A recent surprise invitation, to revisit a place where we spent many wild and delightful family summer vacations when our grandchildren were babies, toddlers, and early scholars, was a chance to revisit the past.
For me, it was a rediscovery of the power of memory and the things that may trigger it. Much has been written and studied about memory, especially to help those who have vivid memories of traumatic events, but for the fortunate, with no such negative experiences, it is important to realize that memory is a powerful part of our daily lives too.
For many years we were fortunate to spend two summer weeks on Cape Cod within the sound of the sea, house and cat-sitting for friends who had other commitments. This was a great gift for us and our family as money was not abundant and going to the ocean once a year was a promise my husband made to me when we were married. Having been born on an island where no one lives more than 75 miles from the sea, I can relate to the poet, John Masefield, who wrote,“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running /tide, as a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.”
Our family times with grandchildren were, to say the least, wild and crazy. Four boys and two girls, beginning as pillion passengers or in baby seats with adult cyclists, eventually learned to ride their bikes in traffic. We all survived. The memories and images are strong. Visiting those haunts and many others this Fall was a powerful reminder, a kind of time-travel experience.
As I was walking the sandy dune behind the beach, looking down at a smooth pebble, a castaway object, I had a sudden strong memory of children’s voices calling to me about “special” rocks and shells, which even on a rainy day can be treasured when found by the sea. Memories of questions asked, and special activities like tubing "out to sea” on the current of the ebbing tide, came back to me like a time travel experience. I had not thought of these for years but here, triggered by salt air and pebbles, I was back again … a beach-comber with grandchildren in tow. The memories, stored away for years, seem as clear as if they were happening now.
This experience has made me think about the human brain and the storage and retention of memories and how they impact our lives today. The gift of a two-edged sword!
When we have a flashback experience like this its almost as though our brains have stored our life experiences in a continuum of somewhat shallow memories, like a video sequence. This alone is a significant achievement, but now and then, there is a highlight, a sequence that pops up as would a special film feature or portrait in a gallery exhibit. Who or what decides what experience is to be stored in our memories in this way? I can understand that traumatic events would be stored and recalled in significant ways, but that simple though meaningful interactions are waiting for the right impulse to show themselves is exciting.
I have always had a yearning for time travel. I always wanted to travel back to the past, with significant personal protection guaranteed, I must say. Considering our modern politics maybe a serious visit to our nation’s past might give us all some humility and understanding. It seems to me, at present, that I am not alone in the flashback business. The enthusiasm of some people for a return to the “good old days,” (good for some but not for many) is more than a little unsettling. I am afraid that it is long past time to be able to “put our society’s genie back in the bottle.” Among the many changes in American society the place of women in the workforce, politics, and society in general, has widened so radically that, for many of us, even a short trip back in time would be disorienting. The potential overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the Obergefell Same Sex Marriage decision, are disturbing enough reminders of the past to many people. Even the everyday routines of family life and work were different in the not-too-distant past, though just as complex as today.
Those folks who think that life was better “back then” are ignoring some of the issues that people had to deal with that we no longer think about. Diseases we seldom hear about today such as Diphtheria, Pertussis, Polio, TB, Measles, and Scarlet Fever were all common and dangerous. Vaccines for these and many other infections are available now, though sometimes refused. Wearing a face mask during the recent COVID epidemic was bad enough to cause some to rebel against doing so, but the stress of caring for a child at home with life-threatening Polio or Pertussis was far greater than that. We should remember that we expect more from life and society today than the past had to offer. Societies change and evolve. Learning from the past and our nation’s achievements and mistakes is important, but trying to go back is pointless, and in an open society would cause rebellion.
So I am content to connect to the past through personal memories sometimes accurate and sometimes perhaps embellished. Those who wish to reinstitute their happy memories for all of us, must realize that we may not all agree.
Isobel P. Swartz is an archivist at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.