The level of truth in memories, like history, depends on the ability and desire of the teller to stick to the real facts of the narrative when memories are voiced and passed on. Sometimes, if a memory has been recounted enough times with a certain bit of deviation from the actual facts, then the telling of it changes the memory, even for those who were present at the original event and, at one time, knew what really happened. It makes me a little crazy when people misremember things and reshape events based on compromised memories.
I have a cousin who is thirty years older than I. She and her husband traveled all over the world in their youth. I used to go to their house for dinner fairly often back in the day. I will call her Millie and her husband Max. Millie and Max always downed a substantial amount of wine at dinner, and before long Millie launched into tales of their travels. She would vastly embellish, while Max would quietly interject with his modifications. For instance, Millie would describe their arrival in some country in the Caribbean on a moonlit night with the scent of jasmine in the air. Max would comment that they arrived at dusk in the midst of a massive rainstorm and all he remembers smelling was jet fuel. Millie would say that they were invited to dine with the American ambassador and that when they arrived for dinner, twelve men dressed as toreadors rolled out a red carpet from their car to the door of the house. Max would take another sip of wine and comment that two men wearing red T-shirts and baseball caps placed a doormat at the threshold for them to wipe their feet on before entering. Millie would refill her glass and tell that the ambassador’s six purebred Great Danes ran to the door to greet them; and Max would say it was actually two Dachshunds and a loudly yipping Chihuahua. As the two of them drank more wine and narrated, Millie’s stories became increasingly extravagant and farfetched while Max’s corrections became increasingly mundane. The result was excellent entertainment. Millie would say that the hotel manager of the Grand Hotel in Bangkok sent complimentary mango sherbet to their room upon their arrival, and Max would say that actually they found a half-eaten mango on top of the TV. And so on.
If I outlive my husband, one of the things I will miss most when he is gone is access to his memories. Between the two of us, we can manage to piece together a tolerably accurate account of our past. However, if he outlives me, then I will be in serious danger of being maligned when he misremembers, which he does with some regularity these days. This is not necessarily a function of age, since my children seem to misremember with regularity as well. Am I the only one who has a clear picture of our past?
For the record, I did not take my own bed sheets to the hotel in Maui, I have never kissed a cat on the lips (do they even have lips?), I did not think Jamarcus Russell would turn the Raiders around, I did not mow the lawn while in labor, I never wore flip-flops to a wedding, I did not bring tofu and broccoli for snack at my children’s soccer games, I only chased the wild turkeys out of the yard wielding my son’s trumpet once (or maybe twice, but not repeatedly), Scary Movie and Shaun of the Dead did not frighten me (well, only a little bit), I have never eaten a pound of cheese at one meal, I did not bring a megaphone to Little League Baseball games, my children loved the homemade from-scratch birthday cakes I baked for them right up until they discovered I put pureed tomatoes in them, I did not convince the manager at the grocery store to give me the last metal watering can for free (I simply bargained him down from $25 to $5 for it, to the astonishment of the checker and the bagger, who had no idea you could bargain for things at a grocery store), when I sent my niece and nephews seaweed for Hanukah I also sent them some pretty wonderful chocolate (I would never send just seaweed), I only got lost for one hour and not a whole day trying to find Atlantic City (I come from Cali, I turned left instead of right when I reached the ocean, so shoot me). AND I did not knock over a priceless statue at the Rodin Museum in Paris. It wobbled, only slightly. My husband grossly exaggerates the amount of movement of that statue. Do not believe a word of any of it.
When my children misremember things in such a way as to shed a positive light on my husband and a negative light on me, he says nothing and gives me that smug little smile. If they want to blame me for losing the keys to our rental car in New Hampshire, which was his trick, not mine (I put the keys in his pocket and where they went next has nothing to do with me), just see how quiet he is. But if they claim that he threatened to take their bedroom door off the hinges if they slammed it again, well then watch him mount a protest worthy of the SNCC. Meanwhile, I have to live with the fact that my children are convincing each other that I made them eat moldy bread, and I am incapable of setting the record straight on this. Why is it that the truth becomes the property of the one who best tells the story?
Yes, on the bottom of my emails I close my signature with “The lines between fiction and nonfiction blur and in the end all that matters is the story itself, how much of it is truth and how much imagined is of little consequence.” Theoretically, when it comes to narrative, I do believe this. But when it comes to narrative about me, I take exception to being misrepresented. I will come back to haunt my children if they insist that I fed them rotten food to save money. But if, on the other hand, they thank me for all those lovingly-baked homemade chocolate birthday cakes with real whipped cream, then I will leave them in peace.
Who could find fault with such a birthday cake?