Memory is a funny thing — enigmatic, selective, nebulous, concrete — a source of wonder to the scientifically untrained mind such as mine. You are the sole custodian of your memories and memory can be very selective. A story told many times may be embellished, even myth-like, if there is no one around to challenge your recollections.
I believe memory uses all of our senses. My farming grandparents kept pigs and slaughtered them for the family table. When I smell bacon, I don’t just remember the smell of bacon in that farm kitchen — I have a sense of being there. The pungent scent of marigolds or brushing past tomato leaves seems to transport me to my mother’s garden. And there’s a particular way that men’s paisley ties are displayed on a department store table or the squat porch columns on a 1930s house that similarly take me to childhood. That’s an enigma to me.
My brother, Bob, and I are good examples of how selective memory can be. We often trade stories of our childhood and I recently asked what he recalled about our paternal grandfather living with us when we were kids. I remember that to accommodate him in our family of six, my parents had to curtain off room for his cot in their own bedroom. I was 9 or 10 at the time and sometimes carried his meals up to him on a tray. I also remember that my parents had to hide his pills (morphine, I believe) because he took them too often. I have no memory of him ever getting out of bed.
But Bob had a graphic memory of helping him into a heavy, black overcoat before taking him for a walk one winter day. “Does the wind blow?” Grandpa asked. Bob was amused and tempted to reply that “of course, the wind blows,” but respect for his elders made him hold his tongue.
Momentous or world-changing events tend to strengthen or cement in our memories. My earliest recollection of a momentous event occurred when I was 5 years old. My mother was standing at the kitchen range turning potato cakes when she told me about the abdication of King Edward VIII on Dec. 10, 1936. She repeated Edward’s memorable words, “I have found it impossible to . . . discharge my duties as King . . . without the help and support of the woman I love.” Children are very susceptible to adult emotions at such a time and her words left an indelible memory.
The 1940s were full of earth-shaking events, sad and glorious, and for most of us living at that time, especially those in the armed services, they left vivid memories. Dec. 7, 1941, was a Sunday and, like so many of my contemporaries, I heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor seated with the family around the floor model Philco radio.
Much of the war entered our memory by way of stirring radio broadcasts by Edward R. Morrow, Howard K. Smith, H.V. Kaltenborn, Gabriel Heater and Lowell Thomas. I remember “hearing” the drone of the planes, the sirens on the ground and the crash of the explosives while picturing men, women and children running toward dirty, dark bomb shelters. But I was not there. Those who were seem to have some happy, but many more haunting memories.
Exchanging memories from this period with my neighbor, Bud, 91, he recalled being stationed in India at the time of the Normandy Invasion and I remember being at the Highland Lake Bible Conference during the week the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and feeling enraged not to have learned of that fact until my father came to pick me up on Saturday.
Again I see my mother preparing a meal when she told me with sadness in her voice about FDR’s death on April 12, 1945. VE and VJ Day came on May 8 and Sept. 2, of that same year — both days full of joyous celebration and belief in the superior strength and righteousness of America.
The 1950s were relatively peaceful by comparison and memorable events were, for me, personal rather than of national or international import. Homes were acquired, children were born, great highways were built and the nation prospered — a lull before the tumultuous 1960s. Edward Kennedy’s recent death brought back memories of the three assassinations that occurred in that decade.
Tragedies of 1960s
As a stay-at-home mother, I heard of JFK’s shooting in Texas on the radio or TV. I felt an overwhelming need to be with my children and taking two pre-schoolers with me, I walked to the bus stop to meet my two older, elementary school students. To actually “see” on TV the shooting of Kennedy and later, Oswald, the swearing in of LBJ with a blood-stained Jacqueline by his side on Air Force One, and the somber funeral procession, was to have these events seared into our memories.
The subsequent killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the constant killing of so many of our young in Vietnam had a further demoralizing effect. I remember having little comfort to offer a teenage son who became a “child of the ’60s” and asked me to sign permission slips for him to attend protest marches at various points.
Jumping forward to my most recent traumatic memory — I was at the gym in an aerobics class on 9/11/01 when one class member came in to report that not one, but two planes had hit the Twin Towers in New York. I left immediately because again, I wanted to be with someone I loved. On the way home in the car, I heard of the Pentagon bombing and the loss of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Lou was in the garden working, not aware of these shattering events, and we hurried to the TV to view the unfolding scenes together.
Post-traumatic stress disorder stems from haunting memories of past events and should, in wartime, be worthy of the Purple Heart. But I believe a nation’s collective memory of momentous events and the personal memories we all can call upon are miracles of the mind and should be cherished.
Ruth Peterson lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.