When Memory Doesn’t Speak

Several months ago I began writing a piece based on memories from a long ago journey I took. I decided I wanted to write strictly from memory, and not consult the journals I kept during my travels. It’s challenging, it’s interesting, and it’s fun even though I don’t know if most of what I’m writing is what really happened or something I made up, or something I’m making up even as I write.

But there’s another way I’ve been dealing memory lately that’s not so much fun. Rather it’s a familiar, um, challenge for many my age. The loss of facts. What is the name of that flower? Where did we have dinner two weeks ago, that place we loved? What is my cousin’s name, the one who lives in Idaho and I haven’t seen since we were ten years old?

Sometimes, seemingly out of the blue, I can’t remember the names of movies, or books, or authors, or even old friends. It’s embarrassing when I’m teaching, frustrating when I’m chatting with friends, and maddening when I’m writing.

This is from my journal, three days ago:

“Dammit! I can’t remember Camille’s cat’s name. The male. There’s Halcyon and there’s ____________. Not Spunky, that was a cat from a time back when. The cat whose name I can’t remember is that tuxedo that was the runt of the litter who grew up big and fat and who likes his naps.

A fat black and white cat relaxing confident the ground on a brown wood floor

Not Shorty. Not Smoky. Not Spunky.

“And the harder I try to remember, the more tense I become. My brain is getting all twisted up and cramped. My whole body responds; I can feel the tension. I’m chewing my lower lip.

Not Snooker or Snooky or Snookums.

“Is this how it feels to Alzheimer’s victims? Only more and all the time? This painful brain racking.

Sooty? Sorcerer? Serendipity?

“I imagine some mind midget, some tiny elf of a worker inside my brain, slamming open file cabinets and rifling through words and images, memories of that old fatty, sitting patiently by his bowl in the kitchen, thinking maybe if he just sits and stares at it, it will magically be filled. The heavens will open and tuna will appear.

Sidney? Stanley? Sammy?

“Beside me on the table where I write my iPad dings. A reminder from iCal of my 9:30 appointment. ‘Traffic is light,’ it says, ‘leave by 9:05.’

“I imagine a little ding like that will go off when I finally remember Camille’s cat’s name. I may be deep in writing today’s memories of Greece which is where I am in the piece I’m working on, allowing images and memories to come as they will and writing what I remember and what I believe I remember, not knowing which actually happened and which I am making up, or confusing from another journey, because that’s what the mind will do—

Serengeti. Spoleto. Spumoni

“— hand me words, names, images, places. That agitated, overworked little memory elf, eye shade askew, fingers bleeding, tossing out file after file, trying to come up with the correct answer because that’s its job.

“It tries Spunky again. Spunky, the beautiful smoky gray cat that Camille had for years, the two of us smuggling him into a no-pets-allowed apartment in San Francisco. Spunky who ran away from home and took up residence next door when Camille brought home another Corgi.

“But this cat, the one whose name still eludes me and my memory elf, this cat is probably snoozing in a patch of sunlight on comfy bed in St. Petersburg unaware of me, a continent away, struggling to remember his name. I must gather myself and my things for my date at writer’s camp where I’ll open my notebook and let memories of sailing in a small boat with five strangers from Tinos to Kea or some island whose name I don’t remember now, and maybe on the way to the cafe, while I’m listening to the news on NPR and hoping for light traffic as my iPad promised, the name of Camille’s cat will come to me. Or maybe I’ll simply forget I can’t remember it.

This ever happened to you? Do you have any memory tricks?

19 thoughts on “When Memory Doesn’t Speak

  1. Hi Judy,
    I tried contacting you via your website to see if it was okay if I came to your class tomorrow night on travel writing. I see that the course has started already, but if there is any possibility of me doing back homework to get caught up, I’d love the opportunity to learn from you. I am a flight attendant on corporate jets and would love some guidance on finding my writing voice. My email is erin_ivko@yahoo.com – hope to hear from you soon!

