Science suggests that memories are unreliable because the more times we remember an event, the less clear that memory becomes. With each remembering your brain replaces the original with a copy, the copy you’ve just remembered. It is like recording a pre-recorded show on an old VHS, then recording it again to another. Each time it gains more scratches and jumps, becomes fuzzier, less vibrant. It makes me wonder if we should avoid remembering, in order to preserve the memory? But then, what good is the never remembered? It is a good case for the importance of writing things down as fresh as possible. Writing preserves; in this I believe Plato was wrong.
When I think about the oldest person I have known I hesitate because I never really knew him. Not the way you tend to think of knowing people. I only knew him for a fleeting moment, he is a blimp on my unreliable memory. He was my great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Gilson, or Jack (as he preferred), who was born in 1887 and died in 1987. I was only five in ’87 and I mistrust my memories of him. They are like an old newsreel with faded color and jumping from clear bit to clear bit with scratchy picture in between. I remember mostly his 100th birthday: An old, slight man in polyester boot cut pants and a plaid button up shirt; the cake with all the candles that I hoped we would soon be cutting into; the old many roomed house and a wide grassy yard. I have some kind of memory of ladies in brightly colored Mexican dresses with flowing skirts that flew as they spun (perhaps one of my great-uncles, fresh from Mexico, with a new addition to the family?).
How much to trust these memories I do not know. I know I have heard about the events and seen photos. There is one of me sitting on my great-grandfather’s lap with his birthday cake before us. I do not know where that photo is, but do I actually remember the event as it happened or do I remember the photo?
I have earlier memories too, of his wife Alice, my great-grandma, in her final days laying in a hospital bed in their home as she fed me Saltines and great-grandpa sat beside. But this story has been told to me many times and she died in ’86, just days after I turned four. How could I possibly remember?
The only information I trust has come to me in my adulthood: Oral interviews done with Jack when he was in his later years, his writings, old photos and the like.
Puzzle pieces that tell me a story of who he was.
My great-grandpa’s parents came from Kansas in 1873 and Jack was born in Yamhill, twenty-eight years after Oregon’s statehood; he lived here all his life. By his own account, his parents came by train, but my research suggests no train lines went all the way to Oregon in 1873. I think most likely they traveled by train until Cheyenne or Butte then traveled by wagon. On the day my great-grandpa was born it was the Methodist preacher, Andrew Jackson, who stopped for a glass of water at their home on the way to Sunday service and was employed to fetch back the family who’d already left as the time for Jack’s arrival was coming quickly. Jack was named after that preacher. Like his father before him, Jack was a horseman and together he and Alice raised cattle, crops and their eight children on a 700 acre, green hilled ranch in Kings Valley until the Great Depression hit and they could no longer afford the mortgage. He worked in the fields and hop yards, the lumber mills, railroad, worked for the WPA and as a door to door salesmen all over the state; a blue-collar man until the day he died. He was a jokester, a prankster, a flirt, a poet and a storyteller; traits that live on in those who carry his surname. In his retirement he relied on family and walked a mile a day into his 100th year. On that momentous birthday, when asked how he’d sum up his life, he, quick witted as always, replied “prolific”.
I wish I had known him better. My grandfather, one of Jack’s many get, was one of my most favorite people and so I believe that Jack would have been as well. Maybe we would have swapped jokes, tales of horses and shared poems. I know I would have enjoyed hearing his life stories and I would have held them in my heart as I hold the stories of his son, my grandfather. Those stories tell you a great deal about the person who tells them, but they also help paint bigger pictures. They are the pictures of a time and place, an era that now we study in history books, but they are also the story of who I am.
Science has also suggested that DNA carries memories. That we actually inherit the experiences of our ancestors. If this is true, then perhaps I should not worry so much about if I can trust my memories of my great-grandfather or not. Perhaps instead, I should live in gratitude and awe of the memories that lay within my own DNA. The memories passed down. I see my own horsemanship, my love of story and work ethic reflected in what I know of Jack. There maybe more yet that I am unaware of, that I may never know, but while I may feel I didn’t really know him, I also understand that I know him more intimately than I can fully comprehend.
A couple of my great-grandfather’s poems:
To Bill, Bob and Larry:
My hair is cut
Below my ear
Now I can see
Now I hear
Now, if I was sitting,
On a log,
You would not take me for a dog.
Postcard to Eldon and Willa:
I’ll stay my hand
So be of good cheer
I won’t kill the steer,
For good Brother Bill
Just killed a big deer
And saved himself a kick in the eye,
I shall continue to sigh
For he did much better than I.