We have a huge map of the world in our kitchen and when a country or city catches my eye, the memories rush in. I see New York and think of my first job as a summer intern. Or Santiago, where I narrowly avoided being kidnapped. I see Co Mayo, and I think of majestic Clew Bay and my family's much-loved friend, who has hosted our annual Easter holidays at her seaside home since my childhood.
When my friend, aged 86, began experiencing memory loss following a stroke, the occupational therapist (OT) asked if her family could find something to jog her memory, perhaps photographs or souvenirs. As it happened, 16 years ago, her children compiled a memory book for her 70th birthday, consisting of photographs, drawings and letters from loving friends and family. They had no idea that such a gift would prove to be so important in the future.
The memory book was exactly what the OT had hoped for. When my friend saw the photographs, pictures, and handwriting, she was able to quickly recall events and specific details which had previously seemed too distant for her to grasp. Her family says it was amazing to watch her memories realign themselves. Our inescapable conclusion was that each of us should create a memory book in case we too need access to such a compilation in the unknown future of our lives.
Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable to remember, to travel back through voices, places and most crucially, our feelings. And yet, by documenting the good times, as they tend to be the ones that are recorded and preserved, we could have a priceless memory bank to dip into, a sort of nest egg or recall safety net.
One of the highlights earlier this year of the 2021 Bealtaine Festival was On A House Like a Fire, an amusing and poignant collaboration between theatre-maker Michelle Read and musician Brian Keegan. Read's story plays with the fragmentary nature of memory, while Keegan's musical echoes give certain words their own evocative note.
“I can see the power and value of collecting things,” says Read. “Following my mother’s death, it took four years before I felt ready to spend time with her belongings. During that process, I found I was keeping objects I felt a connection with. I know that the experience of memory can differ from person to person, but for me, the further I go back in time, the more my memories seem like a glimpse of moments or tiny fragments. Memory isn’t all stored in our heads. I think objects can help to connect us with a significant time in our lives.”
In conjunction with her theatre memoir, Read is curating an online collection of heartfelt possessions.
“I encourage everyone to write about their memories. Jot down anything you can think of. Choose a memory that makes you smile. Close your eyes and ask yourself, can you see it, hear it, smell it? And don’t censor yourself or worry about spelling or punctuation.”
While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a captioned photograph is worth at least double that
Read's project tallies perfectly with the experiences of my dear friend. Have you ever come across a hand-written postcard or photograph stashed away in a book, which you haven't seen for years? I remember coming across a photograph of my grandfather sitting in his dining room, throwing back his head in laughter at something my little sister, seated next to him, had said. I can still visualise this picture, remembering the time purely through the photograph. Our smartphones already have this in motion, storing our pictures in chronological order, just as Facebook and Google resurface digital memories to our phones. But perhaps digital images, and their lack of tangibility, pale in comparison to the richness of a printed, memory-sparking photograph, one which we can physically hold as a direct connection to our past selves.
Whatever about sentimentality, a memory book is surely a good exercise for all ages. The very act of choosing photographs brings its own satisfaction. This kind of memory organisation is known to be calming and stress reducing, like kneading bread or polishing a table. It is as if you’ve finally granted yourself permission to self-indulge for a moment and reflect upon your journey to date. And there is a kindness to a picture book, too. While visiting an old friend in hospital, her speech impossible due to illness, I brought her a photograph of my children. I could see a comfort as she recognised the picture, knowing in her head who she was seeing, even though she could not say their names.
And while a picture may be worth a thousand words, a captioned photograph is worth at least double that. We all think we’ll remember our favourite guest from that sizzling hot summer, or great-aunt Veronica’s dishy nephew, wooing everyone he met, but there are few things more fulfilling than writing down names and dates on the back of photographs, thus reducing the frequency of that too oft-stated line, “I have no idea who that person is!”
It goes without saying that a memory book is not a magic wand. Nor can we expect to look back on our lives and see only happiness and perfection. But a compilation of the past, when the present seems unfamiliar or daunting, may provoke a long, heartfelt sigh, or even laughter or tears, all feelings which bring their own sense of comfort.
Now when I look at my matchbox collection, I realise that the slender and often beautifully decorated boxes act as a kind of diary of my early days of travelling. Each box, with an address etched on its front, acts as sort of guide map to my earlier life. I love my present, and feel very grateful for it, but there is also nothing quite like striking one of those matches to light a candle at home and feeling a positive connection to another time.