  2. What did I come in here for? Oh yes, … love this entire piece and picturing the frantic memory elf. Many years ago my younger
    s-elf went to introduce my BEST friend to someone at a party and forgot her last name. It was SMITH!

    • Hi Diane,
      Thanks for the great story! I am so relieved and comforted to hear from so many others, especially those younger than me, who have experienced this same thing. I wonder if we’ll ever forget each other’s names. Well, even if I forget your name, I’ll never forget your loveliness.

  3. This happens to me often. It’s really embarrassing when I go to introduce someone and have completely forgotten their name. Even when it’s someone I know quite well.

    • Jill I always forget names and since I said that so many times my brain believed it. So now I forget names. No. No. I remember names. I know names. Yes. Yes I do.

      Puff puff. Pant.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jill. And listen, if there’s sometime you can’t remember my name, let’s have a “sign” and I’ll remind you. (PS I’ve experienced this same thing, with people I know really well.)

  4. Thanks for speaking about that which is difficult to admit to, Judy. I find that in many conversations with contemporaries that names, words, etc. are forgotten. The main “trick” for me is to have compassion for myself and those similarly challenged. I also find asking whatever is I’m trying to remember out loud (where possible) to be helpful. xo from Donaleen

    • Hi Donaleen, how wonderful to read your comment. And thank you for the good advice, having compassion for ourselves. I find keeping a good sense of humor about it helps, too. And there’s so much comfort in knowing none of us is alone in this or other challenges life hands us.

      Thanks so much. It’s so good to hear from you.

  5. Judy,
    I share in your frustration with not being able to recall things like names and places when you want to. I enjoyed the responses from Vicki and Linda G.

    • Hi Arlene,
      I think this is a common frustration for many of us. Sometimes I can look things up, but other times, I just wait, hoping to either forget or that what I’m looking for will suddenly pop up like a jack-in-the-box. I love those surprises. They always make me laugh, and maybe groan a little too.

  6. Seriously, Judy, you’ll never know how comforting this was to read! I find myself in this position all too often. I tell myself it’s because I’m sleep- deprived, but you never know… It’s a relief to know it sometimes happens to others as well.

    Maybe it’s because as we age there are so many memories filed away they go into the “Redundant” cabinet? It’s always harder to retrieve them from there with so much dust covering the boxes. But most times, eventually, depending on the importance, they do come back.
    It’s all a question of exercising the patience you’ve developed over the years!
    How about “Solly?” That sounds about right.

    • Hi Vicki,
      Thanks for your commiseration. I like your image of those dust-covered boxes in the “redundant” cabinet. Wonder if this is why I’ve been having these sneezing fits so often lately.
      “Solly”? That’s getting close. I know it starts with an “s” and ends in a “y.”
      Actually, Vicki, I did remember it later that day and it’s a pretty funny story how it came to me. I’ll relate that in another blog, maybe. If I remember.

  7. Judy! What is this all about: ” … it’s a familiar, um, challenge for many my age.” You don’t buy into that [bad words] do you? I don’t deny age at all. I refute the entire stupid concept. Oh now I am gonna get going on my rant but I can’t, the 5:00 AM coffee just finished cooking.

    The answer will come out just like a little kid: as soon as you stop paying attention to it. I could not remember the name of a girl I went to school with. She wanted so hard to be a nun. Do you think I could remember her name? So I went to bed and was about to get to lalaland when BAM! I sprang out of bed like those Christmastime coursers and wrote it down. That’s how it works. Recalcitrant as a brat and twice as sneaky.

    Age indeed. For your penance you will write for 17 minutes about age that wouldn’t be.

    XO from Judy disciple #36,902

    • ha ha, Linda. I’m not bemoaning my age, really, just facing the reality that words, names, nouns, do sometimes hide in some folds of my brain somewhere. Just like I now have to wear readers to make out the fine print. And you’re so right about how the word or the name or the thing or the place suddenly finds it way out. Some time soon I’ll write about how and when the kitty’s name came to me.

      Hmmmm. The age that wouldn’t be.

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