Secondhand Memories

Grandpa Jacob Altmann Senior with Mary and Betty and Casper in the background.

One of my sisters reminisced, “Grandpa kept a pint jar filled with hard candies on a shelf by the door. Whenever we visited him, he’d give us a candy.”

Another sister chimed-in, “I remember going to his apartment in the garage that summer after he died. I took one of the candies from the jar and it was chewy!”

Younger than my sisters by more than a decade, I volunteered, “I remember Grandpa falling when he came into our house. I was standing in the kitchen watching Daddy hold the door open for him.”

“You couldn’t possibly remember that!” scoffed one of my older brothers. “You were just barely two-years-old, too little to remember. What you do remember, is what we’ve told you.”

As the youngest child of seven children, I was used to hand-me-downs, secondhand clothing, books, toys, bikes and schoolteachers, but I refused to accept that I also had secondhand memories. In the stories about Grandpa falling, no one told me where I was standing when it happened. But like a snapshot, I clearly remember where everyone was when the accident happened. Mom was at the stove since we were about to eat our middle-of-the-day meal.

Why do some people remember more of their childhoods than others? My late husband Arnie claimed to have very few childhood memories, yet he easily remembered names, numbers and faces. While visiting a doctor with Tammie, I discovered Arnie was also an unreliable historical source. He remembered all of our daughter’s health experiences much differently than I did. Whose memory was accurate, mine or his?

I once asked Arnie if the brown car we had owned in the early 1980’s was front wheel drive or rear wheel drive. He looked at me with shock and stated, “We never owned a brown car.”

We most definitely owned a brown car. I have a picture of it from when I visited Rochester, Minnesota in 1984. And…I’m pretty sure it was our last front wheel drive vehicle.

I struggle to remember names, numbers and faces. People would often stop to talk to us when we were at restaurants. I could never remember their names. When they walked away my husband would ask me who they were. I’d shrug and admit sadly. “I have no idea.” My husband was shocked. But on the other hand, if someone told me a family story or a joke, I would remember that forever.

My husband and I obviously had brains that were wired differently. I’ve discovered that one of our daughters takes after him and the other takes after me.

Robyn Fivush, a well-known professor and researcher had this to say about the roll parents have in helping their children remember, “Talking about the past with your children can help them develop an autobiographical memory.”

Would Professor Fivush’s theory work on every child? I’m not sure. What I do know is that my mother talked to me often about the past. Between having a brain naturally inclined to remembering stories and a built-in tendency to feel empathy, her stories sank deeply into my brain.

I pictured my six-year-old mother lying in bed, listening to the grown-ups talk about a ship that had sunk. They were wondering if the sinking was a punishment, because when the Titanic set sail, people had bragged, “Not even God himself could sink this ship.”

Mom was twelve the November day World War I ended. All the leaves were off the trees and the day was chilly and overcast. At eleven o’clock, while walking on the railroad tracks into the nearby town, the church bells began to ring and the lumber mills blew their whistles to announce the official end of World War I. I wasn’t there, but I can see it and know how it felt.

When someone relates a memory to me, I identify and imagine the circumstances so clearly, that I usually feel as if it happened to me. Consequently, many movies and television shows are impossible to watch without agonizing over the events in them.

My brother thought I merely had secondhand memories about the day Grandpa fell. He was wrong. Although I carry around lots of other people’s memories, I also have my own.

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