Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Value of Memories

Time and memory are true artists; 
they remould reality nearer to the heart's desire.
~~~ John Dewey

Memories; stories about remembered times, people, places, and events have a prominent place in the material I'm collecting and organizing as I prepare to write my family history. But how much weight do I give to these remembered stories as accurate information. This is an important question for me.

Am I writing a history book - accurately documented and thoroughly researched, or am I writing a collection of family memories - memories shaped by personal interpretations and perceptions? 

My inclination at this point is to write a collection of family stories, stories I heard from my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, liberally sprinkled with references to recorded historical events that intersect with these family stories.

I've had to come to grips with this because I did some research on a story my mother told me and the information I found was different (in some minor details) than what my mother had related to me. 

It is no secret that our memories are not the most reliable source of information. Our law enforcement and justice systems cope with inconsistent and conflicting eye-witness accounts every day. Years ago I witnessed a traffic accident and gave my contact information to the driver that had been hit by another vehicle running a red light. Several years later I got a telephone call asking for my testimony. My initial response placed the responsibility for the accident on the wrong driver. It wasn't until I simply related what I remember seeing without identifying make, model, and colour of the vehicles that my information was of any use.

My former wife had a great-uncle (Dietriech Toews) who had been a translator with the intelligence branch of the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War. One of his friends had been at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp after it had been liberated and he sent Dietrich some pictures of what was found at the Camp. Dietrich shared the story to friends when he got home, including showing the pictures, but his story was dismissed as incorrect - a fraudulent effort using manufactured photos and documents to demonize the German people. Dietrich hid the pictures away and never said a word about it for many years. My former mother-in-law told me that Dietrich had these pictures so on my next visit to him I began asking questions. Dietrich opened up and told me the story. Several years later I overheard my former mother-in-law telling the story but she placed Dietrich at Bergen-Belsen. I interjected and corrected the story, but it was a reminder to me of how quickly and easily memories can distort facts. 

Given this reality, I know that I will write the family stories including acknowledging the quirkiness of memory. Memories are coloured by our perceptions, beliefs, personal values, and the decay of time. We no longer have the strong oral tradition that was present many centuries ago but that does not diminish the value of these memories.

These imperfect memories still allow us to paint a picture of what things were like, what the people were like, and how we have been shaped by the heritage and legacies passed down to us by our ancestors.

The reality of life is that your perceptions 
-- right or wrong -- influence everything else you do. 
When you get a proper perspective of your perceptions, 
you may be surprised how many other things fall into place. 
 - Roger Birkman 

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