Last night I got together with four of my best friends. We gathered to celebrate one of our birthdays. We’re all in our fifties now — some of us more solidly than others. We’re tamer than we once were, choosing mocktails over bottomless bottles of wine. Post-pandemic it’s enough to simply get together. We don’t need a weekend trip or a restaurant for it to feel special.
Last night we talked about memory — about dementia in particular. Several of us are noticing it in our parents. We’re at a place right now where we’re noticing it a little bit in ourselves too. Not necessarily dementia, but the loss of memory. I remember some things so clearly, yet other experiences are completely gone. The other night our houseguests reminded me that we’d had a whole pig at our wedding. “Really?” I’d exclaimed, “I have no memory of that.” I think I didn’t remember because of all the things on that momentous day, the food was the least important.
But I say that phrase all the time, “I have no memory of that.” My daughter worries that I have early Alzheimer’s. She wants me to get checked out. But there are no signs other than the fact that I simply don’t remember certain things.
I wonder if, over time, we simply adapt. The storage lockers of the mind get full and we have to purge some memories. I’ve started to do this in my home with memorabilia. I recently got rid of all of my old dolls. My grandfather used to bring me a doll from every country he visited.
I had dolls from all over the world and used to love lining them up and looking at them. As I gave them one last lookover before putting them in the Goodwill pile, I had a flush of excitement, a feeling of happiness and contentment to see these dolls from my childhood. But I gave them away. There’s just no room for them anymore.
In place of the storage room where I kept the dolls and other mostly unnecessary stuff, we created a new room, an office for me. It’s a beautiful clean space free of clutter, a fresh new space where I can create new memories.
Last night at dinner with my friends I was impressed with how one of my friends recalled all the details from certain movies and television shows from our youth. “I have no memory of that,” I said over and over. I don’t remember details anymore — the restaurants I ate at, the parties I attended, even some friendships. But I do remember the feelings I’ve had at different stages of my life.
Last year one of my college roommates reminded me that we’d lived with another woman during our senior year. “I have no memory of that,” I said to her. I was convinced that she was wrong. But then, a few months later I saw a pile of albums at a garage sale and I remembered the two apartments across the hall that my friends and I shared in college. The front doors were just six feet apart; we often left them open so we could enjoy the stereo in both spaces.
I remember how one of my friends, a musician, played records — Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Sly and the Family Stone. I remember the feeling of living there — the sunny St. Louis mornings, the lazy weekend days. The feeling of independence.
Sometimes when a friend or family member is sharing a memory in detail I wish I could go there with them, conjure the details and replay the experience like watching a movie for the second time. But for whatever reason much of this stuff is no longer available to me.
I wonder if this is why I write — to capture the experiences, especially the feelings in my life. A few days ago, my friend Kate and I were swimming in the lake. Our goal was to swim pier to pier, about half a mile. “Can you believe we used to do this a couple of times a week?” she said to me as we breaststroked our way north. “We did?” I said, “I have no memory of that.”
But the next day we swam again. She reminded me how we trained in the lake for a triathlon with three other friends for two summers in a row. I couldn’t remember the details of the lake swimming but a smattering of other memories were sparked and I remembered the feelings from that time — how we laughed and cheered each other on, how grateful we were to finish the race.
Right now the memory of gathering with my friends last night it fresh and clear — the delicious garbanzo bean chard dish our host made, the wonderful mocktails with funny names another made, the adorable gifts we shared with the birthday girl. I remember the things we talked about and the wallpaper patterns we looked at on the front porch. I probably won’t remember those details next year at this time, but I’ll remember the feeling I had — the joy of coming together to celebrate another passing year, the sense of ease we shared after so many years of friendship.
Sometimes I get frustrated that I can’t remember specific memories. It makes me feel like I’m aging too quickly, like I am losing something that I should retain. But I feel better now that I have a theory for what I think is happening. Like getting rid of my old dolls, I’m clearing out details that I don’t need anymore, making space for the present and the future.
I am older now, but still relatively young, and I’ll need this space. I am making new memories every day and there’s simply no room in the limited space of my brain for all of the old and all of the new. “I have no memory of that,” is really no different from, “I ran out of space to store all that old stuff.” I’ve had to purge the details, but I’ve retained the essence of the experiences, the feeling of the memories.
And I think this is all I really need — the memory of the feeling. Out with the old and in with the new. I have no memory of a lot of things, but I remember the important stuff and that’s good enough for me.