‘Yes, you’ve told us that one before’ said an understanding group of friends to their oldest member for whom conversation now consists almost entirely of memory and anecdote. He hears a familiar word or reference and it triggers a memory which springs out of its cage, and he is off again on the anecdotal road. (Being rather deaf doesn’t help and that word he thought he heard can sometimes not be the one that was actually said!).
The same sort of thing has happened to me and it’s a trap that all of us who are older too easily fall into. It isn’t just that the past is important to us and often more vividly alive and valuable than the more mundane events of today, though that may be true. Nor is it only because the flow of memory is unstoppable as we trace the years that we have lived through, the people we have known and the places we have been to. Most of all, anecdote is a sort of reassurance that helps us to cope with the present in which we often feel we have little place and relevance.
The timelessness of the past can complement that out-of-time feeling we have about today.
I am trying to deal with this (though others may feel unsuccessfully) by stopping the instinctive anecdote in its tracks and asking myself – ‘will this really interest people?’ Itself not an easy question, the problem then arises that by the time you may have decided that this is a story that will be immensely interesting to everyone present, the conversation has moved on to another topic and you have lost your chance. Next time you may be able to make a quicker decision. Whatever happens, risk is involved. The greatest danger of all is to imagine that you can get people’s attention by telling them about your amazing past, compared to your more mundane present. That doesn’t work I find!
What else to do with the great storehouse of memory than open the door and make public the private experience? Well, do it only occasionally and as I say, only when it seems appropriate.
The other thing to do perhaps, is just to treasure the memory if it’s a good one and forgive it (or yourself) if it’s a bad one. Older people in some societies are still thought of as repositories of wisdom, but if in this culture that isn’t the case, we can ourselves reflect on the stories of the past and perhaps gain some wisdom for ourselves. And if we have a good friend of the same generation or a younger person who actually wants to know a bit about our personal history, well, that’s a bonus.