Column: I forget to remember sometimes

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Roger VanHaren

Every once in a while, Marilyn will say to me, “Help me to remember to call Carmen tomorrow.” And more often than not, I’ll forget to remember.

Toward the end of his life, when my dad’s memory sometimes played tricks on him, he’d say, “My forgetter works better than my rememberer.” It bothered him that sometimes he couldn’t remember things, or that he’d repeat the same question several times within a short span of time.

But I know what he meant about his forgetter; sometimes mine overrides my rememberer, too. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what we remember, isn’t it?

I’m not trying to be cryptic or enigmatic here. I really think that sometimes we forget what we remember, just as we sometimes remember what we forgot. Am I making sense?

Here’s the thing. Our memories are very fickle things. I think it’s a fact that it is hard to remember what we remember. Take this example: Suppose you were to ask me something about the plot of a John Grisham novel – a book I know I’ve read but maybe a long time ago. Your question stumps me. I know I’ve read the book, I think I remember it, but I’ll be darned if I can come up with any specific information about it.

So … you give me a hint, and sure enough, a light goes on in the deep recesses of my gray matter, and things come rushing forward. I now remember some things about the plot, but the characters are hazy. So you give me another hint and more stuff floods the frontal lobes. I just needed some hints so I could remember what I remember.

When we were in grade school in the middle 1940s, we were asked to memorize lots of stuff. Multiplication tables, lists of spelling words, poems, state capitals, grammar rules, Latin prayers, whatever. My guess is that much of what I memorized is still up there somewhere. I use the multiplication tables fairly often, so that’s close to the front. Spelling is somewhat intuition and somewhat memory driven, so I suppose that’s pretty nearby.

I taught English for 37 years, so grammar rules are still pretty close at hand, although I basically believe that the rules of grammar never really did a lot for me. The rules were based on Latin grammar and they just didn’t quite fit English. Still, they were so deeply ingrained in my memory that they’re still up there.

But how about this? Do you know the capitals of all of the states? I always think I do, but I know that if I were asked to name a particular one, I might hesitate for a while and I might even have to have a first letter to come up with it.

So that’s my point: I didn’t really forget the capital of New Jersey; I just couldn’t remember what I remember from 60 years ago when I had to memorize the capitals. The same is true of vocabulary, isn’t it? When we speak, we use a very limited number of words. I read once that fully one-fourth of the words we use on a regular basis come from a list of just nine words. I don’t remember (AHA!) the whole list, but it includes the, and, it, you, I, will, a … little words like that. One fourth! But then we have thousands of other words we use less often. And there are thousands more we know but never use in our speech. We remember the definitions and usage of the words, but if we were asked to do it on “Jeopardy!” – could we do it? Probably not.

Still, we’re able to read erudite articles filled with million-dollar words and we get along just fine, because our “rememberer” pushes our “forgetter” aside and we remember what we remember. Context and usage trigger our responses.

Well, that’s enough of that. I just remembered that I need to get this finished and submitted. So forget it!

Contact Roger VanHaren at