Lately I’ve been fretting about my memory.
First I should explain my rather confused relationship with my own ability to remember things. One of the first coherent memories I have is of my parents being very proud I remembered a trip we’d taken. I know I took that trip at three, and I still remember that trip clearly. We were visiting my aunt at a hot-baths-place (you know, medicinal, from the time of the Romans) and took a train up to the mountain. It was the first MODERN train I’d seen (though I’d taken trains before, I think they were all coal. I have a vague memory of people complaining about sitting the wrong way and getting a face full of ashes when you open the window) an electrical one, which had a heater running the length of it, on the floor. Now, it was summer, so the heater wasn’t on. However to my three year old mind this was self-obviously a child’s seat. So try as they might, my family couldn’t convince me to sit on the normal seats, but I had to seat on the heater. All the way up.
That is the beginning of a coherent chain of memory. I have memories before that, one of being carried outside in my crib and set under the vineyard, which I don’t remember why any more, I thought had happened in March. One of my aunt singing me a song in my crib, that had to be (because of other things) before I was one. I have disconnected memories of grandma holding me, of feeling her face, as babies do. I have a memory of grandma holding me and saying “It’s like she understands everything I say” and I did, but I couldn’t get my mouth to form words (one of the most frustrating things ever.)
But those aren’t coherent memories. That trip was the beginning of my coherent memories, the ones that don’t float in a memory-soup, the ones that are daisy chained in some way to present-day Sarah.
My brother had an eidetic memory, or close to it. In a country like Portugal, where most learning was memorizing, this meant he was considered a genius. He remembered sports statistics, and music lists, and book lists, and… everything.
I wasn’t like that, or at least I thought I wasn’t. I got acting parts in the school plays and star parts in school pageants because I never forgot my lines, but I certainly couldn’t remember sports or music or… any of that. I was actually very bad at names and for a long time thought Bob Dylan and John Denver were the same person because the names seemed identical to me. (I just couldn’t imagine why two such different musical styles.) At the same time, even then, I think my memory must have been good, because while I don’t remember learning to read, I remember HOW it happened. You see, my brother had a ton of Disney comics (every house with kids in Portugal does, unless your parents are snobs) and I was very sickly. So I used to ask him to read them to me. And I remembered the sounds. I even remember when I put it together — it was the Seven Haunts story with Mickey Mouse. Finding it when I was buying the books for my sons was like finding a lost friend.
By the time I was six I was also memorizing a ton of “irrelevant” stuff. You see, I was — though I didn’t have a name for it yet — world building a parallel world for the stories I told myself at night. When I was fourteen, that world became a science fiction/fantasy (I was shaky on the concept) world, which became the setting of the first eight books I wrote (unpublished, though I’d like to write the book, now in the context of my secondary universe, what I’m calling my “Human Universe.” So far I have a short story out in it, but I’d like to start work on it in the next two or three years.) Being a sci-fi/fan world it required tons of research. I memorized vast swaths of my brother’s school books, and my cousin Natalia’s too. (Most of that was wrong, of course, and had to be scrapped. I was building a world with outdated highschool physics and biology and a 14 year old mind.) Since they’re both engineers, this meant I was memorizing stuff that my colleagues didn’t dream about. I was also keeping in mind a bizarrely complex genealogy, and about a thousand characters, give or take.
But I still thought I had a bad memory because I couldn’t memorize soccer players and musicians.
In high school I became known for being able to reel off entire pages of the book, then pull in other stuff I’d read years ago: mostly history.
BUT I had major trouble with French verbs (which weirdly still cling to me like barnacles) and with remembering the gender of German words. (Be fair. The Germans do that to annoy everyone else.)
It wasn’t until I was actually writing for a living that I realized I had an unusual memory, because I could remember details I hadn’t touched in ten or twenty years. Planners happened to other people. And the number of times I remembered stories my friends didn’t remember telling me led me to have the rule of never telling them that. That’s not what friendship is about, anyway.
