Why Is It We Remember Some Things Forever?


I’m willing to bet that there are some things about your life you can remember as though they happened yesterday. And I’m also willing to bet that, like me, you would be hard put to explain why you remember them.

Oh, we all remember some things because they mean so much to us. There isn’t a person living who doesn’t remember the day “I do” came up on the menu of things to say. Some remember that day with a big smile. Some ...

And I remember every detail of this morning because it was nice to wake up and look around. When you get to my age that’s a big deal. Why? The alternative ain’t so great.

By tomorrow morning I’ll have forgotten this morning, but that’s par for the course. I’ll remember tomorrow morning instead. And as long as the program continues along that path there will be very few complaints out of me.

OK, we all agree that there are some things it makes good sense to remember. But why is it we remember some of those other things? The ones that really ought to blend into the background?

I’ll give you an example.

I taught for eight years in a great high school in Port Arthur, Texas. Had a lot of fun there. Did a lot of things I really enjoyed, including going with our team to the 5A football championship finals out in Texas Stadium in Dallas.

And I remember quite a bit of that game, including the moment when our star running back dropped the game-winning pass just a few feet from the goal line.

And no, that’s not what I’m going to ask you about.

One day there in Thomas Jefferson High School I was in the counselors’ office talking to one of the counselors. Somehow or other the subject worked its way around to breakfast and for some reason — I forget what — I mentioned that my breakfast, every work day, for as far back as I could remember, was one Oreo cookie.

And here’s the part I remember so well.

She looked up and asked, “Who can eat just one Oreo cookie?”

Now why in the world should I remember that so well, Johnny?

Give me a reason. Any reason.

Doesn’t even have to be a good one.

I can understand remembering some things that aren’t really important. For example, about the time I was 4 or 5 I got very curious about this thing called the “sunrise” that people were always talking about. They jabbered about it all the time, and they always said it was great, but nobody ever offered to take the kid outside and show it to him.

So I decided to have a look for myself.

I wasn’t allowed outside by myself except in our back yard, which was behind a locked gate. I was especially not allowed to cross the street. And if I got out of bed before the rest of the Garret clan, I soon found myself stashed back under covers after a session of finger waving — accompanied by early morning growls.

That being the case, I did the obvious. I woke up, eyeballed the clock I had learned to read a couple of weeks before, saw that it was five o’clock, dressed in the dark, slipped out of my bedroom, down the hall, out the front door, and straight across the street to an empty lot where I felt certain I would have a suitable view of the coming attraction.

And I waited. And waited. And waited some more.

It got light, but if there was anything to see I missed it.

Well, there was something. There were some ants’ nests near the concrete sidewalk over there by the empty lot. I saw something moving around near the nests, a kind of stirring of the ground it seemed. Bending down, I saw that large ants were coming out of the nests. Curious, I bent way down and took a closer look.

I could hardly believe my eyes. Ants with wings!

I had never seen ants with wings before. Ants didn’t have wings! Some other kinds of bugs had wings, but not ants.

Aha! Sneaky ants! Up before dawn, donning their wings, and flying off to do whatever ants do that they’re not supposed to.

Like me. That made sense.

I waited some more. And some more. It was broad daylight now, but still no fiery dawn. What the hey?

Then it began to sprinkle. I watched the road getting wet. I was getting wet too, but I was hanged if I was going to miss out on the sunrise just because of a little rain.

Then the sprinkle quit, replaced by a steady rain. I don’t exactly remember the thoughts that went through my head at that moment. Maybe I used up my entire child-sized vocabulary of curse words. And maybe not. Don’t remember.

I do remember thinking that waiting for the sunrise on a rainy day was no fun. So I crossed the street, went inside, got undressed, and went back to bed.

I do not remember when, exactly, I finally saw a sunrise.

Now, I can understand why I remember that day so well. Lot of emotions going on there. Curiosity. Anticipation. Worry as I dressed. More worry as I slipped out of the house and across the street. Excitement as I waited.

Surprise when I discovered those sneaky ants wearing wings when nobody was looking. Disappointment. Disgust as I trudged back into bed.

Anybody would remember that.

And I can understand why I remember days. The day I met Lolly. The day I got bitten by a black widow in New Jersey. The day I beat the squadron ping-pong braggart four games straight in the service club in Iceland. The day in 1942 when Mom and I went to the St. George theater in Staten Island and saw “Yankee Doodle Dandy” while Pop, and Billy, and Frankie were all off fighting World War II. You remember things like that too, right?

But I challenge you, Johnny. Tell me this: Why do I remember that day in the counselors office like it was yesterday?

“Who can eat just one Oreo cookie?”

What’s so %$#@! historic about that?


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