In Soledad Marimbo’s Retazos Una conversación con Sylvia Molloy, the Argentinian writer speaks about memory, writing, and the passage of time. When talking about two of the houses where she lived — her parent’s house in Argentina and one she owned in Long Island — Molloy talks about their similarities, specifically the courtyards. The two houses, due to some of the similarities, mingle within her mind, joining together into a memory that did not actually occur but that arose out of events that actually took place. For Molloy, one memory becomes a contaminación of the other; they become so entwined that, as she says, “in the end you don’t know what you are remembering, what you’re inventing, what you’re contaminating, but you get mixed up with the spaces.”
Molloy’s of contaminación to describe the merging of memories stood out to me. I have been thinking a lot about memory lately, and I have been fascinated by the ways that we construct our memories and their ever shifting perspectives depending on what stage of life we reflect upon them. I think back to George Takei thinking about the train ride him and his family took to the internment camp in World War II. Being a child at the time, Takei saw the train ride as a vacation, a happy event; however, looking back, he knows that his parents did not share the same view. He knows they were stressed, anxious, and scared, but they did not let the kids know. Takei concludes, “Memory is a wily keeper of the past, usually dependable, but at times, deceptive.”
Memory exists in our minds, and we imbue it with the experiences and knowledge that we gather as we move throughout our lives. While we think that it remains unchanging, even when we see events in a photograph or on the screen or when we hear it, it changes, it morphs, it becomes contaminated with everything that has entered into our lives since the initial creation of the memory.
Other times it was never our memory at all. When I was a kid, we ate boiled shrimp one night. I don’t know how old I was; I just know I was younger than five. I obviously didn’t like the texture, and instead of swallowing it at the dinner table, I kept it in my mouth until bedtime. My parents thought I ate it, but brushing my teeth and getting me ready for bed they discovered I had hidden it in my mouth, letting it linger there. Needless to say, I got in trouble for not eating my food.
My memory of this event is not my own. It is a construction based on stories that my parents told me growing up. It is contaminated with their perceptions of the event, not my own perceptions and feelings. This is not necessarily bad. It just shows that the memories we carry within us, whether we actually remember them or construct them based on what others tell us, move and shift within our minds.
When I think about the past, I think about snapshots. I rarely think about events in motion. I recall a closeup of my grandmother cradling my grandfather in the hospital during his final days. I think about our first dog’s butt flying out of the car window as I drove him to the park, and him hitting his head on the road. I think about sitting in a booth at Chili’s after work counting money. I recall sitting in the stands at high school football games. I remember throwing a baseball and hitting a friend in the head.
When I think about these moments, and more, I reconstruct them. I take what happened and paint them in a manner that, in essence, fits the current moment in which I recall them. Talking about the documentary A New Beginning and the man at the center of the film watching himself on screen, Lillian Smith states, “Man, watching himself. . . . We always try to remember, always paint a portrait of our experiences, distorting them, shaping, reducing, enlarging, giving them strange sharp colors or sometimes doing them in monochromes.” We take our experiences and create memories. We paint them, sometimes “distorting them,” sometimes “enlarging” them, sometimes softening them or creating sharp edges. In all of this, we contaminate them.
However, this contamination does not mean we harm the memories. Contamination, in this context, is not necessarily a negative thing. Rather, we take what has happened to us throughout our lives, what we experience at certain moments, and apply it to the memories locked away within our heads. Our lives inform our memories, both what happened at the moment we constructed the memory and what we experience since then. In this manner, the memory becomes more than just an event in the past. It becomes a story we create about ourselves. It becomes a story we create about others. It becomes a story that helps us navigate our lives.
When we think about memory in this way, we see that it does not remain sequestered in the past. It informs the present, relying on the present for its own creation, for its mere existence. When we stop thinking about the memory, it remains on our mind’s wall, collecting dust as spiders weave cobwebs over it. When we clean it off, it has changed. The disuse has altered it. The memory shifts.
Essentially, memory serves as a tool to help us navigate the world. It serves as a mechanism that explains our lives, our positions, our thoughts, our loves, our fears. It serves as a window for others to see what forms us, what constructs us, what makes us who we are today. These memories, though, are not “factual.” They are paintings that we have tweaked and fine tuned. They are sculptures we have chipped away at, forming them into the shapes that we want. They are our part of the collective experience, our perception based on our feelings at the time of their construction and our paths after the fact. They experience contaminación as time passes.