(As an aside, someone did a study and I wish I could remember where I read it, and the reason modern man has a generally worse memory is not “because we have more to distract us” but that we don’t require very young children to memorize stuff. In retrospect, my once-amazing memory was the result of being required to memorize vast swathes of things like poems and the railway schedules for every line in Portugal — which was required in school when I was very little. And a good thing, as published schedules were spotty — Apparently, we should be surprised, memory is like a muscle that needs to be trained up, and tedious as memorizing is, it prepares us to memorize things as an adult, things we REALLY need to memorize. The elimination of rote learning has created generations with the memory of gnats. If you have the raising of children, make them memorize things (I’d start with Kipling.) and praise them extravagantly when they do it. You’ll be helping them in their future studies.)
And then 13 years ago I fell and hit my head. This is in my medical records as “blanked out while blowing nose” btw, because they could never find out what caused it, and asked me questions until they thought the silly foreign woman was confusing momentary blankness with concussion. The ground was swaying under my feet as if I were drunk, and words were coming out one every minute. But hey, I have an accent, so that must be how I talked normally.
It wasn’t till six months later I went to my normal doctor and my reflexes were off, and I told him and he said “Um… I wish they’d done a CT scan then.” He told me I could have a stroke at any time, pretty much, from that type of closed head injury (cheerful) and that the greatest risk was five years (thank heavens now past.) Then I went to my eye doctor and he said the damage to my eyes (from falling and hitting my head on the sink, in a tiny bathroom) was that of someone who was in an head on 60 miles per hour crash.
That was the first time I experienced the annoying effect of sending my memory for something, and having it return a blank. It had never happened before. For one I lost five to ten minutes after the concussion. Because the last things I remember are: blowing my nose and getting up to wash my hands. Next thing I remember, I was on the floor, my head under the pedestal sink and my legs up the wall. I remember staring at my legs wondering not WHO I was, but WHAT I was. I eliminated cat, because those weren’t cat legs. No, I have no clue how I even got in that position, short of a tractor ray lifting me, then dropping me straight down. Also, breathing had become voluntary and too much effort, but I could hear a voice calling me names and saying I had too much to write to die there. (We won’t go into what the voice sounded like or what it was all about. In my mind the voice was “daddy” but dad doesn’t have that accent or speak English at all.) This led us to the emergency room, and you know the rest from there.
The concussion did some permanent remodeling to the way I work, at least two god things. Well, one good and one shake the magic eight ball again. The good one is that I became far less emotional and far less prone to mood swings. The “maybe good” is that I developed an interest in art, which I had abandoned at 14. I very much doubt it will ever be a significant source of income, but it is, for now, a nice relaxing thing to do to focus my mind and to get out of the word-mode when stuck. And it does help me do covers.
But the bad part of that was the “holes”. I’d suddenly come up to something I’d known my entire life, and there was nothing there. A hole. Parts of my own universes started crumbling or dissolving or something. There was a character I knew, had worked for years, and suddenly his name and description were gone from my mental file.
More alarming, I started forgetting books I’d read. This had never happened before, but I now found myself re-reading a book I’d read and enjoying it — happened just the other week — before having a vague suspicion I’d read it before, and going to check my paper books (this was on kindle) and realizing, yep, read it 15 years ago. While this is helpful in terms of saving money on new books, it is disquieting, like losing a piece of myself.
Same goes for languages, and suddenly finding myself unable to understand German, or Italian. (French, for some reason shall always be with me.)
Now, when I started taking thyroid supplements, those episodes of “blank” became less frequent, and I’m just taking OTC thyroid supplements (I need to have those tests done, which means scheduling, which means… yeah) so it’s possible the problem lies there. Maybe.
But lately — like the last month — the episodes are back and galloping. I lose things I’ve known forever, and become upset with whomever is asking me to remember because I feel so utterly stupid.
But more than that, I feel scared. There’s early onset Alzheimers in my family. I’m hoping this is just what I went through once before, when the kids were little. They gave a free screening for Alzheimers and I went in and was told to stop being silly and go home. (I was around 37.) They said that I had “mommy’s memory” which meant I was keeping track of so many lives that I couldn’t remember it all.
Now the kids are older and by and large “go by themselves” which means that shouldn’t be a problem, right? So why am I getting holes?
I think it might be stress: the forced move, the house hunt.
But what if it isn’t? The prospect of sliding back down into that soup of disconnected memories is terrifying. And so many of my favorite writers: Enid Blyton, Terry Pratchett, went just that way. Did they finally dissolve into a mix of potential universes? I don’t know. I don’t want to find out.
And I worry.