Recently, I was speaking in the Great Lake State and had a few spare days, and the assistance of my cousin Steve, who still lives there; so I wanted to revisit my first elementary school and the last house I remember from early childhood. We clambered into his green panel van and headed to Livonia, a suburb.
While Steve slowly drove by Botsford Elementary, giving me plenty of viewing time to prompt old memories, the staff began studying us through the school’s windows. Realizing this was no longer 50 years ago; it dawned on me that two middle-aged men driving sluggishly around an elementary school in a panel van could be misinterpreted.
We moved on.
Of course, any vehicle listlessly rolling down a street with its residents studying every house will attract attention anywhere; so as we passed “my” house, the resident studied us from his front porch. Not desirous of another misinterpretation, I approached the young man and reached out to shake his hand.
“Hi, my name’s Scott. I lived here from 1958 through 1962. I’m visiting from California and I wanted to see where I was little. Would it be okay if I looked around?”
“Wow! I wasn’t even born then! Sure. Feel free.”
Emboldened, I took it another step.
“Would it be too much to ask if I could go inside?”
“I’m a trusting guy,” he replied, “Come in.”
We don’t recall them all because we lose the “pointers” to those lesser-accessed events. In other words, every memory is tied to other memories that “point” to it. More vibrant memories have more “pointers.” Forgotten ones are isolated with few or no connections. This explains why re-experiencing a forgotten scent or image brings with it other memories. It re-establishes pointers.
As I crossed the threshold for the first time in half a century, I was enfolded in triggers. I remembered sitting at my father’s feet, watching Bonanza in that living room. Memories of my mother at the kitchen table staring out the window studying the neighbors were as vibrant as when I was six. I recalled unwrapping my first record player in the living room, a birthday present when I turned seven. There was only one bathroom in the house, and I even had the unfortunate recollection of nervously shifting from leg to leg in the hallway while waiting for my father to exit so I could urgently get in.
There were also oddities. No matter how I tried, I could not remember which bedroom was mine. One would think that would be a more visceral recollection — but one would be “wrong.”
Also, I remembered this house to be stadium-sized. In actuality, it compared more to a closet. Although the truth lies in between (but closer to the latter), the moral is that we don’t remember things as they were, but how we perceived them in that moment. One might say we build our personal history on what very well might be faulty premises.
But before we wistfully bemoan the passing of idyllic “good old days,” or hang on to our anger about how awful we might have been treated; it would be wise to realize that those events might not have been as we remember.
We might have been happier than we recall.
And as for those “good old days,” they might be right in front of us right now.
The house where I grew up in Livonia, Michigan