Memory is Overrated

Cathleen Schine’s humorous take on a lifetime of mental lapses.

By Cathleen Schine
Photograph: Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

Ever since I hit 50, everyone I know has begun to complain about word retrieval. My friends have started to devote their free time to crossword puzzles, sudoku and memorizing poetry. For them, forgetfulness is a sudden, alarming shift from clarity and precision and eloquence to halting vagaries, the mental equivalent of needing reading glasses. It’s one of the inconveniences of leaving youth behind, like acquiring jowls or frown lines. But for me, nothing has changed at all. I have always lived in this land where everyone looks familiar but no one has a name.

I have no memory. I don’t mean I suffer from dementia, or even the creeping word loss of middle age. I mean that from a very early age I have lived in a vague, timeless valley ringed by towering mountains of what I have forgotten: monumental events and facts of my own life; friends’ faces; delightful lyrics; eminent names, and intimate names too; dates both historical and personal; engaging plots; brilliant performances on stage, screen and street corners; and whole songbooks of lovely, lost melodies. In the quiet, obscure landscape of my memory there are, of course, occasional intense, random details I vividly remember, which means my life is rich and full of surprises. And as my friends have begun to catch up, this forgetful life has become less lonely.

“That book . . . the one about . . . you know . . . ” I say.

“By what’s his name?” Sarah says.

“No, the other one, the other one . . . ” Molly says.

“Oh, that book!” Sarah cries.

“That one, yes, that one!” I say.

“By her!” Molly says, and we all nod happily.

This conversation took place in a publisher’s office a year or so ago: a writer, an editor and an agent, all of us the same age, all of us waving our arms and nodding vigorous encouragement to the others, as if we were hunting dogs, huge-pawed puppies in the woods of middle-aged memory just learning to retrieve dead ducks, gingerly, in our big slobbery jaws. Scientists call this inability to recall a name “TOT,” or tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. It has something to do with the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortices. I’m sure there are scientific names for many of the varieties of memory challenges I live with, though few, I suspect, with such a jolly, colloquial ring as TOT.

A few years ago I visited my high school boyfriend and his wife at their house. It was the first time I had seen him in years. He put on a blues CD.

“This is great,” I said. “Who is it?”

He stared at me, clearly appalled. “Son House,” he said, coaxingly. “You introduced me to his music.”

Later that day I remarked that it was odd that I had barely heard of the Grateful Dead, much less listened to their music, until one of my children made a joke about Deadheads. Were they not popular when we were in high school?

Again, the dismayed look. Then, “You and I went to hear them in concert at the Fillmore East.”

I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t blame you: It was the 1960s—those were the days—but no, sorry, not a druggy thing. A memory thing. Son House and the Grateful Dead just . . . slipped my mind. I like that expression. Things do seem to just slip from memory, lightly, unceremoniously, like socks dropping to the floor, unnoticed, when you transfer the laundry from the hamper to the washing machine.

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