11 April 2010

Off the Cuff

Just off the cuff here.

I am working on a blogpiece of some length touching on events of childhood visits to my grandparents' farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Been working on this piece for some time. The date where it is stored in the Blogger Dashboard astonishes me:
9/30/09. I have been slogging away at this piece, albeit in a sometimes desultory fashion, now for six months and 10 days. Or so.


In the mean time, after I started that piece, I have published a couple of others.

And I thought it was high time for another.

As the title suggests, this blog is pure spew. Just me tapping away on my tippy-tappy laptoppy, sitting here at my accustomed perch in a corner at a local Village Inn Pancake House. And, its nature being such, it might end up demonstrating why most of my pieces are more planned out! We'll see.

A blog is supposed to have a bit of spontaneity about it, isn't it? A journal-like quality of frequent postings? That sort of thing?

The Red Wheelbarrow has never been a thing of frequent postings, anyway. And I do feel a little guilty about it!

Well, it is what it is and it will be what it will be.

For the moment, though, I'd like to talk just a little about the vagaries of memory. I wrote "vagaries of memory" out of a kind of lazy impulse. It is a hackneyed phrase, isn't it?

But, looking up "vagary" in my online dictionary I find this definition:

"an unexpected and inexplicable change in a situation or in someone's behavior."

Fantastic! Could not be more apt to my discussion here.

After writing a few paragraphs on the legendary Bucks County farm piece, I felt like running them by my two brothers, Bill and Rog, to see how my brief sketches of a few places and things compared with their memories of them. I sent them each an email with my descriptions and a few questions.

They each responded very quickly, and it launched a short but intense discussion among the three of us about some details of the old farm that we took such pleasure in visiting when we were kids.

Our memories, needless to say, differed. For instance, in talking about a marvelous and ancient machine, The Corn Sheller, out in the barn: I remember it clearly as being painted a dullish red-brown with fading yellow trim, while both brothers have no memory of it being painted at all. We even differed over what it was called. To me there is no question that it was The Corn Sheller, but my elder brother, Bill, who is 6 years older than me and thus should remember better calls it The Corn Shucker.

Hmmmmm. . .

Even more interesting is the way those vagaries have rendered our memories of the physical landscape at the farm. Back behind the main house there were a couple of ancient and fascinating outbuildings. Both were square, thick-walled stone buildings. One had been an old smokehouse, with the other being called The Woodshed.

I recall us being slightly forbidden to go in these buildings, and so we went in them when we could get away with it. The Smokehouse had not been in use for years. It was a dirt-floored, empty square. On hot summer days it was a great refuge from the heat, being naturally cool, but there was really nowhere to sit nor much of anything to do in there. The Woodshed I remember as very dark and somewhat scary and definitely forbidden. The main thing in there was a big stump on the floor with a hatchet's blade buried in it. This darkly suggested a place where chickens had been beheaded, and there was a delicious scariness in it for us.

But before I make the mistake of speaking too much for "us," let me show how that could be a big mistake.

Though we visited our grandparents' farm many times in our childhoods, and surely skulked around and daringly crept inside these two small old buildings lots of times, they show up very differently in our three distinct brotherly memories. Or, more accurately, they don't show up there.

In the ensuing 40 years since we were kids, our mental landscapes of the farm have shifted and altered, blurred here and there, sometimes changed completely. Those outbuildings, The Smokehouse, The Woodshed: they have flickered and fluxed, and in some cases winked out entirely.

Roger, 15 months older than me, does not remember The Woodshed at all. And Bill had this to say:

"But strange - I don't remember anything about any smokehouse, even after reading Jim's description of it's location."

As the three of us continued to compare memories by email, it came back to me once again that memory is not any kind of a documentary, recording function. We are constantly revising and rewriting the scripts of our lives. We cobble together this memory with another, far removed in space or time. We visualize things people have told us and then swear we were present where we could not have been. Even with single objects or events, we all color these in our own ways, according to the mysterious dictates of our own personalities. My memory landscape contains a barn with an old wooden red and yellow painted corn shelling machine. My brothers' show a different device.

Memory is a creative function.


  1. Bruce "over your shoulder" AlbrightApril 11, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    Memory is a tricky, squishy thing.I have had the experience of having a distinct and vivid memory, only to shown incontrovertibly that it was either partially or totally incorrect. And what an odd feeling that is.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Bruce. I love comments! Yeah, I, too, remember many things that never happened. We are all unreliable narrators. Also fascinating to me is how this whole quality of individual memory affects the writing of history. Since history is based on an aggregate of individual stories, and often relies on primary sources, and finally is one writer's opinionated judging and shaping of all this material, think how many times those "sins of memory" act on each other in complicated ways to produce a final product. I'm not saying such effects make all history "bunk"(in Henry Ford's term). I'm just saying that the search for some kind of truth in the writing of history is an utterly fascinating and fantastically tricky undertaking.