Memory is a finicky thing. Some people can recall crisp clear details about what they ate a year ago at some restaurant and others, like me, haven’t a clue, even if we remember it being the best bite we’ve ever had. I also have an issue recalling the content of movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read, and for the life of me, can’t understand why. But it’s been that way for a long time.
And then there are dreams. Every morning, my husband can tell me exactly what he dreamt about and to an incredible the level of detail. In my case, if I do not immediately think about whatever happened in my dream, it dissipates into thin air. Then again, he’s told me that he can remember everything about the problems he’s solved at work going back to his first day. I am in awe. This morning, I was able to recall that I had a dream – a significant departure from most mornings – but that was it.
I think about memories as I work on researching history whether or not it is in the context of genealogy or blogs or work or anything else. As I struggle with photographs on my mother’s side of family members whose names are not all known and whose memory I want to give honor to or try to substantiate stories of what my paternal great grandfather did during the 1905 pogrom of Odessa, I see how each person’s life gives testament to history – but without documentation, how would we know? And if that documentation is only telling one side of a story, how would we even know that? I keep going back to what one professor taught us, in the context of qualitative research – and that is that we must view things as being full of “little t truths” and not a “big T Truth.” Hopefully from a composite of memories, we can piece together a fuller story, paint a more complete picture.
This also means that when we read accounts of events, whether historical or contemporary, we ought to remember they were written from a singular person’s perspective and see what else we can find out about that event. The words on paper may shape people’s future memories; we run the risk of inaccurate information determining collective memory, which in turn can shape and prolong conflicts, especially as they become part of national narratives. I think these – inaccurate collective memories – have contributed to the difficulty in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And that brings us to historical archives which are missing. In one of my most widely read blogs, I wrote about Mattan Segev-Frank drawing attention to stolen communal records which show up for auction, and the larger issue of Jewish communities which no longer exist not having a voice to speak on their behalf or an organization to safeguard their documents, synagogues, cemeteries. What do you do when those who might have had memories are gone and documentation is missing? How many have had their very existence lost this way?
Individual memory and collective memory, personal recollections and communal documentation, all help us fill in gaps. But thinking about memory, especially within my own life and within the framework of studying genealogical documentation, ultimately makes me think about how short our lives are and how quickly they go by. Birth records, censuses, marriage records, newspaper stories and obituaries, photos of gravestones – a life that was so rich can be reduced to so little.
I think one of the reasons why I appreciate Facebook (and how much I use it) is that its Memories can show me where I’ve been and with whom, whether or not they were big events or just regular day-to-day stuff. It can also remind me of articles and stories I’d read and debates and shows I watched on television. These reminders push me to delve into my memory and activate it. I would like to think of it as a partial archive of my life that my children will be able to hold on to too. It’s kind of crazy to think of something which has so much justifiable controversy surrounding its practices also having the potential of being a historical archive. It is also the reason why I worked with my parents to create their memoir, so their grandchildren will know about their lives growing up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, as well as their own stories of their aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. As I wrote in a blog so aptly titled Climbing the family tree, “Finding out about how distant relatives lived their lives long ago…reminds me how each of us has a story or two to share. And how it is the details that make someone real.”
Memory may be a finicky thing and documentation, when you can find it, may not always be complete or accurate, but perhaps Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best, “Memory should be the starting point of the present.” Or as I like to say, learn more, know more.