Monday, July 6, 2009

When Memories Collide

I find myself increasingly drawn to the subject of memories, perhaps because by middle-age we have all amassed an amazing collection of them. Memories are the only things we collect that don't need display cases. I suspect that some memories have greater durability than actual physical matter.

This is not a new concept, of course. In the science fantasy pantheon, there is a much-loved book by Jack Finney called Time and Again (1970). In the broader world, Finney is best known for having written The Body Snatchers, the book upon which the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a gazillion remakes were based.

But Time and Again, named as one of the five best mysteries of all time, is a classic about a man named Simon Morley who finds a way to hypnotize himself back in time. Richard Matheson used the same concept in his book Bid Time Return, so when he wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, Somewhere in Time, he named the character of the philosophy professor who coaches Christopher Reeve after Finney.

Less well known is the Time and Again sequel, From Time To Time (1995). In it, scientists start discovering multiple instances of conflicting memories, as if two parallel worlds where similar events had different outcomes suddenly fused together. Some people distinctly remember the Titanic docking at Chelsea Pier in New York City in April 1912, while others remember it sinking. Someone discovers a newspaper from February 22, 1916, the day after the Battle of Verdun began — but there’s nothing about it in the headlines. A campaign button from Jack Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign turns up.

A world in which conflicting memories exist side-by-side is not that big a stretch. While the ones in Finney’s book are fiction, so many others are real. Recently in Razed in the U.S.A., I ranted about the disposability of large structures and the havoc it plays on our sense of time and place. Every building that’s been torn down still exists in our memory, side-by-side with what exists now.

In the 70s and 80s, I spent a lot of time in Reno; my best friend at the time attended the University of Nevada for both undergraduate and graduate school. Today, downtown Reno has changed considerably: I look at the Silver Legacy Hotel, the Eldorado, and even the National Bowling Stadium and think, "Wait, what used to be there?"

I've seen this happen with my father. We were heading to the barber recently, a man who’s been in the business in Palo Alto for years. I used to get my hair cut in the shop his father ran. My father had his real estate office in the same building as the barber shop. As we drove to the shop, my father helpfully reminded me that there was parking behind the building.

The only problem: the barber shop hadn’t been in that building for 20 years. The shop was now a block away, in a location that both my father and I had visited. My father was born when Woodrow Wilson was president, but his age is really not the issue. He's been in this area almost twice as long as I have, so he has twice as many opportunities to collect conflicting memories of where things used to be, rather than where they actually are.

As I get older, I feel these conflicting memories grow stronger. Is it possible that the parallel worlds that Finney envisioned actually blossom in our heads? Perhaps that's where we go when we die. Our destination at the end of our physical life is a neighborhood we create in our mind that's comfortable and familiar, with all the amusement parks and ice cream parlors and tree houses we could ever want.


  1. So we gathered this weekend for a family fourth of July and Emma, my five year old niece, said... "You know, a long time ago I remember doing the fireworks dance... I think I was four, I can't remember." And you know what, I couldn't remember either... Was she four or could it have been so far back that she was three... I mean, I think at two she wasn't dancing or maybe she was, I can't remember. It seems that more often, I am playing the process of elimination game and asking myself questions like, "What round is this, three threes?" I just can't remember. But when surrounded by family or friends that are basically family...they provide a fabulous assist to helping me remember and giving me new memories that I'm sure to never forget. That's my point, and I think I have one...

  2. At this same 4th of July weekend gathering, I also heard our niece, Emma, say she had only 6 weeks to go before starting kindergarten. Her youthful exuberance brought a smile to my face – some 40 years after beginning kindergarten myself. The precise moment when a person begins his or her formal educational experience is a significant life event that will not be forgotten as easily as whether a card that has been played is alive or dead.

    These monumental events occur along side the mundane humdrum routine. Nevertheless, we are here to experience them all together!

  3. I have to say my eyes went misty when I read the last paragraph of your it the wine I am drinking thinking of life and my kids...or is it the next card game we play....can I buy that?