Great Aunt Edith
Give Nature Just Enough

Can't Remember? Forget About It

category_bug_journal2.gif On 22 February 2001, Barbra Streisand was feted by the American Film Institute (AFI) with its Life Achievement Award. The expected bevy of stars, producers, directors and friends were on hand to offer their tributes and reminiscences of the lady’s career. When it came Jack Nicholson’s turn at the podium, he said he was puzzled when the Institute asked him to participate because he “didn’t remember being in a Streisand picture.”

Given the stature of Ms. Streisand in the universe of movie stars, that revelation was undoubtedly delivered as an ironic joke. But it is not inconceivable that it was also true. As my friend Richard, a couple of days ago, related this incident to me, I was struck by the impossibility, in the fullness of our lives, of recalling even some important events.

Mr. Nicholson appeared in the Streisand-starring film, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in 1970. Prior to that, he had made 18 movies and he has made 39 more since then. Also, in the same year as “Clear Day,” he was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Five Easy Pieces. So with the hoo-hah attendant to such a successful movie and the many successes and awards in subsequent years, he can be forgiven, certainly, if his one appearance in a lesser role with Ms. Streisand had slipped his mind.

How much of our lives, I wonder, disappears into the mists of the past never to be regained? There is so damned much to remember in even a simple life.

In an interesting piece on aging and memory, Laura Common reports that we each have a 100 billion neurons (brain cells) that collectively contain trillions of connectors.

“Even one neuron,” she writes, “may store fragments of many memories, ready to be called up if a particular network of connections is activated. One scientist likens the remembering process to a switchboard of flashing, blinking signals sending and receiving messages.”
- 50Plus, June 2000

"Activated" is the key word in that quote and, it seems to me, activation is dependent on serendipity. When I was first sifting through boxes and envelopes of unorganized, old photographs to compile my Timeline (it begins here), I was astonished at the memories that came flooding back – places and people and events I hadn’t thought of, in some instances, since they happened. Without the photos to trigger the memories, it is doubtful I would have remembered them at all.

That quite naturally led to the question of what in my life I will never recall because there is nothing - no photo, letter or piece of memorabilia - to activate the memory.

Even with a trigger, memories are sometimes gone. It was in 1970 that my professional life took on enough complexity to require a daily calendar in which I also recorded my personal appointments. I have saved those calendar books and every few years I page through some of them.

Look here: three evenings a week for the better part of 1974, the name Robert is inscribed. Who could he be? If I was seeing him that frequently, I was undoubtedly sleeping with him, but he’s a blank to me now.

In the mid-eighties, I was having lunch regularly and the occasional dinner with someone named Moira. Huh? Nothing comes to mind in any manner about this woman.

What of ourselves do we lose by what we cannot remember? Or perhaps, in the case of painful memories that have drifted away by accident or design, what do we gain? For all we know, Jack Nicholson had preferred to forget his movie-making experience with Barbra Streisand, but chose to be a gentleman about her gala award event.

The title of Ms. Common’s excellent memory and aging article, which I unabashedly have stolen, wittily sums up the problem: Can’t Remember? Forget About It.


I used to pride myself on my memory. It was simply I remembered everything that I remembered well and forgot everything that I had forgotten well. I never realized the backside. It wasn't until a friend had asked how I liked a specific SUV and I replied that I never drove one. He looked at me kind of puzzled and said, "You drove one for over a year, 6 years ago". The memory was gone. I planted a substitute to avoid further issues. I still can't picture the vehicle but I know that he speaks the truth. It was red. I know it was red, right?

Take Care

For some bizarre reason, my calendars from 1987-88 managed to survive the garbage bin when I moved to NYC from Los Angeles. Leafing through them, I took a trip down memory lane by viewing appointments and sales calls which brought back vivid pictures. Glad I could inspire this posting. What made Jack's comment so that he was telling the truth.

I explain my inability to recover anything much from childhood and adolescence to being an only child. As I've gotten older, I've become more aware of how not having siblings reduces the power of memory. When I see siblings together now, filling in and coaching each other about the past, I am made aware of a new and, yes, painful dimension to being without brothers/sisters. A sibling supplements one's own memory, fleshes it out with forgotten details, etc.

The problem deepens with the death of parents, and is made worse by leaving the community in which I grew up. Now, most of memory from the long ago--for me--is occupied by images in the form of photos. They serve, but not really as memory triggers so much as sources of inspiration for inventing memories to go with them.

The only upside is the need to exercise the imagination. In effect, invention has to some degree replaced memory for me. This may sound implausible, but as a novelist I have ample reason to believe it. And although the title of the blog my wife and I produce might suggest that drink is part of what's at issue, I don't think it is.
Of course it's possible I did think so, but now can't remember.

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