Memorial, memorialis, memory. The last, both a mental faculty and activity. All of them words with roots associated with different languages that show this is no mere passive cognitive function. The Anglo-French memorie may indicate the simple act of remembrance, but the Greek mermeros and Welsh marth suggest thought that prompts anxiety or sadness, while the Dutch think of mijmeren as a kind of pondering state that one falls into. Old Norse applies the term to a mythic creature, as Mímir is the giant or demigod who guards the Well of Wisdom.*
The American holiday that has just passed seems to key into these many concepts, and although Memorial Day is a national holiday, many people experience it on a very personal level and in different ways that the complicated etymology offers. This weekend I found myself reflecting on these different sorts of memorialization, as well as the nature of memory and how it relates to history, or actually histories: from the big impersonal narratives that we all study in school to the more personal versions of those epic stories as they intersect with our family histories, and also the immediate family heritage that is the record and/or mythology of a small number of people, retold around dinner tables and passed along from generation to generation at graduation parties, weddings and funerals.
It is true, for each of these three “scales” of history, that history is not equivalent with the past. It is an interpretation, or understanding, of what has happened some time before now. History is in the present-tense. We own it, name it, shape it. It is mutable, to a greater or lesser extent, from person to person and from time to time. I’m well aware of this in my role as a historian who studies, interprets, and writes about big global narratives that unfolded across the last few centuries. What I write, and what I read, is not the perfect, final, static word on anything. It is the best, most reasoned illumination of long-ago people and events that I can offer within a particular dynamic time. I’ve changed my mind about the main subject I work on during the last 15 years and I expect that future people will challenge or change what I work out today about great big history. And that’s OK.
But the same kind of revision on the smaller, more personal family histories, seems less OK, because it is more immediately challenging. This past weekend we had house guests: family members from an older generation who reminded me how good it is to hear the diverse and interesting things that happen in and around a family. But they also revealed news about a person who held a rather central role in our family dynamic, and who is now deceased. Their revelations changed the way we understand her. And that’s unsettling, I think, not because she somehow becomes a different person with this new story, but that we have to face the fact we didn’t know everything about her when she was alive, and still don’t, won’t, and can’t, now that she is gone.
We (“we” people, humanity) like to know, and be right, about what we know; there is a great comfort–and arrogance, no doubt–shared by human people who think they really know and understand what has happened. But that’s where we need to remember that the nature of memory itself is a slippery business, and real memory, truly understanding the past, is not easily won (even Odin had to pay a high price to drink from Mímir’s well). Maybe we should instead own up to the fact that we, by necessity, fill in the blanks with creative storytelling and intentionally selective recall. These narratives, invented by us, or by others before us who pass them down as family legends and national epics, may not be iron-clad in their accuracy; but in what they reveal about what we’ve lost, and try to reclaim, they may have all the more value for our efforts to fill in the gaps.