Memory is a funny thing.
I’m just back from my silver wedding anniversary trip to an island we visited on our honeymoon, Kefalonia (Κεφαλονιά).
Work, not to mention life in general, had been pretty hectic for both of us on the run up to our break, so it wasn’t until we were flying out that we realised we should have looked at our honeymoon snaps to see what had changed since we couldn’t remember very much of how the Ionian Islands had been back then. We also realised we’d forgotten any Greek we might have known with the exception of a few words kalimera, kalispera, oxi, thalassa (καλημέρα, καλησπέρα, όχι, θάλασσα e.g. good morning, good evening, no, sea) a combination of which isn’t likely to lead to much of a conversation. Thank goodness for smart phones, 3G and translation websites.
I’m glad to say that despite our forward planning, we had a really lovely time on an island which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of the friendliest people. But memory, as I say, is a funny thing. A visit to Fiskardo where we had definitely been twenty-five years ago, didn’t ring any bells. ‘I sort of remember that bit of the quay’ I said. ‘That restaurant was definitely there,’ said my husband. But it was impossible to work out what had changed. I’ve since come home, looked at the honeymoon photos and it’s all still a blank. Back in 1993, we didn’t actually take photographs of ‘that bit of quay’ or ‘that restaurant’ so we have nothing to compare.
Memory is like a suitcase we carry around with us, discarding and adding things as time passes, losing things, sometimes even accidentally packing other people’s things and thinking they’re ours. We so often get all the priorities wrong: it’s like leaving a flattering shirt behind, yet for no good reason keeping the shoes that rub your feet raw.
I’m as bad as anyone. The things that hurt, wounded and damaged in my life embedded themselves deeper in my memory than many moments of love or laughter. I don’t know why that is, or why I let them. Some memories can still make me cry if I’m in the wrong frame of mind. Worse still, focussing on the bad memories can obliterate the good ones. Words from the reading at our wedding ‘love keeps no record of wrongs’ is something which should be tattooed to my eyeballs so I remember them.
One of the revelations I had when I started writing seriously again was mentally revisiting my childhood in South Wales. We moved there when I was eight and I was deeply unhappy about the whole thing. I remained deeply unhappy about it until I went to university. In the years after that, the negative impression grew into something monstrous. I focussed entirely on how I’d missed my grandparents whom I was used to seeing every weekend; missed the kind of school I’d wanted to go to; missed the soft rolling pasturelands and pretty villages of Berkshire; missed the friends I’d left behind and would never see again and having them replaced by bullies worse than any I’d encountered before. And then one day in 2015, I saw a writing prompt about a walk in a wood at midnight. I hadn’t long received an email from an old school friend. She’d revisited the South Welsh village where we’d lived on a whim, perused both our houses as much as she could without getting arrested and had a look around our old haunts. ‘Whatever you do,’ she said. ‘Don’t go back. It’ll ruin all your memories.’ But I’d forgotten my memories. The prompt changed everything. I recalled walking by the river, playing on a sandbank, observing wildlife, talking to the trees, imagining in the dell. Most often I used to do this alone (especially the talking to trees part) but I had drawn a detailed map showing where all the magic places were. My friend was the only one I had ever shown it to. Writing a story about that feeling of connection with the beautiful Welsh countryside and the friend who had been the only person who understood, somehow unlocked all lovely things I’d packed up, the way my map must have been packed up with my discarded belongings by my parents after I left home. For the first time, I started to forget the sense of loss for a place which had never been as perfect as I’d remembered and for things that might never have been, I forgot the loneliness and the bullying. I remembered the wild mountains and mysterious streams, the heathery slopes and the wild seas. A great many of the stories in Kindling came from that unlocked suitcase of memories, even more went into The Cluttering Discombobulator.
I know that I’m fortunate in that the bad memories I have are very much what a great many people, if not the majority suffer at some point or other, even though it didn’t seem so at the time. I was bullied, I had my heart broken, I broke a heart, I’ve been so lonely I thought I would shatter into pieces and dissolve into dust, I’ve been betrayed and lied about, I’ve been bereaved. At the time those seemed too enormous to bear. And I still don’t know why I let those memories haunt me rather than remember why a smell or an expression makes me laugh when it must connect to something lovely.
I haven’t suffered the appalling abuse mental and physical of many I know and grieve for. They have much more to forgive, much more to forget. I hope I don’t underestimate that. But I also hope that one day each of them will be able to forgive and move on since forgiveness is not for the person forgiven but for the forgiver. It’s their chance to say – no matter what you did, I will not let you ruin my life any more.
Yes memory is a funny thing. Painful remembrances can make that suitcase heavy with anguish whereas happy ones can make feel as if it’s full of feathers. It doesn’t hurt to go through our luggage from time to time and chuck out the things we don’t need so that we can travel light with joy, leaving behind the people who don’t and never did deserve our attention and concentrating instead on those who do; including ourselves.
So much for the introspection. Going back to trying to remember our honeymoon. Now of course, as well as being a long time ago, we were sailing from island to island. Most of our photographs are of harbours, sea, other boats, the life-long friends we made and of course each other looking young, thin and nimble. We can recall eating in tavernas under starlit skies, walking through wild thyme on the abandoned island of Kalamos, feeding the fish with bits of tiropitakia (τυροπιτακια – a kind of pastry filled with feta cheese), the phosphorescence in the sea when we swam at night and my husband’s somewhat frenzied (and ultimately futile) battles with mosquitoes.
Obviously we were too busy being romantic to notice much. Or something.
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.