by Sheila Connolly
Memories are tricky things.
Recently I traveled to New York City with my sister and we spent a whirlwind two days there, visiting places we remembered and places neither of us had ever seen. New York occupied a special place in our lives when we were young: our grandmother lived there, in a tiny apartment with a view of Park Avenue. Visiting her was always a treat (we lived just over an hour away in New Jersey), and of course we did “special” things. We visited museum and zoos (Bronx and Central Park), we saw the Mets play at Shea Stadium once, and we shopped. Oh, how we shopped! Always the “nice” stores—we ventured as far downtown as Macy’s only once that I can remember. But Saks? Lord and Taylor? Bergdorf Goodman? Tiffany’s? Those we covered, often.
My sister is four years younger than I am, and it’s interesting to see what each of us remembers—and there are some real differences. We had a chance to compare notes on this recent trip, because we visited some places we had been to together, decades before. And I realized that there is one major distinction: she remembers the people who were there, and I remember things—where we sat, what we ate, what we bought, how we got there. I am less likely to recall the cast of characters, like who else was at the table or in the taxi.
I sometimes wonder if there is a “writer’s brain,” that declares itself long before you string words together. In hindsight, I realized I was always watching and collecting information. I thought it was normal and everybody did it, but when I talk to others and ask what they remember about a person or a place or an incident, they fumble with the details. Me, I go into a restaurant I hadn’t visited since I was eight and I can tell you where our table was. What I can’t tell you is whether my mother was there as well as my grandmother—I must have been too busy looking at the decorations and the other people in the room and the menu.
This time around it struck me that I had observed and retained an awful lot of details, and that many of them were visual. And I also noticed that that correlates with my picture-taking (I’m the official family recorder/historian—I’ve always taken pictures): the majority are of “things” rather than people.
One stop I insisted on making with my sister: I dragged her to Saint Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue to look the baptismal font there. (No, I don’t remember it from my baptism—I was only a few months old.) But I recall seeing it when I was in high school—my grandmother was a member of that church, within walking distance of her home, and she took me to see it. I wanted to find out if my memory, a few decades old, was accurate.
It was. The angel I remembered wasn’t located where it was all those years ago, but I had the details right.
When we write, we strive to create characters who are convincing, and to put them in a setting that becomes real to the reader. It’s not enough to say, the woman had red hair and wore nice clothes. You have to make it more immediate: the woman’s hair was dyed an improbable crimson, and her Chanel-style suit looked as though she had bought it at a seedy thrift store. It’s the same with the setting. You can’t get away with something like, the church was large with a high ceiling. You need to find something more vivid: a confused bird flapped and chirped its way around the high vaulted ceiling; the only other sound was the coughing from the few people scattered among the pews, more likely seeking warmth than solace on this cold day.
Maybe I was always training to be a writer.