What We Remember

In honor of a recent life milestone, I’ve been reflecting back on some memorable moments.

My family will tell you I have a “terrible memory.” Case in point: We watch a movie together and not until the very end do I realize that I’ve already seen the film. (This happens often.) I don’t retain digits easily — like locker combinations, historical dates, or credit card numbers. And I struggle to memorize text passages. I recall my botched attempts to commit Shakespeare’s “Out out brief candle…” soliloquy to memory as a teenager. Fed up, my younger sister finally blurted out from the back of the car, “Even I know it by now!”

This incompetence hasn’t hampered my ability to understand, retain, and convey information. For instance, I can give a presentation to an audience of thousands with strong command of the subject matter, able to provide context, explain details, and answer questions. But ask me to memorize a speech, and I’ll likely disappoint. Over the years, I’ve resorted to mnemonics and other creative tricks to trigger my sluggish brain. In high school, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the definition of “steel”; my father squeezed my knee in a ticklish spot until I got it right. To this day, if someone touches my knee in that same way, I’ll exclaim, “Steel: to make hard!”

I know I’m not the only one who struggles remembering things. Research has found that on average people forget 56% of information learned within an hour and 75% after six days. Humans typically have better visual and spatial memory but have difficulty remembering more abstract things like cards or numbers. Mathematician John von Neumann, artist Leonardo da Vinci, and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff all reportedly possessed eidetic memory (sometimes called photographic memory), having the capacity to recall something with high precision after only seeing it for a short time. Why do we remember some things and not others? In a recent study, scientists tried to deduce why some images, words, or events are easier to remember than others. Sometimes information is not effectively stored, while at other times the struggle is retrieving the memory. The ability to forget is also apparently crucial to how the brain works. Much about memory remains a mystery.

So, all this is to say that my “memories” should be taken with a certain grain of salt. In no particular order, here are 50 notable memories of mine:

1-5 Smells. You know how certain fragrances and odors can immediately transport you to another time, another place? This is because smells take a direct route to the limbic system via the olfactory bulb. A whiff of saltwater transports me to the Connecticut shore, collecting sea glass with my grandmother. The smell of a crackling campfire reminds me of sleepaway camp, singing songs and telling stories late into the night. The tang of oranges brings me back to childhood soccer games, where sweaty girls crowded at the sidelines during half time to snack on fruit wedges. The scent of fried fish evokes Christmas Eve at my in laws’ house, packed full of rowdy extended family members all vying to be heard over one another. When I smell lavender, I’m back in the maternity ward, nervous and excited to meet our son.

6-10 Travel. When I was a kid, my family traveled to Germany, where I remember trying new foods like spaetzle and struggling to comprehend the unfamiliar language. My honeymoon started in northern Italy, where we made a surprise visit to my husband’s ancestral hometown of Latisana. Long-lost relatives welcomed us with open arms, whipping up an Italian feast and repeating “la famiglia di New York!” I have no recollection of the seminar talk I gave at a technical conference while in graduate school, but I do remember being amused that the older professors boogied on the dance floor during the evening social. I have fond memories of a whitewater rafting adventure in the rain during our family trip to Yellowstone National Park. A few years ago, I organized a 17-person trip to Italy for our closest family members, who ranged in age from 5 months to 77 years. The trip was chock full of medieval history, Florentine art, and extraordinary food. What do I remember? The cooking lesson taught in broken English and returning home with bed bugs.

11-15 Education. I’ve been blessed with extraordinary educational experiences that whet my appetite for lifelong learning. I remember the healthy competition to be selected for our middle school jazz band, my jitters while standing in front of a microphone for a flute solo, and the joy of performing in Disney Land. As a high school student, I participated in the Summer Engineering Experience at Dartmouth (SEED), which gave me my first taste of digital design, bridge building, and college life. My fondest memories of being a SEED include cliff jumping into the New Hampshire stone quarries and picking wild blueberries that we ate with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In college, I learned as much outside the classroom as in, by participating in clubs like The Yale Herald, holed up in a campus basement putting together a weekly newspaper with fellow students that have become lifetime friends. In graduate school, I developed independent research skills, spending hours running experiments in the lab, guided by a wise and caring faculty advisor. I recall sneaking away from the lab to take long hikes in the open space preserves of the Stanford foothills and tossing a coin with a lab-mate to decide whose name would be listed first on our co-published book (he won). The Forums for Executive Women (FEW) program helped me grow my network, my confidence, and my leadership skills at a crucial time in my development. My favorite part? Meeting up with participants ahead of the sessions to catch Broadway matinees.

16-20 Games. As a kid, I played the card game gin rummy with my great grandmother Nana. I remember how she patiently helped me arrange the cards in my small hands and how we would play over and over until it was time for bed. Rummy Cube and Quirkle are family favorites, our go-to games when everyone is together, sometimes with the addition of made-up rules (like “no saying proper nouns” or “9s are wild”) to keep everyone on their toes. I’ve enjoyed escape rooms, attempted with both family and colleagues, working together to solve clues before the time runs out. Wordle is a current obsession of mine (along with 300k+ others), and I enjoy the few minutes each day spent trying to guess the daily word…and then comparing scores with my husband or daughter or friend.

