Dueling Memories

I’m back in Montana with family. One of our favorite pastimes is to recount old stories and memories of our late relatives, those loveable yet fallible characters that came to Montana for homesteading, gold, and other adventures. 

Of course, because most of these famed relatives are now deceased, they are unable to stand up for themselves, which means the stories get rowdier, more interesting, and sometimes move further and further from the truth. The more wine is poured, the more wild the tales.

What I have realized with family memories is that everyone has their own version of the truth. Cousins may remember a family vacation in opposite ways. (Wonderful fun or dreadfully boring). Two siblings may have totally different versions of their parents. Some put them on pedestals. Others demonize them. And a few turn them into applause worthy comedians even if they weren’t really that funny at the time.

One aunt is writing up the story of my late Grandfather, a tall kind Montana Geologist I used to run around as a three year old. She is gathering up everyone’s memories to honor him. At first, everyone had a very different recollection. One sibling remembers spending way too much time in a bar as a kid and is frustrated by his neglect. Another remembers being taken out to lunch each day as an adult and delighted in the attention accompanied by a mid day Bloody Mary. 

Warm and hard stories emerge and we are left with one truth only-he was a complicated man, full of love, but also inconsistencies dotted with a few regrettable actions. All the memories we have swirl together, like the cream I pour into my morning coffee.

My favorite story is when my father told his parents he was going to marry my mother.

“Well I think I am going to be sick,” said my Granny and ran to the kitchen to brace herself. My poor mother stood there, stricken by the reaction. My Grandfather, unfazed, said, “Well. Kurt (that’s my uncle) go out to my van and grab that bottle of whiskey under the seat. Let’s celebrate.” And that was that.

Everyone remembers him differently. Just like everyone remembers the Grandpa on my mother’s side differently. To some he was an honorable WWII purple heart decorated man, trying to do his best through challenging times. To me he was always calm and reassuring, and a lover of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and the 6pm news. To others, he had a deep fury that simmered below the surface of his skin due to the war and family trauma. One sibling says she grew up walking on eggshells afraid to upset him. Yet another felt her was her main confidante.

We Are All and Then Some

Once all memories swirl and collide together we realize that all are true. No one is perfect and no one is awful. What makes us loveable humans is the fact we are complicated with multiple inconsistencies. We are different versions of ourselves to different people depending on chemistry, timing, and unpredictable life chaos. We ALL (myself included) have enviable traits and despicable ones. 

The stories wouldn’t be that enjoyable if our relatives were truly saints. In fact, no one would want to reminisce at all. The wine would stay corked and we’d all go to bed early.

By acknowledging the good and the bad together, we finally start to see the fuller picture of who they were. And when we see people for all they truly were, we honor them. And that brings us even closer together in their memory. Even if we dispute for a second. Even if we exaggerate a little. Wine or not.


The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.

– Salvador Dali

*Photo by Tony Reid, Unsplash. Glacier Park, Montana
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