The Good Life: Memories That Make a Life

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

The Only Memory That Matters

May is the essence of all my lovely childhood springs…

May is the essence of all my lovely childhood springs. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know at the time that the month was actually May but, in hindsight, it must have been, because the high school band could be heard practicing their marching music in the distance for the Norwegian Syttende Mai parade—a major annual event in my small, Midwestern hometown. My mother opened all the windows and let the warmish springtime breeze drift in along with the band. I remember the sheer, white curtains billowing around her as my mom took down the heavier winter drapes. I remember our enormous crabapple tree heavy with pink blossoms. I remember eating my Chef Boyardee Ravioli out of an orange plastic bowl, while sunning my newly rediscovered knees on the back steps. In my memory, I often ate my lunch on those back steps, but did I? Am I recalling one day in May that somehow got changed in my memory to a lifetime of May days focused on my knees? One thing I know for sure is that apple tree has grown a lot from then until now. Maybe my memory of May has grown in proportion to that tree.

Author Susan Minot explored a similar thought in her book Evening. The main character in the book drifts in and out of consciousness at the end of her long, full, life. Three marriages and several children later, she lays dying, but her mind keeps taking her back to one weekend, forty years earlier when she was involved in a brief but intense love affair. I was struck by this book because it challenged my ideas about what we remember about life. Minot said of her writing:

Memory, that activity of the mind and heart which both gives meaning to life and pulls us back from it, which has a dim basis in history but is far more tenuous than we can admit, determines the way we narrate our lives–our experience is stored there–but it is never stored in one mind like another.

That’s exactly the problem. The maddening thing about memory is that many of the details are lost in the remembering, and everyone present sees and recalls the same event differently. Things like time, duration, and quantity are lacy and frail in our memories as dandelion seeds on a windy day. The further we leave events behind, the more we are left with only an impression. A classic example of this is childbirth. My kids never tire of hearing their birth stories, but the truth is that some of the details, many of the details, are fuzzy at best for me. Who held me first? Who cut the cord? Who was my first visitor? Uh…better ask dad. I must not have been there. But I do remember feeling blissful and generally unaware of my heavy, loose body and the roadmap of stitches left behind. My impression of that event, my perspective, was that of pure joy. No details necessary. Perspective is everything. It is your truth.

I am mostly comfortable with the ambiguous nature of perspective, except when it comes to my kids. I don’t know if this has happened to you, but sometimes my kids will “remember” something that is nothing less than alarming. One of them will say something like, “Remember that time that you and dad left us alone, and we had to find our food in the woods for, like, a week?” The thing that scares me the most is that unless they had said something, they would have grown up somehow believing that they were raised by bears for a week, while their dad and I were –who knows where? The good news is that, in the end, when details fall away, they (and I) will leave here knowing that we were loved. That is the only memory that matters.


Sarah Mattison Buhl

As a mother of three, Sarah appreciates the extraordinary beauty of the ordinary. She makes her home with her family in Northampton, MA.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Rachel Kramer]

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