So my mom fact-checked my story about JJ the bully. And rather than just editing a few places in the article for historical accuracy, I thought I’d write a separate post about the differences between my memory and my mom’s in order to explore the nature of memory and memoir a bit, as well as to include an ending to the story that I had forgotten about, but which even further emphasizes the effect that unexpected kindness had on him.
First, my mom informed me that the details of the second scene of my story weren’t quite right. This was the part where I wrote that she took us to 7-Eleven in order to buy a slurpee for JJ, and that we had chosen to buy him a blueberry one. In fact, she told me that we first drove to JJ’s house, where my mom told him that we were going to Rita’s Water Ice, and asked him if he’d like to come along. Rita’s is a warm-weather staple of the area northeast of Philadelphia, now branded Rita’s Italian Ice, but back then in the regional dialect it was known as Rita’s Wooder Ice. Italian ice is sort of like a snow cone, but with much finer ice, and it has a denser consistency than a smoothie or slurpee. However, JJ couldn’t come with us, so we asked him what flavor we could bring back for him. He chose lemon.
Rita’s, and not 7-Eleven. Lemon, and not blueberry. An initial visit to his house and return, rather than one surprising visit. Assuming that mom’s recollections are the correct ones – which is a good assumption since she was thirty seven and I was seven – it’s worth asking how and why my mind remembered things the way that it did.
I only remembered standing at JJ’s door once, and not the initial time that we had stopped by. Why might that be? Well, our brains do tend to remember situations in piecemeal fashion, “deleting” the vast majority of our memories that don’t seem significant, while holding onto the parts that had some kind of emotional significance. Fear, for example, is one of the strongest “cementers” of memory. If you have ever been unexpectedly put on the spot by a teacher, and that situation made your nervous system kick into high gear, then you will likely remember that scene for the rest of your life. Therefore, it’s likely that my mind deleted the first visit, categorizing it as not that significant, whereas it remembered the second time we were at JJ’s door. Why? Because of the emotion on JJ’s face. Human minds mirror one another’s emotions, so when I saw JJ’s expression I also felt his emotion. And this was significant enough that it was categorized under scenes to be archived for future reflection.
Why then did my mind swap 7-Eleven for Rita’s, and blueberry for lemon? Here we probably have a case of the mind naturally filling in the gaps in a memory from other similar memories of that same season (Perhaps I chose blueberry for myself at Rita’s that day). This freedom the mind feels to cut and paste certain details of stories, to mix memories together, and to remember things that didn’t really happen is what makes an individual’s memory alone less than rock-solid evidence of the actual history.
While there is always a certain kind of validity to the details of one’s memories – your mind remembers things in a certain way for a reason, meaning there is a true story being told about you even in memories that are not quite factual – human memory is not exactly a copy/paste of the historical situation. This is why having multiple witnesses is so important for a legal case. It’s also why it can be so helpful to compare our memories with others who were there. Even in situations where everyone recalls things accurately (as with the supernaturally-enabled writers of the gospels), each human brain involved is remembering only partial details of that scene, meaning that the combination of true stories leads to a fuller story overall. Alas, only the mind of God is perfectly and comprehensively aligned with the historical record for any given event.
All this means we should read or write memoir with a grain of salt, knowing that even the recollections of an honest author will come with some inevitable gaps, additions, or personal interpretations mixed in. But the fact that all natural memoir is like this means that once this is understood as a given, then we can engage in the genre with freedom, enjoyment, and humility. We try our best, and neither author nor reader need get bent out of shape when it comes out that certain details were a little off. It’s simply the nature of the genre, the nature of memory. As with biblical hermeneutics, knowing what genre we are in is key for proper interpretation and response, even for proper enjoyment. Memoir is the genre of significant true experiences that are remembered by the brain in a mostly-true, limited-perspective kind of way. And these very limitations of memoir are what make it so much fun.
No matter how good the story, the reader knows that there’s always more detail that might be unveiled, things that even the author missed. Sometimes the discovery of an omission makes the story even better. All of our favorite true stories conceal fascinating details that we have yet to learn – even the biblical ones. I would not be surprised if significant time is spent in eternity filling in these gaps. “Okay, Matthew, I invited you over for chai because I’ve simply got to know a little bit more about those dead saints who got out of their graves and wandered around Jerusalem after the crucifixion. What exactly was going on there?”
When I talked to my mom this week, she told me that I had ended the story of JJ the bully prematurely. As it went down, sometime later my mom was jogging in their neighborhood when she came across JJ again. She asked him if he had enjoyed his lemon water ice. JJ’s response?
“I didn’t drink it. I put it in my freezer because I wanted to keep it… I’ve never had anyone do something that nice for me before.”
Maybe someday I’ll meet JJ again. Because now I want to know – Did he ever drink it? How long did it stay in the freezer? Did his mom eventually throw it away? Does he still have it in his freezer? How does it end?!
At this point, only God knows, the author of all authors, storyteller of all storytellers. Good thing we’ll get to spend eternity with him. I can’t wait to hear more of his stories.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons