Today is a wonderfully ordinary day. Lots of laughter and no squabbles. Will we remember any of it? Probably not.
It’s hard to understand why we hang on to some memories but not others. The process isn’t about how much effort or money we expend trying to make something memorable.
Long-term retrievable memories are built by what we notice, fully notice, with our minds as well as our bodies. (They aren’t made when we multitask.) Look back at any particular memory. What you recall is constructed from the sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings unique to your experience. The way you pay attention to those elements forms your memories. The shocking part? Looking back and realizing how few rich and full memories we really form.
That’s because we only really latch on to memories when we pay attention. When we’re engaged in the moment. Recall the last really memorable meal you had. It probably wasn’t one you ate in the car or standing at the kitchen counter. It was one you savored with full awareness of flavor, texture, scent. Most likely there were other important elements as well. Perhaps it was a meal shared with a new friend or made from a challenging cookbook. Perhaps it was a last meal you had before a loved one passed away, a meal you now try reconstruct in detail.
Emotion plays a part in memory formation. And our five senses are integral when forming strong memories. Particularly smell, perhaps because the olfactory bulb is closely connected to the hippocampus (related to learning) and the amygdale (related to emotion).
For years I’ve encouraged my family to take “sensory snapshots.” We may be standing out back together, having just finished stacking firewood (because togetherness on our little farm often has to do with work) and I urge them to remember the moment in their bodies as well as their minds. We notice the scent of blackberry and milkweed blossoms, listen to frogs croaking in the pond, feel the evening’s coolness on our skin, look at the fireflies beginning to arc through the dusky sky. I don’t just want the moment to linger, I want to be able to retrieve it long after today. I want to hang on to our easy banter and feeling of shared accomplishment.
That’s where memory-storing traditions come into play. Yes, it’s easier than ever to take photos and videos. But there’s something about writing down our impressions that augments the process of locking them into place.
One tradition you might want to start in your family is a memory jar. Grab any jar, name it the Memory Jar, and keep it in an accessible place. Filling it is pretty easy. Encourage your family members to scrawl memories on any piece of paper, sign their names, add a date if they can, and stuff these memory scraps in the jar. Let the youngest ones dictate their memories to you and pop them in as well.
You’ll be interested to note what different family members regard as significant enough for the memory jar. Good grades on a test probably won’t get in. Watching the neighbor’s puppies born probably will. Your five year old may stuff in a new memory each day, your teenager may add one only at your prompting, you may tend to write down funny things the kids say. But if they’re not noted and saved, chances are they’re lost.
It’s helpful to have a “no grudge” rule. Memories don’t have to be happy, of course. The most powerful are probably those that aren’t. Your daughter may write,
“I was really scared when Max fell off the slide. We went right from the park to the hospital. We waited a long time and I fell asleep watching a TV high on the wall. Max got a green cast on his arm and I was first to sign it. I was mad my name didn’t come out too good because it’s not easy writing on a cast. The letters are kinda bumpy. We were so hungry Mom stopped for ice cream on the way home. I got peach, Max got chocolate chip, Mom got a smoothie. I think it would be fun to have a cast too but I don’t want to fall off a slide to get it.”
There are plenty of options that go along with opening and sharing the tidbits from your Memory Jar. You might choose to have a memory ceremony once a year. That’s a day when the jar is opened and the memories are read. You might want to do this on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, or every July 13th because that’s your family’s yearly Dad Finished His Tour of Duty party.
And you’ll want to store these memories safely. It’s easiest to start a new jar every year. Label last year’s jar and tuck it in the back of your closet. If you’re ambitious, carefully scrapbook each slip of paper next to photos or turn them into a photo collage to hang on the wall. Or, your family may prefer to keep adding to a collective jar of memories without going over the contents together, happy to make the jar a sort of time capsule to be opened well into their adult years.
While a memory jar is well-suited for family use, there are other great ways to use this random-memories-on-scraps-of-paper approach.
For couples, why not start a Memory Bank? This is best made with an opening no bigger than a piggybank. This way the memories each of you contribute can’t be fished out and read in private. It’s a way of noting little tidbits about your lives together without the pressure to contribute. Of course a “no grudge” rule is still important. And when a Memory Bank is shared by a couple, it’s best to make it a long-term project. Vow to keep it sealed until your 25th anniversary or some other far off date. By then neither of you will care if she contributed 95% of the memories, you’ll both simply have fun going over recollections you thought were long gone.
Perhaps the best impetus for storing and retrieve memories is in partnership with the oldest members of the family. On each Father’s Day card I used to share a reminiscence about my childhood to let my Dad know how much he factored into my happiness then and my resilience now. I thought I was doing it for him but I know now that sharing these memories was one way I strengthened a link with someone so dear to me.
You can keep track of up-to-date memories with the elders in your family using a Memory Book, one that’s always open. A large format blank book is especially good for this purpose. With each visit write down a recollection (old or new) to paste in the log book. Add drawings and photos. If you’ve exchanged memorable phone calls, texts, and other communications remember to add notes about them when you visit. The Memory Book is a warm reminder of your affection. It’s also helpful if your loved one is in an assisted living facility or nursing home because other visitors can flip through the pages, starting conversations by talking about these and other memories while making new ones.
Thinking about the ways we form and hold on to memories is inspiring me to have more fun with my family than stacking firewood!