21-25 Foods. More than sustenance, food nourishes the soul and often brings me back to particular events or experiences. Traditional Jewish foods like noodle kugel evoke memories of family holidays spent celebrating with my grandparents. I had an allergic reaction to eating a strawberry when I was a child; I recall my tongue swelling up and my mother pouring medicine down my throat while dialing 911. Lobster was a rare delicacy, enjoyed on vacation in Nantucket. My sister took her sweet time eating hers, so she always had some left long after the rest of us were finished. My mother used to make me zucchini bread because she knew it was my favorite; since she passed away, my mother-in-law often brings a foil-wrapped loaf when she visits. My daughter wrote her college essay about making mushroom risotto, describing in vivid detail the satisfying smell of the sautéing mushrooms and the creamy goodness of the final product; I will forever think of her when I eat it.

26-30 Career. I’ve been fortunate to have a fulfilling career journey so far, though I was never quite sure where that journey would take me. My internships at Hewlett Packard (HP) and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) gave me a chance to see what it was like working in the tech industry and to believe I could fit in there; I became “Kathryn” while working at AMD because there was another “Kathy” already in the group. Getting hired by IBM Research right out of graduate school enabled me to continue to do technical innovation at a premier corporate research institution. I recall brainstorming with colleagues about how we might use materials that self-assemble into small, repeating patterns to revolutionize chip building. Becoming a manager was a pivotal moment for me, when I became responsible for supporting and enabling others in their career development. Leading a team in development felt like a real team sport, everyone working together toward a common goal, and then celebrating the successes together. Becoming a business executive meant that I was accountable for running large global teams and significant business functions, awesome responsibilities that were both daunting and invigorating.

31-35 Innovations. Technology innovations through the years have transformed life as we know it. I recall the primitive Radio Shack TRS-80 personal computer that I was allowed to borrow from my elementary school for the weekend so I could make progress on my computer graphics program. When email became pervasive, I enjoyed messaging instantaneously and asynchronously with friends and family. While away for the summer, I recall emails back and forth with my best friend, where we jointly composed a ridiculous song, adding a new stanza each day. My first mobile phone was large and clunky but allowed for communication while in transit; today, I can’t imagine not being able to reach my kids at any time of day or night. The advent of the digital camera allowed us to take huge quantities of high-quality photos. GPS meant never again getting lost or having to remember directions; I was suddenly more confident venturing by myself to new places.

36-40 Injuries. I’ve never been especially injury prone, but I recall my various minor injuries with some clarity. As a young child, I got frequent ear infections and had to have ear tubes inserted. In kindergarten, I fell off a see saw when my partner “bumped” me, causing me to hit my head on the pavement. The teacher had me lie down on a cot with ice held to my bleeding scalp until my father was able to get there to pick me up. I picture myself sprawled across the back seat of my dad’s mustard-yellow Toyota Corolla while he drove me to the hospital, where we met up with my mother so I could get stitches that the nurse said would feel “just like a bee sting.” In elementary school I got frequent nose bleeds, especially when standing below the basketball hoop in gym. In middle school, while packing the car for a family vacation, I got my thumb caught in the handle of a screen door. The thumb fracture meant that I had to practice flute for my jazz band audition with a gauze-wrapped appendage. In high school, during fall soccer tryouts, I partially tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), an injury that took me out for the season and caused me to wear a leg brace when playing sports for many years.

41-45 Television Shows. As a young kid, my favorite television show was Emergency!, the story of paramedics Roy and John who responded to all sorts of incidents like a cat stuck in a tree or a child fallen into a sewer. My mother said I woke up from ear tube surgery desperate to watch the show; my grandmother always said it was “too scary!” As a teen, I loved Quincy, enamored by the brilliant medical examiner who solved complex cases in 60 minutes or less. I’ve enjoyed Law and Order over the years, mostly because it is on nearly any time of day or night. Friends was an all-time favorite, but I recall my shock when Rachel decided to name her daughter “Emma”; I was six months pregnant with my first child at the time and we had already picked the name because we thought it was classically beautiful but uncommon. (To my chagrin, Emma soon became one of the most popular girls’ names in the U.S.) My daughter introduced me to Grey’s Anatomy and I’ve enjoyed watching with her, appreciating her unique take on the drama.

46-50 Family. My sister was born when I was just 15 months old; while I have no memory of that moment, being a big sister has been an important part of my life. Only a year apart in school, we grew up together, carpooling to Hebrew School, soccer practice, and Indian Princesses. As kids, I thought we were so different from one another, but as adults it’s clear that we have more in common than not. My rainy wedding day was a joyous celebration with family and friends, a start of a new life together with my husband, when two families became one. Becoming a mother was a monumental moment for me, when life ceased being about me and shifted to a focus on them. I recall those early days and weeks of caring for a needy newborn, unsure why she was crying and what I could do about it. Losing my mother to complications from lung cancer left a huge hole in my life; I remember delivering the eulogy with my pajama-clad son perched on my hip. Having a pet has brought unconditional love and companionship, my warm fuzzy dog snuggled by my feet as I sleep and as I work.

I’m sure my memories of these experiences are colored by the distance of time. I find it noteworthy that what we tend to remember is not what we accomplished, degrees received, or salary earned. Instead, we retain the essence of our experiences: how we felt, who we were with, what it meant to us. Looking back provides a valuable perspective of what matters most. It also allows us to focus forward on making the most of what’s to come.

4 thoughts on “What We Remember

  1. Happy Birthday! The memories you’ve retained are lovely.
    The one you mentioned about smell reminded me of something I experienced one month back. I was cleaning through some boxes I’ve avoided that were my mothers. When I opened one box I could smell her house. I’m not too proud to say I nearly dived into the box! I miss her desperately.
    In the years to come you will be able to read your post and these memories will come back to life.
    Enjoy 😊


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