Daily Archives: June 3, 2021

The “selective” nature of memory

It’s a funny thing about memory. I’m not talking about when you find yourself in a room and can’t remember why you’re there. I’m referring to what might be called selective memory.

It was 1967 or 1968, and Charles and I were newlyweds living in our own place. We were feeling quite grownup when we extended a dinner invitation to former college classmates who were now engaged.

It might have been the cheap Chianti that we were drinking, Aretha’s Respect on the stereo, or the fact that my girlfriend had a new bright yellow Dodge Charger. For whatever reason, during the course of the evening we set a date to drive from Chicago to Florida, get on a ship, and take the short sail to the Bahamas. This would not be anything of note to remember if we had been making a well-thought-out decision.

The four of us were all beginning teachers off for the summer, and we had no money. What we had were gas credit cards that could be used at restaurants as well as gas stations. In our thinking at the time, these credit cards were all we needed. We would take turns driving the Charger and eliminate the need for a hotel on the trips to and from Florida.

I have no memory of the long drive or how we paid for the hotel in the Bahamas. What I remember is how horrified we were when we could not use our gas credit cards at restaurants in the Bahamas. We ate a lot of hot dogs in Nassau.

On the way back to Chicago, we stopped at a nice restaurant in a small hotel in Georgia. Now that we were back in the United States, we planned to use our gas credit cards to pay for our meals. I don’t recall what the rest of us ordered, but I remember that Charles ordered the most expensive entrée on the menu, “Duck a la Orange.” Seemingly pleased about the expensive selection, the server told us that this dish was a special order and would take extra time.

While we waited for our meals to be prepared, we laughed a lot and it seemed that anything any one of us said was hilarious. We were probably giddy at the prospect of a good meal. At some point, one of us noticed a sign at the reception counter that we had not seen upon entering. It read “No credit cards.”

We only had a few dollars among us. It was too late to stop the kitchen from preparing the food we had ordered. We whispered among ourselves about what we should do, all the while keeping a fearful eye on the door to the kitchen. Moving as if we were one single unit, we calmly exited the restaurant, jumped into the Charger and drove away as fast as we could.

We were scared because we thought we might be pursued by the police and hauled into jail for making that order and running out. But at the time, we knew of no other alternative than to flee.

Although we had not experienced any overt racism at the restaurant, we were uncomfortable because we were Black people in Georgia in the late 1960s. Perhaps we were hypersensitive because, on our drive to Florida, a clerk in a service station had sprayed disinfectant or something when we exited the store. So out of character for him, Charles had gone back into the store and made a confrontational comment to the clerk about what we saw as a racist gesture.

I didn’t remember this—Charles’ sister told me that we told her about this incident upon our return. If I didn’t remember this rather significant incident, I wondered what else I might have forgotten, so I called my longtime girlfriend whose Dodge Charger we’d driven to and from Florida. When I asked her what details she remembered about our trip to the Bahamas, she responded, “What trip to the Bahamas? I don’t remember taking any such trip!”

I began to relay numerous details about the trip. Then I asked, “Do you remember anything now?” She said, “No, but we were very irresponsible to take such a trip with no money!”

It’s funny how people can have the same experience and recall it differently or sometimes not at all. Perhaps most puzzling is that I recalled many aspects of the trip, but not the incident about the store clerk and Charles’ uncharacteristic reaction.  

Thinking about the selective nature of memory, perhaps my sister-in-law remembered the episode because her brother, Charles, could have been in danger. Perhaps I didn’t recall it because my mind was sparing me the trauma of what I might have been experiencing as the incident was occurring. Perhaps my girlfriend’s brain suppressed the entire trip because of some memories that involved her and her fiancé.

We say memory is selective, but it seems that the selection of what memories to recall and which ones to bury are beyond our control. We don’t consciously decide to remember this and not that, or this part and not that part. What does our brain know that we don’t know? Is our brain protecting us? If so, why do some memories cause us trauma over and over again and others make for a good story?   

It’s a funny thing about memory.