Memory seems to take different forms for everyone. Not only can two people remember the same event entirely differently, but those same two people might have seen that event through completely different lenses to begin with. Some recollecters work with words, transcribing each detail from eyesight to scratchy handwriting to memoir. Some document life by being in the frame of every photograph, snapshots to be glanced at for reminders of passing times. Some prefer to be the figure behind the camera lens, making and maintaining the memories digitally, but never entirely there in the photos in their possession.
This weekend, I had the absolute privilege of attending my dad’s college reunions. We were wearing fairly silly costumes (but by no means the silliest, nor the least tasteful) in the school colors. The entire campus was filled with alumni whose ages ranged from this year’s graduates to those from the year 1939. Everyone was chattering away, catching up, and making up for lost time. Even I, a high schooler from another state altogether, began the weekend knowing one person and finished it with several people with whom I would very much like to stay in touch. My family stayed with that of my dad’s friend from college, and they quickly began telling stories about their lives from the past ten years or so, and that was what made me start thinking: These people have not seen each other in a decade, but they can still pick up right where they left off in their friendship. Yes, social media helps, but so do their different takes on their shared memories. So I thought a little bit more about it, and I realized that I remember some of the events they were describing very differently from the way the stories were being told. I don’t know whether that is from circumstance or from my initial small-child perceptions of those events, or just that my powers of long-term memory were significantly more selective at that age. But the way I remember them is as images, with a few sounds tossed in. The way my parents remember them is as stories.
I heard a lot of stories this weekend. When you put several hundred alumni of the same educational institute in the same geographical space, and when it’s still recognizable as the place in which they spent some of the most important years of their lives, and when you bring in multiple generations of their families, that’s what you get. Everyone shares their memories of their shared experiences. That’s a given. And the memories are extraordinarily varied, just as the sheer number of memories being shared this weekend was phenomenal. But there was one common factor, one that I have found to be in common across social media, college reunions, journalism, and blogging. Memories are stories. Let me repeat that. Memories are stories. The question is never “Who remembers it best?” The question is always, “What is the best part of the story?”
The first time I set foot on this particular college campus, I was much, much younger. Most of my memories of that visit center around fireworks, cotton candy, a play about a dragon and some princesses, and also an utterly phenomenal ice cream shop (the ice cream shop is still there for the record, and it’s just as phenomenal). The second time I was there, there was a ridiculous invasion of cicadas, which I remember vaguely but definitely not improminently. After that, it took nine years for my family to come back, and I was given a brief tour, of which I remember the names of the buildings and also a little bit of campus history. So I have been on campus before, yes, but this is the first visit that I will really remember, and it was a fantasy, a total immersion in memory lane for my dad and his fellow alumni, including my grandfather who was not present at this reunion but who will be at the next one. The thing is, I believe that it is a complete privilege to spend a weekend on memory lane alongside my dad (quite literally at one point in the weekend—there is a parade through the campus, and all of the alums and their families are in it. So, that’s probably the most physical manifestation of “memory lane” that I have ever seen) as he reconnects with a community he clearly loves.
My dad’s way of sharing his memories-turned-stories with me involves taking me around from building to building, explaining detailed history of each one, what his relation to that building was during his time as a student, and then giving me a brief tour of the building, He did the same with the gardens, and was even able to point out the windows of his old dorm rooms. I grew up on stories about the goings-on at these specific places, and only now do I have a real idea of the physical dimensions of the occurrences. I watched other families touring the campus, sharing memories of their own, and for some people it was simpler—an ongoing dialogue of which building was meant for what. Some kids who were there were gathering information peripherally, as their parents conversed with classmates, often telling stories about their shared time on that campus. But no matter the form it took, this weekend was a time and place for sharing memories.
I have always loved stories of any sort. Hearing about bygone events from those who experienced them firsthand is always going to be interesting for me. So when the question is asked, not “Who remembers it best?” but instead, “What is the best part of the story?” I find myself smiling, because the story always, changes, because new memories are made with each telling. The same memory may be at the center of a thousand tellings, but the best story made of the composite will always prevail.