Updated: Mar 26, 2022
I don’t have an answer for this.
“What happens to all of those memories? my 42-year-old son wants to know. “Where do they go? Think about how many things happen to us in our lives every day; how can we keep all that stuff in our heads?” That’s a good question. I’m going to have my old VHS tapes digitized next week. It’s been on my list of things-to-do for a dozen years but ticktock I’ve decided to procrastinate no longer and do it now. There are many tapes in that closet, probably about 150. On those outdated magnetic strips are memory-evoking images of snow angels and nursery songs, Christmas mornings and school concerts, soccer games and dance recitals, and snippets of many moments we thought we'd remember but forgot - all erratically interspersed with footage of the 1988 summer Olympics opening ceremony from Seoul, two Cher specials, the inauguration of Bill Clinton, every Snoopy and Charlie Brown-themed holiday special ever produced, popular movies from the 80s (including several copies of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and hundreds of hours of In Focus, the TV show I hosted and produced in the 90s. Most of it isn’t labeled and I’m not sure where to begin. The four of us, my son and two grandkids, are watching a practice tape narrated by me in our kitchen in 1987 recorded by my then 8-year-old son with a heavy, clunky JVC breakaway camcorder. Expensive when released in the mid 80s, the portable combination video camera and videocassette recorder weighed 8 pounds, required considerable dexterity to operate and a large tote bag to transport. My son doesn't remember that day but I do. Every detail. As they watch the tapes, I turn the other way and watch their faces. Those family tapes are precious beyond words, but the kids seem particularly interested in their curly haired dad wearing tube socks, scoring a goal at a Latham Circle soccer gamer on a field where my 18-year-old grandson Luke played for many years. “You’re pretty good, Dad,” Luke reports. “What’s it like to watch your dad play soccer when he was 8?" I ask. “It’s weird!” they say in unison. Holding her 5-ounce iPhone with one hand my granddaughter has surreptitiously recorded her dad watching himself on TV. Caught red handed, Skyler excitedly chimes in.
”You knew I would take a video of this, Dad! I had to!" A father-daughter moment exchanged with big smiles and knowing nods.
Later in the day while watching my son and his son easily assembling some outdoor furniture, my mind replays a memory, frame by frame in slow motion, of another day in my yard from more than a decade ago when Greg showed Luke how to hit a nail without breaking his thumb.
No VCR required.
Whether or not memories are instantaneously accessible in our conscious mind, they’re encoded in our cellular structure. Perhaps Greg has forgotten that day in the backyard when he taught Luke how to use a hammer but Luke's fingers remember how to avoid hitting his thumb.
After lunch we head outside to transplant "Jack the Beanstalk," my Schefflera. Greg gently guides the soil instinctively knowing how much pressure to place on the fragile roots. He may not recall that day when we planted zinnias and morning glories for the first time, or hundreds of other times his hands dredged through soil, but his fingers remember.
It's all nicely wired in there, the mechanical things and more. We easily remember how to drive a car to get groceries but the emotional things are bundled up and embedded with complex sensory and neurological triggers and recollections.
My internal processor freezes and spins as I watch those tapes. I remember the texture of the sweater I was wearing, the sound of the ceiling fan, the angst of my mother's impending Alzheimers disease, and how nervous I was that Greg might inadvertently drop that $1400 camcorder. He didn't.
Greg makes a good point. An article in Quanta Magazine postulates that in order to remember, the brain must actively forget. Maybe there isn't unlimited free storage in our hard drives.
But the heart remembers it all. Perhaps one day Skyler will playback today's digital memory to her grandchildren on some not-yet-invented device.
That's about as close to immortality as we get here on Earth.
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