A Writer's World

A Column by Molly Moynahan

How to Remember What you Never Forgot

“So maybe the link between memory and fiction is that fiction relies on memory to create that sense of authenticity without which we wouldn’t care whether Sydney Carton lives or dies, whether Elizabeth will see through Darcy’s pride. But when writing begins to rely on memory for more than that, when the reader can't confidently assert that this is all made up, then we have left fiction behind and are moving towards memoir.”

The Truth about Memory and the Novel” Richard Lea theguardian.com

Facebook can be miniature goats bouncing along a wall, a reminder that your ex-roommate’s boyfriend has a birthday, or that your memory of a fourteen-year old friend who was hit by a car and died on the day you were meant to see a movie together, wasn’t a dream but the truth, corroborated by the newspaper clipping someone on your “I grew up in…” provided.

So many moments from childhood, my childhood, are ridiculously gothic, and even, god forbid, morbidly funny. Our handyman shot himself in a tree and when I asked my mother why, she said, “He had a terrible wife.”

Well, maybe but maybe it had something to do with what was in his thermos that he never let me taste as I, a lonely ten-year old, followed him around asking to hammer something or telling him a fairy tale.

He listened to me at a time no one listened to me and then one day he shot himself. Of course it helps if you come from a family where denial is an essential nutrient, where you are often told that nothing happened when you wake up in the morning to find furniture smashed, your mother bruised and your father gone.

When this new friend of mine was run over I came home from school having heard it over the loud speaker and told my mother. My memory provides a moment of silence followed by a change of subject. But is that the truth? I don’t know. I do know that it was as if she never existed, never sat beside me in Home Economics giggling at my ineptitude with a sewing machine.

But last week there was that news item from forty-four years ago, reproduced on facebook, “Fourteen year old girl, hit by a car, dies.” And she was suddenly real again and my mouth filled with a copper taste of grief and anger.

There are wonderful memories also, Notre Dame for Christmas Eve, a skinny woman ordering copious amounts of oysters and champagne at a Parisian Bistro while my parents hinted that the man with her had hired her for the night and would live to regret it. Did I understand their allusion to prostitution? Absolutely not. But I was eleven and dazzled by the beauty of Paris at Christmastime, the Gothic splendor of the church offset slightly by my fear of all things religious.

So, is my memory a super-human gift from the Muse? Possibly not. Here’s an embarrassing confession, I rarely recall names and I seldom remember people I found uninteresting. In fact, I have completely forgotten entire years of my life, although the period I lived in San Francisco with a sex therapist for a roommate is vivid.

My memory is ruthless, if there is no story, no metaphor, no amusing or affecting anecdote attached, it fades into dust. And then there are those memories you encouraged to fade but one day someone on social media reminds you of what you never forgot. And the face of your friend, her pigtails and braces, her smile and kindness is perfectly clear.

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