“Remember Polly Flinders?” my mother asked me during our weekly phone conversation last night, referring to the dresses that were popular when I was a child.
I have no idea what brought it up. When she posed the question, I didn’t think about the actual dresses, which I have no emotional charge around one way or another (unlike some bloggers: How Polly Flinders Ruined My Life). No, I went to trying to remember the details of the Greenhills Shopping Center, a structure that I walked to with alarming regularity as a kid. My mind didn’t pictures dresses; it meandered over to little shop in the middle of the shopping center that sold them, for probably too much money.
Next thing you know, my mom and I were taking a stroll down memory lane, trying to come up with details about the town where I spent 11 years of my childhood: Greenhills, Ohio (a village in the suburbs of Cincinnati). The Greenhills Shopping Center was a huge part of my childhood, and I so I’m sure I walked past that shop hundreds of times, though I never entered it without her.
My mom didn’t even remember it existed.
Memories are mutable. They are inconsistent. They are not hardwired anywhere. There is no clear video tape that we can play back and watch frame by frame. At least, I don’t think there is. It is only repeated memory lanes strolls where the same story is told over and over that seem to cement anything (at least for me).
Neither of us has probably been anywhere close to Greenhills in nearly forty years. We abandoned what little bit of Ohio roots we had once we moved to Switzerland, so it’s not surprising that we struggled to recall details. We both remembered the Variety Store (Gil’s –it was likely the most popular store in the complex). She remembered a beauty parlor, which triggered a fuzzy recollection in me – unless of course, I was being influenced by her memory. (I think it was on the backside, close to The Village Keg, the liquor store; perhaps one of the few places still in business. I think it was named that back then, but who knows!)
I remembered the store that sold ice cream, located at the far end from Gil’s. It wasn’t until I watched this video, that I remembered that its name was United Dairy Farmer’s.
The funny thing about going online and trying to find bits and pieces on my childhood town is although some of it is recognizable, much of it pieced together with logic and maps, because my sense of direction isn’t awesome. This community was filled with crosswalks (also known as easements) that cut through streets making it easier for kids to get from one side of town to the other. We walked regularly from our house at 169 Junedale Drive to the library at 7 Endicott Street regularly (I looked up the library address) or the pool. Of course, the library was located in the shopping center, not far from the community pool and as kids in the late sixties and early seventies, when parents shooed the children outdoors and then locked them out of the house until meal time, we wandered all over all our town. We often went to the pool without our parents and although I don’t remember the rules back then, I’m certain you didn’t need an adult to accompany you (maybe someone over 12??? Maybe a note????).
The Shopping Center was the hub of activity, boasting a bowling alley, the library, and a variety of small stores. We would walk to the center, keeping a sharp eye open for discarded soda pop bottles along the way (which would be redeemed for two cents apiece at the liquor store). After our destination (usually the library because what parent would refuse that), we would head over to Gil’s for candy bars and then next door to the drug store for comic books (Archie comics, to be replaced as we got older with Tiger Beat magazine). The drug store had a soda fountain towards the back, though we usually chose to head to The United Dairy Farmer’s, where you can get a double or triple scoop ice cream cone and mix the flavors. I loved ice cream so even in cold weather I was likely to choose that over candy.
The funny thing is that my mother remembered almost none of this. Maybe it was because she had broader options than us kids, who generally travelled in packs and had much more limited resources. Maybe it just wasn’t as important to her.
Geek that I am, the conversation made me wonder how memories are stored. When I compare notes with my sisters, it’s not uncommon for one or another of us to recall things that almost sound made up to the others they are so foreign. My mother had the same comment about things her sister used to remember. Of course, memory is always through a filter. We really only tend to remember what we are paying attention to and we only pay attention to the stuff that is important to us.
I’m still a library enthusiast and my latest library excursion finds me reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior which features images read from the neural patterns of an fMRI to demonstrate what the brain is seeing or thinking about. Go here it you want to see what they look like: Next Thing You Know, They’ll Take My Thoughts Away: Can fMRI Read Your Mind? Apparently the images in our minds can be translated into pictures that are a pretty close match.
If I hadn’t seen images of Polly Flinders online this morning, what image would my brain scan reveal when thinking of them? I pictures rows and rows of dresses from that shop, not anything specific, though I’m certain I owned my fair share. I’m suddenly fascinated by the idea and wondering if there is some way to hook up with some university study to find the answers.
I regularly seem to discard information I no longer need. If I hadn’t spent hours looking at what little there is online about the town I grew up in, I probably wouldn’t remember half of it. Are the images triggering retrieval of what was already there or have they superimposing themselves atop what little I remember to morph into new images?
Memory is a tricky thing. False memories can be implanted by suggestion and by stories one has heard. We don’t remember things accurately; we remember then in accordance to the stories we’ve told ourselves about them. If you’re bored one day, spend some time looking up George Bush’s accounting of the events of 9/11. Inconsistency. We are all horribly inconsistent when it comes to memory.
It is how we can change the past. None of it is “real” insomuch as it doesn’t exist anymore. We are making it up. If it’s not serving us, it is possible to change the story. It’s not that the “facts’ change, it’s just our perspective. Things mean to us what we decide they mean, or don’t mean as the case may be.
So what did growing up in Greenhills mean to me? I have no idea. I just know I was glad to have escaped. I was happy to have moved on to the next adventure.
Namaste, my friends, Namaste.