Memory Fails Me

Scooping up the two aces, she adds them to her pile, her total now at 13 pairs. Turning over a nine of clubs, she puts her head to one side, making a show of thinking about her next move, but we both know it is just a show. She reaches across the table to pick up the nine of hearts I turned over at least four moves ago. At least I assume that’s what she’s going for: I can’t remember whether it’s third or fourth in that row or was it in the next row altogether? Confidence personified, she doesn’t even look at the card before adding the presumed pair to her haul. Challenged, she displays them in perfect good humour: two nines, all right.  I’m on fire, she crows, clapping her hands before getting ready for her next move.

This self-congratulatory exuberance might seem a bit, well, unsportsmanlike, but we can cut her some slack here: my opponent is only five years old. In the play itself, I cut her no slack at all. Working as hard as I can, my objective is to hold her to a draw. These days, my rare wins are almost entirely a matter of luck.   

For the last half-century or so I’ve been deferring to the younger set: it’s part of every human culture I’m familiar with, maybe a part of our biology. But somehow, in the last year or two, the balance of power has shifted.  Gone completely are the days when I played to let this preschooler win, deliberately passing on pairs I could have picked up so she could have them. Now we’re at it, tooth and nail: my determination all I have against what looks suspiciously like a photographic memory.

Oh, I could still take her in contests that depend on a skill she hasn’t developed yet, or things she hasn’t learned yet: cribbage, with its adding; Scrabble®, with its spelling. But if it’s just raw brain power — particularly straight memory — I’m in trouble. It surely won’t be long before she’s spotting me some pairs just to keep the match interesting. My Memory handicap, as it were.

Ironically enough, I can’t quite remember when my day-to-day memory started being a handicap, rather than a reliable performer. When did I start forgetting why I’d gone down into the basement, or stop remembering the names of people I worked with a few years ago, or first leave a cup of tea in the microwave overnight, or not be able to call up the word for, you know, that thing? When did I first say, Now why was I telling you that?, having lost the destination in the conversational journey? My parents’ set — octogenarians all — have been muttering about this for a few decades, I think; my sexagenarian friends (an age category nowhere nearly as hot as it sounds) are now well into their own muttering stage.

My family doctor tells me that her neurologist husband tells her that this is all Entirely Normal: oddball memory lapses are not something to be fussed about, if all else is normal. I’m betting he’s just a quadragenarian kid. It’s so easy to be reasonable about something you don’t suffer from yourself: If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also improves the perspective no end. And anyway, how can I know if all else is normal? That’s sort of relying on the faulty circuit to diagnose itself, isn’t it?

And so I work on the coping skills, struggling to overcome Entirely Normal forgetfulness with Completely Abnormal self-discipline. Keep purse on shoulder or the office desk : check! Keep glasses on nose or by the bed: check! Respond to every appliance beep immediately: partial check! Substitute sound bites for conversational black holes: occasional check! It’s getting tough to even remember all the memory-assistance protocols I should be using.

Yet if my memory can’t be what it once was, it seems needlessly cruel that it only fails when I call on it, never when it comes calling on me. Some memories are all too clear: standing partner-free on the side of the gym through countless after-school sock-hops, being ridiculed by one teacher in high school, being rude to another, hearing the shrieks that meant my 12-year-old son had a broken arm, undergoing my first colonoscopy.  Where is this total recall when I need to give someone my telephone number unexpectedly?

If only cruelty were the worst of it: it seems downright diabolical that my memory is failing just when I need it the most. As the modern conveniences take me more and more online, I swear I add a new username and password to my list every month, each with an impossible amalgam of dos and don’ts. Do be difficult to guess. Don’t all be the same. Do have enough digits to strain even a young memory. Don’t be written down anywhere. Security is in direct conflict with sustainability.

Maybe a different element of the information technology world can help me here. I could take a lesson from that old software development adage: If there’s a bug you can’t fix, highlight it and call it a feature. That’s it: that full mug of tea in the microwave was cleverly pre-positioned last night as part of my new morning efficiency initiative. Yeah, that’s it. Now can anyone tell me why, exactly, I was talking about tea?

Where the hell is a five-year-old when you really need one?

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6 Responses to Memory Fails Me

  1. Danielle says:

    My “remembory” sure isn’t like it used to be either!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Danielle – I wonder whether 10-year-olds ever fuss about this…. By my observation of 5-year-olds, I suspect that might be the high point in our memory careers!

  2. Susan Wright says:

    Delightful post Isabel. I too use coping techniques, much the same as yours…everything has its place and it had better be there or else. I’m also trying to break myself of the habit of doing 5 things at once. You know what I mean, as I’m heading out to the car I throw in a load of laundry, pick up newspapers to toss in the recycle bin and wipe down the kitchen counter. By the time I’ve finished doing the “along the way” stuff I’ve completely forgotten why I was heading to the car in the first place. So I’ve resigned myself to being less “efficient” but more on the ball!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Such a shame to have to give up parallel processing – it made possible so many ages/stages – life in school, then with small children and school, then with kids and work. But you’re right, the presumed efficiency gains sort of wither on the vine at this age/stage, as I stand there wondering what I was heading to do. Just as the time wasted looking for things overpowers the time it would have taken to keep it organized in the first place.

  3. Marion says:

    I can conceive of how we forget something – the thought, name or event that we forget just goes out of our mind – maybe a brain cell dies or a nerve synapse stops working, I can logically link it to a physical thing. But what happens when we remember it again? Where dies it come from? Where was it and what was it doing in the meantime that meant we had no access to it? That’s what bothers me – that for an indeterminate period of time, there was some sort of a fog … that later, for no apparent reason, clears. I’d really like to hear a neurologist explain that one.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – A quick Google suggests that memories don’t go away, they are merely suppressed in the name of efficient cognition. So maybe the suppression mechanism goes wonky. OK, that last bit wasn’t on Google – or not that I saw…

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