The human mind is infinitely complex. It can fix memories in what seems like steel; forget others forever, others only recall if prompted. We all can remember the vanilla essence our mom used to bake with. Back in the day before organic, artisanal vanilla pods were discovered, vanilla essence was not even vanilla, it was a chemical synthesized in a lab. These days an array of Madagascan vanilla single pods in test tubes, are sold at 15 times the price. Being the sucker I am, I bought the super duper extra special imported ones. Taking my mom’s well-tested recipe for Malva pudding from the shelf, I followed the yellowed pages. I was trying for old school cooking – what a disappointment! The fail-safe decades’ old recipe flopped. Everybody else loved it, but I knew in my heart it was ersatz. Like the wartime coffee made from malted barley, chicory root, acorns and even dandelion root it tasted all wrong. I bought a supermarket one to check, it was the same. What was missing was the history of the many hours sat around the dinner table, the thin Birds custard my mom made, which cooled with a skin. My dad loved that pudding special. I had forgotten to mix in the history of our family’s Malva pudding.
Our memory isn’t set in stone, but more like a file on a word document. It is our personal story; it is edited every time we tell it. We have all seen a couple tell a story in company. Most times within minutes one of them is going to chip in, add in a detail they feel their partner got wrong. They start in the same place, but may meander as they tell it. Were they on a drive in the country, or on a highway; was it really cloudy? Was it the Ford they were driving or that yellow Anglia with the second gear that always stuck? We have all done it. When the story is told, each detail has to be retrieved from our memory and told. Depending on the audience, slight changes occur and subsequent retellings will color it differently. This altered version is saved.
The couple that is telling the story can either be irritated or grateful that their partner is editing it. We, however, have an opportunity to change the way we see the world. By remembering and changing the jagged edges, we can soften or emphasise our version of reality in a real way. When you tell the story, even the words will change how you feel and re-remember the tale. If you are telling it back to another friend, you could use any number of words to explain how you felt. If you say I was annoyed instead of fuming or furious, there is a memory of emotion that the words evoke. After my stroke my family used to say, “Use your words” when I was battling to communicate. My friend Justine says the same to her two-year-old son… If I am mindful and trying to edit myself, I use a mental trick to improve how I remember. When looking for a verb to express myself, I run through all the alternatives. I do it as a way to regain my vocabulary, but also to give me a chance to choose what word and emotion attached I want to remember.
The Afrikaans songstress Laurika Rauch’s song “Vergeet om my te vergeet, onthou om te onthou, om my te onthou”, at first glance sounds like a nonsense rhyme. The English translation is, “Forget forgetting me and remember to remember me.” When you think about it, it evolves while you listen to it. If we take a step back from the song and apply it to our lives, we can learn a lot from it. As we replace the story into our personal word document, we can create a new version, replacing the angry or sad version. We are not changing the fundamentals of the experience, just adding rose tinted glasses through which we see it. In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” Imagine if by trying to write the better version of your story, you pay your future edition of yourself forward. What a gift to give yourself.
Before I forget, I went back to buy the cheap and cheerful vanilla essence and followed the recipe to the Nth degree. Like the tale of two cities, I now have two ways to make Malva pudding. The one imbued with my childhood and another version that encompasses the friends I made it for, plus the telling of my story to you.