Diamonds, Pearls, Memories: Treasure in Old Photos

Memories surface, but are they accurate? Does it matter?

The picture above is of one of my cousins and me, sitting under a tree, gleefully stuffing watermelon into our mouths. We’re around three or four, and scattered on the ground around us are a variety of combs. It seems that we couldn’t wait for the grownups to cut open the delicious melons, so we experimented with what we could find until we finally managed to get one open.

It’s a cute photo and one of those family legends that was often told and retold. I look at the photo and sort of think that I remember doing it, but I expect I’ve just heard the story so often and looked at the photo so many times that I’ve given myself a false memory; when I think about the event, I remember it as if I’m watching it happen, not participating in it.

There are other memories I have like that, but I know they are as real as they can be. Who doesn’t remember exactly what they were doing when they heard about 9–11?

I also remember clearly the moment I heard about the Challenger disaster. There are other memories, tinier ones, usually involving my kids that I remember just as clearly. But are they accurate? Maybe, maybe not. Memory is a funny thing.

I had a professor in grad school who told a story about finding out that the ship her fiance was stationed on, the USS Stark, had been attacked back in 1987.

She said she had a very distinct memory of what she was doing, eating, thinking, when she saw the report on TV; however, her friends told her that was not the case. She thought she was home alone when she heard the news, but she was actually with other people at a different location.

Many researchers have found this to be a common phenomenon. An interesting article on studies conducted about people’s memories of 9–11 was published in The New Yorker in Feb, 2015. It’s by Maria Konnikova and is called “You Have No Idea What Happened”. I recommend it if you’re interested in reading more about the topic.

Despite being sometimes faulty, our memories can be triggered by certain odors or sounds. A whiff of lemon or the notes of a song can suddenly transport us to a place, a moment, long past.

A few summers ago my daughter and I traveled to Arkansas to meet up with some of my cousins for a family reunion. My cousin, the one in the photo, and her husband had worked hard to fix up the old house our grandparents had long lived in (and that my dad helped build). It had been years since I had been back, sixteen, to be exact.

The house still had the same bones, but everything looked smaller to me. And closer together.

But the memories rushed back over and over again, hitting me so hard at times that I felt practically flattened by them, especially those involving my dad, uncles, and grandparents who are no longer with us. Still, I wouldn’t have traded being there (Even though the temperatures were in the 100s every single day!) for anything.

Those memories and the few precious photographs are the gold nuggets, the diamonds and pearls of my life, precious beyond measure and, no matter how faded, are all I have left to connect me to that child I was.

And that means way more to me than if I remember every tiny detail accurately.