My father and stepmother live on an acre or so of land perched on top of a hill in rural Western Pennsylvania. Their home, a split entry ranch with enough room to house visiting children and accompanying grandchildren, sits at the center of their property. Their backyard includes another set of rooms, with a deck leading to a comfortably furnished patio, followed by an expansive hallway of shady lawn leading to a fire pit. Beyond the pit sits the shed.
Last summer, they had the house and shed painted. Painting is, of course, more than painting. Shutters must first be removed, the surfaces cleaned, repairs made, paint finally applied, and finally shutters returned. We’d arrived long after the project was complete, the point when one basks in the results but finds all the small things that didn’t quite turn out as hoped. The house and shed did look attractive, and I couldn’t tell you now what the small problems were, except for one.
After the project, one of my parents asked the other about the location of the shutters for the shed. It seemed they had not returned to their windows at the end the project. For some time, they searched for the shutters, large enough items that losing them was improbable yet that seemed to be what had happened. The shutters were missing.
I don’t recall how long they looked or who asked the crucial question, but at some point someone asked, “Did the shed ever have shutters?”
Thought preceded the answer. No. It hadn’t. The house had had shutters (and still did), but the shed had not. Pulling the shutters off from the house, seeing it shutterless for some time, then returning them to the windows emphasized their presence on the house. It also suggested their absence on the shed, creating a memory of shutters where none had been before. My parents had lived there 25 years at this point and are certainly of sound mind. My father is a retired Biology professor; my stepmother, a retired therapist. They are well-read, intelligent people. And yet, their minds convinced them that shed had worn shutters when it clearly had not.
I have plenty of my own shutters. There’s the simple stuff I think happened but didn’t: the cumin I’m sure I bought at the store yet never appears on my shelf and the garden clippers I returned to the garage that I later find next to the bush I was trimming. These generally affect only me, unless I happen to hound a child about the whereabouts of the tool I misplaced. Generally, the only consequence is that I end up annoyed with myself or cooking a different dinner than planned.
Memory is wily and not to be taken too seriously. This is hard to remember at exactly the times remembering it is most important. I find myself clinging to memories as if they were tangible, verifiable facts. While the nature of memory makes it hard to be sure when I’ve done someone wrong thanks to incorrect memories paired with a stubborn disposition, I’m sure my version of the story has been wrong plenty of times.
Many arguments with my then-husband circled around what we each held as truth. “You said that, I remember!” one of us would fling. “No!” the other would retort, “I never said anything of the sort!” What would have happened if each of us could have softened and considered that our memories may have failed us? I doubt it would have saved our marriage, but it could have made some of it better.
Repetition aids learning. Repeating a scenario from memory strengthens (and shapes) the learning of that version of a memory. Thus in the mind of the teller, the fish that got away gets bigger and the wrongs of another become more heinous (reconsolidation). When I wander over memories of my childhood, my marriage, even conversations I had in the past week, I wonder what is real and what is a mental mash-up of reality and distortion.
This could be deeply disturbing insight on the human mind, but I prefer to think of is as an opportunity to let go a bit of the tight grip I often hold on my version of reality. I can’t see a downside to allowing some doubt to enter my mind when I hear myself say aloud, “I remember.” When I reflect on the malleability of memory, I’m more likely to pause before engaging in a battle of the “I said, you said” variety or even quibble with my kids about who left the front door open. That can only serve to open me up to more possibilities than my (highly flawed) version of reality and lessen conflict with others. Not a bad way to spin quirk of our human nature. Want a bit more peace? Take a lesson from the shutters on the shed.
For a bit more on memory:
- Memory: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means. An Interview with Dan Simons
- 4 Things Most People Get Wrong About Memory