The Party Trick of Memory

What is the role of memory? I started two of the books from my library book stack simultaneously and they both drew me in so immediately I was alarmed I couldn’t actually read them both at the same time. So I read them back to back. Though they deal with different themes, settings, and social issues, and were written by different authors almost two decades apart, I found a strange confluence between the two, and weeks later, still can’t stop thinking about them.

Both books are at their core about memory. Both narrators boast of picture-perfect memory. Their memory of detail is so spot-on that others show them off as party entertainment. As if memory were a game.

The darker side of this trick is how it came about:

Young Hiram in The Water Dancer loses his mother when his plantation owner father sells her.

Carrie in The Dive From Clausen’s Pier has a father who abruptly leaves her and her mother when Carrie is only four.

These early losses coalesce around the core of who these two people become. Both remember details of every trivial moment since. Everything but the details of their losses. Like the missing parents themselves, those moments seem truly lost.

Mike always teased me about my memory, about how I could go back years and years to what people were wearing on a given occasion, right down to their jewelry or shoes. He’d laugh and ask what the weather had been, or who’d had a light beer and who a regular one, and I could almost always tell him. That was how I resurrected the past: people in their outfits, or who sat next to whom, and from there on to what we talked about, what we were like at a certain time.

-The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer (2002)

I would hear others speak, but I did not so much hear them as see them, their words taking form before me as pictures, chains of colors, lines, textures, and shapes that I could store inside of me. And it was my gift to, at a moment’s beckoning, retrieve the images and translate them back into the exact words with which they had been conjured…

-The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019)

So, what’s the deeper meaning of being able to remember everything? I started thinking about my own life, and what I remember. How my life is shaped by what I remember, and equally, by what I don’t.

Memory shapes much of my writing. Whether real or imagined. What are the moments that matter—for me, or for one of my characters? Not a thousand and one details, not a party trick, but what in that conjuring shapes the moment for them, or for me? It’s all very clear when you are embodied, whether in yourself or another character. There’s no question then, as we try to do something. A dive off a pier, a dance across the water, a holding of some talisman we believe can get us where we need to go, whatever strange land or landscape “there” manifests as. But later, it’s not always so clear. Because someone else will remember something entirely different. Or will count it as inconsequential, think we are too sensitive, cling to some other memory we don’t have.

My siblings and I remember many of the same stories, but they don’t feel the same to us. We were different characters in different roles when these scenes unfurled. My younger sister wasn’t even there for most of my childhood. And we three older ones weren’t there for most of hers.

It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.

-Henry David Thoreau

In the books, both Hiram and Carrie leave home and return, but they come back changed. The place changed on the inside because they see it a different way now. As they move beyond the immediate details, the intrinsic meaning of home is altered.

I think memory at its core is there to remind us of what we don’t know and can’t know. We can only really look from the inside out. No matter how many details we can recall about the past, we can only move forward into the unknown.

What are your thoughts about memory?

4 thoughts on “The Party Trick of Memory

  1. A lovely, thoughtful post. I’ve read “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier” and “The Water Dancer” is on my to-read list. Odd that they both reference water!

    Memory is indeed a fascinating topic, especially for a writer. Also neurologically. They say that when you remember an event, you are not actually remembering the event, but remembering your memory of the event.

    Memory, and the stories about ourselves that we remember, are also core to our identities. That’s why memory loss is so frightening. Who would you be if you were truly living only in the present moment because you could remember nothing that came before? I think about this a lot when I practice mindfulness. I wonder if I might be able to truly surrender if I had no memories.

    Certainly, there’s a lot of richness here for the imagination.


  2. After college, my best friend and I traveled to Europe together, yet our memories rarely mesh. I think this is because I was looking up, while she was window shopping. Only the frightening stay in the Edinborough YWCA impacted up similarly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it funny how it works? Even though you were probably together for the whole time. We probably all have a reel going in in the background of our heads during every present moment so it looks different depending on the Point-of-View. I love your description, Ann. What a good idea for two characters in a story, too. Hmmm……


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