Watching a Memory Shift over Time

Memories of family and road travel, even troubling events, become cloudy over time. Commentator Abigail Thomas is the author of A Three-Dog Life.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

There are some moments that stay in our minds forever, and sometimes it's hard to tell which things will surface to the top and which ones won't. Commentator Abigail Thomas brings us these thoughts about the elusive nature of memory.

ABIGAIL THOMAS (Author): My sister remembers many things I have forgotten - the sun dial, the pear tree, and the pear picker, which she says I lost. The pear picker comes back to me now, a long pole with pincers at one end to cut the pears and a net to catch them.

What she remembers goes into her pile, so the pear picker belongs to my sister now. Her pile is bigger than mine. My memory is full of holes.

But I can still see the tree. It hung out over a bend in the road, dropping pears all fall until the road was slippery and sweet. Yellow-jackets hung around, cranky and unpredictable, and we walked on the other side.

I don't bring up the precious stuff unless I'm certain I'm right, because getting something wrong is even worse than forgetting it entirely. I remember a waterfall in the woods and the deep cold pool it fell into. I think a gray barber stood above it, held up by fluted columns, but I could be mistaken.

No, there was no arbor over the pool, I imagine my sister saying. And I am banished from the garden, covered only by my small scrap of memory.

Still, I can't go back and knock down the columns and yank out the vines. Even if I tried, it would put itself back together again the way I've always remembered it.

I don't know why some things stick in my mind and not others. I recall, for instance, one long family trip when my sister and I amused ourselves by tearing two plastic dolls we disliked limb from limb. I remember how satisfying it was to throw the arms and legs out the car windows and then the two heads and finally the torsos. I don't know if she remembers any of this. And I don't know why I do, except perhaps for what we'd named the dolls - toenail and fingernail.

But there was another car trip. We were driving to Maine and the road was lonely and the sky the blackest I'd ever seen and my sister and I were in the back seat. She was just a little girl, two or three, which makes me four or five. And she must have leaned against a door that hadn't closed properly because she fell out of the car. I remember tapping my parents on the shoulders and saying, Judy isn't in the car anymore. I remember it took some time before they paid attention. I don't remember the frantic drive back to find her, but I seem to recall a darkened house and my father with my sister in his arms, banging on the door to wake the inhabitants. I vividly remember, whether I saw it or not, a small, white sink filling up with my little sister's blood. Her head had cracked open. She still gets bad headaches from that accident, although it happened more than 60 years ago.

Recently, she told me that I pushed her out of the car. There was no rancor in her tone. It was just a statement. We were in her apartment. It was an ordinary afternoon. We had been chatting idly. I was shocked. I did not push you, I said. But she didn't reply. I don't know if she was teasing and I'm afraid to press her. What if she insisted? What if she really believed it? You're wrong, I want to say. I would remember such a terrible thing. I would remember, wouldn't I? Wouldn't I?

LYDEN: Abigail Thomas is the author of "A Three Dog Life" and lives in upstate New York.

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