Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Why we need memories ... if only to give some significance to our lives

The island of Achill in Mayo holds wonderful memories for me of idyllic days spent on holidays with my three children when they were but knee-high to a grasshopper. On that island there is a place called The Deserted Village, like many a veritable crossroads scattered to the winds by the Famine, marked now only by an old graveyard and the bones of forgotten generations.

On one such faded gravestone, I recall vividly the inscription: 'Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal'.

We all have memories, some of us more than others. Memories are a tricky thing. They often aren't stable or reliable, changing with perception over time: they shift, as the passage of time affects them. And, of course, a lot us as we age sometimes find it difficult to remember aspects of last week, never mind yesteryear nor where we left those car keys.

There are songs and smells that bring you back to a moment in time more than anything else: so much conjured up with a few musical notes or the solitary whiff of a room. A song you didn't even pay attention to at the time, a place you didn't even know had a particular aroma.

The mother of my children, 10 years my junior, finds it hard to recall parts of her life, whereas I can remember much of my early childhood and, I truly believe, can remember even being born – coming down that 'tunnel', into the light and a mishmash of 'beings' collectively saying, 'there we go, a fine healthy baby boy'.

Let's not go there but I mention all this because research this week suggests few adults can remember events in their lives that happened prior to the age of three.

What that says of me I'm not sure but the journal Memory reports that psychologists have now documented that the age seven is when these earliest memories tend to fade into oblivion.

I have my doubts but those men in the white coats have long believed, based on interviews with us adults, that most people's earliest memories only go back to about age three. Freud coined the term 'childhood amnesia' to describe this loss of memory from the infant years

What I don't doubt is the remark by the study's co-author, Marina Larkina, fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, one of the world's leading research universities, who concludes: "Knowing how memory develops is critically important to understanding ourselves as psychic beings.

"Remembering yourself in the past is how you know who you are today."

Which brings me serendipitously to broadcaster Sally Magnusson's touching memoir, Where Memories Go, published this week by Hodder & Stoughton, and which I find moving, poignant, and so true, and so hard to put down.

Scottish-born Magnusson is the author of Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere – I kid you not, and please let's not go there either – and is the daughter of the celebrated Magnus Magnusson, he of Mastermind fame. Sally cared with her two sisters for her mother, Mamie Baird, herself a celebrated journalist, during her long struggle with dementia, until her death aged 83.

Her moving and honest account of losing a loved one day-by-day to an insidious disease is both deeply personal and a challenge to our society. Indeed a challenge to every one of us: for, I believe, faced with one of the greatest social, medical, economic and moral challenges of our times, society must reconsider – for so many of us are living longer – how we look after the most fragile among us.

As well as chronicling the anguish, the frustrations and the unexpected laughs and joys that she and her younger sisters experienced while accompanying their beloved mother on the long road that is dementia, Sally Magnusson has sought understanding from a range of experts and considers how we treat older people; what it means to be human.

An extraordinary memoir and manifesto in one searingly beautiful narrative, Sally Magnusson also had another motive for writing the book, she told her old stable-mates on BBC Breakfast this week. And that was to recall every memory she ever had of her mother while she still had the wherewithal to do so. While she could still call to mind her memories.

Some of us choose not to remember, perhaps because, as Barbra Streisand succinctly sings, 'What's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget', while others, myself included as I get older, cling to every cherished memory we possibly can.

What was it the novelist Saul Bellow said? "Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."

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