies

Family stories will no doubt have small inaccuracies. Over time, details may have been distorted or embellished.

You can try to find multiple sources to confirm the facts of the story or write different versions. (There’s more about this in my book.) But the fact they contain inaccuracies doesn’t nullify the benefit of passing on the stories of the past. With your stories, you’ll pass on your family’s love, traditions, conflicts, and lessons.

Imperfect Memory: My Uncle Doesn’t Remember a Pet Turkey

This doesn’t seem like it should be a headline, but to my sister and I it was. One of our favorite stories growing up was about our uncle and his pet turkey. Only recently did Uncle Joe reveal the fact that he remembers nothing about said turkey.

What does that do to my story passed down by my mom? She died in 1998, so I can’t ask her about it. It simply makes it my mother’s story—imperfect memory or not. With the caveat that my uncle says it’s either untrue or wildly embellished, this imperfect memory is part of our family story. (See What? Mom’s Family Never Had a Turkey?)

Preserve Your Memories by Remembering

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, blames the Gutenberg printing press for increasing the fallibility of human memory. “It was no longer all that important to remember what the printed page could remember for you,” he explains.[1] Using simple techniques, many of us are capable of better memory.

As you preserve your memories, take the time to bask in them. Remember the sensory settings of stories—the sounds, smells, and feel. Remember the associated emotions. Most importantly, enjoy yourself as you share them.

Sharing Imperfect memories

Imperfect memory or not, sharing family stories allow you to connect with loved ones.

The Emotions Don’t Change

The emotions surrounding the story don’t change. You may get small facts wrong, but the emotional significance of the story will remain true.

Years ago, I tried to convince my pack-rat son to get rid of some of his “souvenirs.” Holding up a cheap plastic giraffe, I asked him why it was special. “That came in my ice cream the day we went with the Forbes to the Buggy Works,” he said.

I’m not advocating keeping every little piece of junk you can collect during every happy outing. However, I was touched that he wanted to remember the happiness of a day with friends.

My son and I might not have identical memories of what we ate or what we wore. The thing that we agree on, however, is that we had a wonderful time with friends that are as close as family.

Your Turn:

Share your imperfect memories!

[1] Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (New York: Penguin, 2011), 11.

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