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MARTHA SEZ: Time plays tricks on the memory juice

August 3, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

Memory and perception are illusive, and not only for the aged. Even children are suggestible and can be influenced by various factors that affect memory.

If you doubt this, ask your brother or sister about some event that you recall in vivid detail from your childhood. Chances are that he or she will remember it differently.

This used to happen when my grandmother Rose got together with her sisters and discussed Waco, Texas, where they all grew up.

Rose was a wonderful storyteller. True, she repeated certain stories so many times that those of us who lived with her could repeat them word for word, but they were snappy and succinct, and each one told you something about human nature, albeit of necessity from Rose's point of view.

Since she was a girl, Rose had the natural gift of drawing people out. Maybe this was because she listened, opening her eyes wide, nodding now and then, and exclaiming "Mercy!" or "Isn't that the limit!" when appropriate. Every time Rose took the bus from our suburb to Detroit (while no place was ever as real to her as Waco, Rose lived in Michigan for the great majority of her life), or rode the train back to Texas to visit, people would sit down in the seat next to hers and pour their hearts out. Since they would never meet again, these people probably believed that their secrets were safe with Rose. Nothing was further from the truth.

No, their confessions would never affect their lives, that much was true, but their words and funny quirks were often immortalized in Rose's stories. One woman told her that her parents were first cousins who shared the same last name.

"I've got a double dose of Dinkins!" the woman declared. To this day, my sister and I use the phrase double dose of Dinkins as a kind of shorthand.

I was in high school when Rose's sister Sue came to visit. The family was gathered in the living room, reminiscing or listening to reminiscences, when my grandmother told a familiar Waco story and Sue reacted in what was, to me, a startling manner.

"Why, Rose!" she cried out. "That is not the way it happened at all!"

Ordinarily there was no one to contradict Rose's version of the way things had gone down back in Waco or on the bus or train. When her stories were called into question, it shook the foundations of my world a little. My reality did not come crashing down around my ears, but I did feel a tremor.

At one point my brother Bill told me that one person's version of an incident is just as valid as anyone else's. This idea bothered me a great deal. I mean, there are facts. Right? Some things are actually real, not just perception. Come to think of it, it still bothers me.

Bill probably remembers the conversation differently.

I was discussing a very clear memory I had of-what? I can't recall-with my sister recently, when she pointed out that it hadn't happened that way. I was astounded to realize she was right. I am pretty sure that, since I cannot now remember the particulars of this conversion, I have gone right back to my previous version in my mind.

I was shocked when my mother told me that one of my clearest childhood memories was false.

When I was 6 years old I was operated on for amblyopia, or lazy eye. I remember the smell of ether and the green goblins I saw under its influence. They kept saying "Gump. Gump. Gump," over and over. And I can still see my beloved dad, young then, in a gray herringbone coat, standing beside my hospital bed. He gave me a Ginny Doll. I named her Snooksie.

Snooksie was real- I still have her- but my mother told me my father was out of town politicking. He felt bad about it, she said, and would have been happy to know that I thought he was there.

My father, a lawyer, knew a little about the tricks memory can play. He said that five eye witnesses to a car crash may give five honest but entirely different accounts of the accident.

Age does affect short-term memory, I admit. Everybody knows it. My 7-year-old great nephew, Charlie, passing a retirement condo building recently announced, "I'm going to live on my own until my smarts wear out."

Have a good week.



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