by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 5, 2020
The last time I went to a barber was in the 1970s. I got married in 1978 and my wife cut my hair after that until I went mostly bald, at which point I’d just mow my own head. But in the 1950s and 1960s, I probably went to the barber every 2-3 weeks. I’m sure, several hundred times. I have a few vague impressions being at a barbershop, but for the most part, all those memories are gone. I can remember having butch cuts, crew cuts, flattops and haircuts I had to comb. Those were in the years before the Beatles. After that, I tried very hard to avoid the barber. Maybe that suppressed the memories of haircuts.
There are 3,650 days in a decade if we don’t worry about leap years. And at age 68 I’ve lived around 25,000 days. Other than what I ate today, and maybe yesterday, I’ve forgotten roughly 75,000 meals. I know I had a lot of dinners with my family growing up, but except for a few fleeting images of Thanksgivings, I can’t remember them.
I have more memories of sitting with my parents and sister watching TV. I’m better at remembering people, but it’s an accumulation of countless vague encounters. The more vivid memories generally involved great joy or great pain. Average got forgotten, and I imagine 99.999% of my life was quite mundane.
I know I hated going to Sunday School and church when I was growing up. We even went on Wednesday night sometimes. But I can only remember a handful of specific events at church. So, did we go all the time, or did I only think we went all the time?
If I work hard I believe I can remember all the pets we had, but I’m not sure of all their names. I spend a lot of time with my cats now. They are always nearby or sleeping on me. I can’t remember how much time I spent with my pets growing up. I remember fleeting moments of playing with them, but not the day-to-day living. Now that I think about it, I believe my mother expected dogs and cats to live outdoors. I can remember our dogs walking us to school and meeting us afterward, but I don’t remember them sleeping with me or hanging out in my room.
One area of memory I really regret losing is memories of my classmates and teachers. I’d spend about 200 days a year with them, and at the time knew all their names and could tell you stories about each of them. I did pay attention — then. But it’s all gone now.
Because my family moved around so much I attended many different schools. There were schools I’d ride my bike miles rather than take the school bus. I tried to always walk or ride my bike, although when we lived in South Carolina the second time, out in the country, the school bus ride was 35 miles. The thing is, I can’t remember how I got from home to school in all those schools. Oh, there were a few places where we lived just a couple blocks from school and I can remember, but I’ve looked at Google’s Streetview trying to find my way around old neighborhoods and I can’t.
Am I alone in forgetting all these kinds of things? Am I alone in wish I had a photograph of all my bikes?
I had a very happy childhood. I’m very nostalgic for those years, but they were chaotic and stressful because of my parents’ alcoholism and our constant moving. I watched a lot of television and read a lot of science fiction to keep sane. And that’s what I remember most. In the last couple of decades, I’ve been rewatching those old shows and rereading those old books. That has only reinforced their memories. I now have better memories of TV and books than of my parents.
If I only focused on the present would I even think about the past at all? However, getting old seems to inspire looking backward. I noticed that many young people photograph everything they do and put it on Facebook, including their meals. I wonder what that will mean to them when they get old, having so much documentation?
There are so many things I wish I had photographs of now. And videos would be better yet. I wish I had pictures of every friend I made, of every teacher, classmate, and every classroom, every pet, house, car. I wish I had multiple photographs of every room of every house I ever lived in. I wish I had photographs of all the TV sets, record players, and radios I used. I even wish I had a few photographs of going to the barber and Sunday School.
I’d love the documentation of my past because it might trigger memories. I don’t think I’d need snaps of 75,000 meals, but a few hundred would solidify my sense of who I was. My parents had an old Brownie Hawkie camera, but I think they only shot two rolls of film of me and my sister. I figured they also shot two rolls of themselves before we were born.
That’s just 48 photos to document my youth. I really envy kids growing up with smartphones today. (But why aren’t I snapping pictures with mine now?)
7 thoughts on “All The Things We Forget”
“ I had a very happy childhood. I’m very nostalgic for those years, but they were chaotic and stressful because of my parents’ alcoholism and our constant moving.”
Mmmm, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in those two sentences. Maybe your childhood wasn’t happy and that’s why you can’t remember much of it.
Me, I remember bits of my childhood but it isn’t of much interest to me, and I would relive it almost entirely differently if I went through it again.
Somehow I was happy despite everything that should have made me unhappy. My survival mechanism was selfishness. By focusing on what I liked and ignoring all the melodrama I was able to be happy.
But this gives me insight. Maybe I don’t remember going to church or getting haircuts because I didn’t like doing those things. Maybe the science fiction, rock and roll, and television shows are so vivid in my memory is because I loved them instead.
How frustrating it is to forget so many important things. When a new receptionist started at our doctor’s office we got on really well. Always having a chat at each visit, even though hubby had to keep prompting me of her name. It would have been several years before we both realised that we’d been in the same class through both primary and secondary school!
What amazes me are the moments I DO remember. I remember as clear as day the dusty figure of a boy in the gutter after he was hit by a car. To this day I’m not sure if the boy survived or not. I was 7 or 8 at the time. I guess that the image was so unique invoking the most powerful of instinctual responses from the brain as electro-chemical imprints along some neural pathway. To this day it is available for recall at anytime.
At the same time I’m glad I don’t remember all of the mundane routine events over the past 64 years. Social anthropologists tell us the brain serves as a clearing house for those less important events so as to ensure we are always prepared for flight or fight when it really counts
Nice read. I’m 70 now, and remember some things from my childhood like they were yesterday. Sometimes, awaking from a dream, or hearing a song, triggers a memory, and mostley its a good one. I try to write as much as possible about those years in the 50s and 60s because sometime soon, I wont be able to. Keep up the good writing.
I always enjoy your articles. This one triggered some memories for me of an article I wrote a while ago. The themes of these articles are similar: https://datablends.us/2016/11/01/data-is-to-life-as-math-is-to-science/
That’s a fascinating concept that reminds me of the book Total Recall by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell.