There are memories locked in my brain in a secure storage room marked Things I’m Sure Happened Exactly As I Remember Them. It’s a big sign, but that isn’t the point. The point is that every once in a while, I stumble across some piece of irrefutable evidence that completely contradicts one of those memories. Something that, at first, creates confusion. What’s going on here, I ask? How can this new evidence be true? Someone has made a big mistake. But, no. I investigate further and it isn’t a mistake. This new chunk of information is a fact, solidly grounded in truth. I search frantically for some reason for my earlier belief and I find none. Where does that leave me? I now have to go into my storage room and remove the questionable memory. And do what with it? Where does it belong? How did it get in there in the first place? Am I delusional? And what does this say about all of the other things I insist are true? Things I know happened. Things to which I have attached all kinds of peripheral memories, including date, location, and related incidents.
You’re waiting for an example, and I’m stalling because the example I’m going to use is remarkably trivial. It is the example that worries me the most, even more than the idea that I can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy.
It’s about tissues. Facial tissues.
The memory is this: Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, a company that sold a famous brand of facial tissues introduced a revolutionary product. It was just a box of tissues. But the amazing thing was that when you pulled out a tissue, the next one popped up right behind it, so that it was there waiting for the next person who needed it. No need to claw around inside the box. This was one of those milestones of civilization, an innocuous invention that would save time and prevent immeasurable amounts of frustration. The company made a television commercial touting this phenomenon. I remember watching the commercial. I also remember when my mother brought home our first box of pop-up tissues and the entire family went into the bathroom to see it in action. We each took a turn pulling out a tissue. It was breathtaking! (Remember, there were no video games, iPods, or pay-per-view movies. We had hula hoops.)
But here’s the thing. That whole scenario couldn’t have happened. No matter how many times I’ve told this little anecdote, it can’t be true. The Kleenex Pop-up Box was actually introduced by Kimberly-Clark in 1929. By the time I was born twenty-six years later, it would have been old news, much too old to make a television commercial about. Pop-up tissues would have been part of my life from the first day, like cats and oatmeal. I would have no reason to even think about the fact that at one time, people did have to claw around inside the box. Why then did I have a reason to make up this memory, and lock it away so securely with my other precious recollections?
Since making this alarming discovery, I have been quietly going through the mental storage room, taking inventory, scrutinizing everything I can find. How many more memories will I identify that have to be put out with next week’s trash? Did I really hold my newborn baby sister on my lap in the back seat of the car when my mother came home from the hospital? Did my father’s cousin Vinnie really have a speaker phone in his house back in 1962? Did I even have a hula hoop?
It’s scary, this idea that one of the pillars of my life — my earliest memories — may be resting on shaky ground. That the events that set off all of the subsequent events, leading up to who I am today, may never have happened.
On the bright side, if I ever need to get out of jury duty, I know exactly how to do it.