My daughter ordered a Cabbage Patch doll for her young son, so when his new sister arrives this month, he will have a baby to care for, too, and won’t feel left out.
A. had such a doll when she was small. The doll’s name was Edie; it was the moniker bestowed in the adoption papers that were tucked into the cardboard box by Edie’s maker. Edie had a chubby peach-colored cloth body and a soft plastic head that smelled perpetually of baby powder.
That’s what A. had in mind when the package arrived and she opened it. That’s the doll she wanted to give to her son.
“The god damn cabbage patch doll is hard bodied,” she texted me.
I texted back, “Welcome to adulthood. Nothing is as you remember it.”
I’ve been thinking about that flip remark, and about memory itself, how fluid it is. How at times it can either smooth the edges like breakers on sea glass, or sharpen them into shivs.
Memory is both reliable and unreliable. It is a reflection of our experience of what has been, but not a soulless carbon copy of it.
Memories have so much padding around them (Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition: 1. Soft material used to fill the hollow parts of something; 2. The representation of something in terms that go beyond the facts. … Did I choose the right word or what?!)
I once heard memories, especially those related to intense emotions or trauma, described as like Post-It notes. How memories are organized in our brains is not into neat and organized files within file drawers, but as a pile of Post-Its of all different colors, shapes and sizes stuck together, one on top of another. Pull one, it’s attached to another.
That’s why one memory, when triggered, can ping-pong to this one and that one and then that one — out of order and not even necessarily related. (It’s why rape survivors, when recounting their experience, often can’t do so chronologically, so they are called unreliable or are accused of making up details. There’s a whole new law enforcement protocol called the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview that takes into account what we know about how memory works.)
Back to A. and her disappointment about this 2019 version of Edie. She remembered Edie accurately, at least from my recollection. But the new doll, being not at all what the old one was, couldn’t preserve the past nor unravel all the good memories and emotions around Edie. That is what A. wanted to pass on to her son.
It’s for the same reason some of us hold on to stuff we’ve been given or have collected over the years. It’s not the stuff, it’s not the doll; it’s what we knew and loved and counted on in the past. That’s what is written on all those Post-It notes that we’re trying to recover and even recreate. It’s the memories and emotions tucked around those objects.
It’s the intangible padding, not the thing itself, that we’re after.
And there’s only so much of that you can pass on.