The following article by David Strange was originally published on 15 May 2016.
Memory can be a confusing and flawed thing in historical writing, as well as in everyday life. I remember when I was writing a history of a church several years ago, one elder member pointed out that he was a charter member of the church.
The problem was, he was not.
The scrupulously honest elder gentleman had no intention of lying. It was just that his memory was playing tricks on him. He was absolutely, with-out-a-doubt, positive that he had joined the little church when it was formed in 1941. But the church minutes did not back him up. Not only did I not find him in that charter session; I found him in church records as joining the church well over a year later. Over the decades, he had simply misremembered that detail, and honestly, insistently remembered the facts differently, until faced with the original minutes.
That is THE major problem when writing history using people's memories as a source. Attorneys will tell you the same thing about court cases. Though a person may be "absolutely, positively sure" about the facts, those "facts" might well be only very inexact memories, very much smudged over time.
In the shorter term, our own daily memories can be a problem for most of us, each of us handling and storing those memories in different ways.
Embarrassingly, take myself as an example.
For some reason, I have always been able to remember business administration facts very well. I can, for example, sometimes quote, almost verbatim, motions that were made in meetings even years ago, who made them, and what discussion there was. Perhaps that is why I enjoy government administration so much and consider myself pretty good at such things.
But my other memory skills are too-often very weak. I tell people who ask something of me, that if they see me write it down, it will get done; but I must write it down. My wife, Bonnie, has said that I would have difficulty getting home if I lost my little calendar (we call it memory) book.
Indeed, I have three levels of memory that I carry with me. For scheduling, I used to carry the calendar book, but now use my smartphone calendar. In my pocket, I carry a wad of notes about things that need to be done fairly soon.
And finally, if there is something that absolutely needs to be done right away, I write a note on the palm of my hand. This one drives my wife crazy. She considers it unsanitary and "just not right." Making it worse for her, our daughter has inherited the habit. But I have a defense for this complaint on a level upon which there can be no argument. I quote the Bible, Isaiah 49:15-16, in which God himself says about remembering his people, .".. I will not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands..."
Hey, if it's good enough for God…
Now, if I can only remember where I put my pen.
Seriously, "fact" can be a tenuous thing when depending only on memory. This is constantly in my mind when I write about history, because "once it's out there, in black and white, it can't be taken back." Misremembered "facts" or even simple typographical errors can be forever harmful once written down. Such errors can be almost impossible to eradicate.
An association of churches to which I belong was formed in 1799. In its most important document, The Articles of Faith, were written the words, "We believe that the saints shall persevere in grace and that not one of them shall be lost." But in 1953, an unnoticed printing error changed "persevere" to "preserve." Even though this slight change made a pretty clear error in the annually-printed document, the mistake persisted until 1967 when a clerk made the correction, with some resistance from those who remembered back only a few years, that he was by then "trying to change the old paths." In 1971, another clerk changed the word back to the incorrect "preserve" and that held for nearly 15 more years until someone pulled out documents from the 1800's to prove what was truly "the old paths."
Such "black and white facts" can be even more troublesome when books are published with incorrect genealogy, incorrect history. It is something that should always be considered when doing research. When I helped develop a couple of cemeteries, the most important point I made with the owners was to quickly record good and accurate facts. Memory alone is such a fleeting thing.
But back to my memory books. As I said, I used to use them faithfully, depending on it with my life, much like people do today with smartphones. In 2006, when I was in Saltville, Virginia studying the Pioneer-era process of salt making, I had the great opportunity to work with some renowned paleontologists as we dug in prehistoric dung, arguing if the preserved (or is it persevered?) bits of straw found there had been eaten by mastodons or mammoths. The day was long, and I came to the motel room exhausted, took a shower, and went straight to bed.
While I slept, my loving wife decided to wash my filthy clothes for me. When I awoke, I noticed her sitting nervously, almost frightened, in a chair nearby.
"What's wrong?" I asked. Then I saw. My wonderful, life preserving book of memories with all its notes, contacts, and calendar was lying on a nearby table fluffed up like a big ball of wool. "I tried to dry it out!," she frantically declared, "but there's hardly anything left! I'm SO sorry!!"
And so, ink and memories washed away from the fabric of time.
But that's OK. In fact, it was kind of refreshing. For at least a year I was able to use the perfectly acceptable excuse for everything, "I'm sorry, my memory book was ruined…"
Sometimes it's OK to take a break from facts, misremembered or not.
Copyright 2016 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.