The Power of Words – Memory vs. Truth

Yup, that's me!

Yup, that’s me!

My earliest memory is rather dim and fuzzy:  I’m sitting in Mom’s lap in a big chair and she’s reading a letter and telling me that somebody was having a baby. That’s all I remember – not where we lived, how old I was, or even any sounds or smells. Just the snuggly feeling, the letter and the baby.  But when the question of an earliest memory came up through my school years, and it did numerous times, I always answered with this story.

The striking thing is that in my 20s or 30s, when I mentioned it to Mom, she stopped to figure out the timing – from the details, it had to be a particular cousin, and I was only a year and a half old!

To have a memory of such a young age is rather unusual, but even this memory wouldn’t have lasted past my own childhood if I hadn’t put it into words several times.

One more story:

Growing up, we had an old half-Arab/half-mustang gelding named Chicklets. Mom’s hero as a teenager wasn’t Roy Rogers, it was his horse Trigger, and she had taught Chicklets several of Trigger’s tricks.   One of the best was rearing on command, even holding it for a couple seconds.

I have a great memory of being the Headless Horseman at Halloween – black cape fastened around my head, jack-o-lantern in hand, and Chicklets rearing and scaring the little kids when they came trick-or-treating. Awesome, right? Even if we did live out in the boonies and never got many kids coming by, it was still awesome.

A few months back, I was writing some nostalgic stories about Chicklets and included this. Then I realized that I didn’t remember if it was really me or if it was my brother who got to be the Headless Horseman. So I called him and . . .

It never really happened.

We had talked about it, planned it, imagined it for several years, but never actually did it. And yet I was sure we had!

It’s the power of words again.

Hubby O’Mine just came in with a DVD of Yellow Submarine. I did see it decades ago, but don’t remember much of anything except the phrase, “I’ve got a hole in me pocket.” Why?

Because my brother snuck out to a friend’s late one night to watch it and for the next three days kept saying, “I’ve got a hole in me pocket.” Of course my sister and I started repeating it, complete with clueless giggles, which made Mom ask questions, which undoubtedly got my brother in trouble.  I don’t really remember the consequences, though, just the words.

What is it about words? Pictures trigger memories, but words evidently cement them in our brains. We can look at a summer vacation picture and remember a bit, but once other people tell what they remember, our own memories surface more fully.

We tell particular stories over and over (hopefully not to the same people), and even if they don’t get exaggerated, they’re the ones readily available when a conversation shifts and makes them relevant.

Of course, traumatic events produce intense memories. Exciting experiences, or those full of great joy, create lasting memories. But for those everyday moments of our past, the stories we tell are the ones which remain most vivid for us – even if they never really happened.

What stories do you tell that keep memories alive? And did your brain ever trick you into remembering something that wasn’t real?

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2 Responses to The Power of Words – Memory vs. Truth

  1. This is such a good post – your brain definitely tricks you. My ‘first memory’ is of getting hold of a box of tissues in my room and scattering them all over the room Andrex-puppy-style… but it’s just a flash of pictures in my head. In fact, I think I ‘remember’ this because I saw a picture taken of the scene and was told the story about it more than once – I don’t know if I truly remember it at all…

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Hi, Sara. I love the image of you scattering tissues, and good point about things we’ve been told by other people that become “memories” for us. I don’t think I have many of those – most of the things I’ve been told, like teaching myself to read, I know I don’t remember! But boy can my own mind play tricks on me!