Storied Memory

My nana often tells a story:

Your papa and I had just arrived at your house in the forest. As I got out of the car, I heard two little voices in the air. “Hi Nana! Hi! We’re up here.” I looked around everywhere before craning my neck directly up. Your brothers were about 50 feet up in a pine tree, sitting on a little board that they had fastened to its trunk. “Hi Nana!” I about peed my pants; I was that scared. They were so high. I couldn’t even believe that they’d been able to climb that far let alone carry a board and nails. I didn’t want to scare them out of the tree, so I just waved and walked into the house to talk to your mother.

My mom tells a story:

I raised my boys to be men–kindhearted but tough. They were always building forts and traps in the forest. One time as I was washing some dishes, I heard them calling to me. “Mom! Mom!” I went outside to our dirt driveway and looked up at those boys, 50 feet in the air, sitting on a board between two pine trees. I was scared to death. I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe that’s what boys did: build crazy dangerous forts in tall trees. I didn’t want to stifle their boyish spirits, so I waved, “That’s great, guys.” And went inside. The boys spent the afternoon in that tree until your dad got home. They called down to him. “Dad! Dad!” He looked up and yelled, “Get down from there this instant! You know you aren’t supposed to climb that high!” He made them tear out the board and promise never to climb a tree that didn’t have branches thick enough to support them.

The “true” story is my mom’s. But, my nana honestly thinks it is her memory–that she did, in fact, drive to visit us one afternoon and saw my brothers high in a tree. Regardless of its veracity, the tree story is one of my nana’s favorite memories, as truthfully experienced for her as the childbirth of her four children. She was there.

For me, the real kicker about these two stories is not the convergent memories but that, even though I am not featured in either version, I am certain that it was me, not my littlest brother, who was the second child in the tree. I remember being on that platform. And while I don’t remember my mom (or my nana) waving to us nor my dad’s admonishment, I do remember the exhilaration of height. I was up in those trees.

My family is a group of loud and gifted story tellers. We spend most of our time together telling stories about other times we were together. There are canonical stories, like the time my cousin puked all over the table at Thanksgiving dinner, and there are stories like the one above that are part of our telling but differ from person to person. Stories are such a big part of my life that I often can’t determine what is a genuine memory from what has been internalized as memory through story. Do I genuinely remember my dad’s cradling my brother’s tiny, broken body after accidently tossing a hay bale onto him or do I remember through the story?

These musings, of course, beg the question: is there ever genuine memory? Joan Didion aptly titled one of her collections, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.  And that is exactly how story-telling functions. Try to think of a memory that doesn’t have a narrative attached to it. What was there? Probably not much. And as soon as you though of it, you probably started making a story to place it. Most memory doesn’t seem to exist without a story behind it.

I have found that the only non-storied memories I have are body memories–visceral responses to traumatic moments in my life. They are not coherent memories that I could tell someone; rather, they are a series of chemical reactions. Not very interesting to anyone but my therapist, and even my therapist tries to place these body memories into the context of my storied life.

All this isn’t to say that storied memory isn’t genuine memory. To the contrary, what affords us the ability to be a sentient species is our inhabitation of narrative–our ability to internalize stories as a true experience. So it isn’t surprising that if you tell or live a story enough, it becomes your story.

Think of the last book that really affected you. The one where you felt like you were there and finished feeling as if you had left a whole other world. That story became yours. It is now part of your experienced memory.

A most amazing thing happens when a story teller can tell a story so well that it becomes many people’s story. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien did just that for me. So much so that when Peter Jackson told the story in film, it was as if he’d plucked the memory of Middle Earth right from my head–those stone statues, that lake, that waterfall. All of these things were part of Jackson and my shared memory.

As far as the platform in the pine trees story goes, I trust my mom’s version as the one most based in reality. I don’t know why I can feel the wind in my hair at that height or see the red-dirt drive far below or feel the rough grey-brown pine bark on my palm. Perhaps I did climb the tree at one point, sharing a companionable moment with my middle brother, our feet dangling in space. But then I came down so that my littlest brother could climb; there was only room for two small butts on that stained board that my middle brother hung between two towering pines. Or maybe the story is so good that, like my nana, I claim it as my own.

I don’t remember. But it does make a good story.

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