I tell myself that I remember the day a man walked on the moon. It is a tricky thing, memory: inextricable from our identity, personal and cultural.
I’m certain of this memory, which places me in the living room of our Edmonton house, sitting cross-legged on the orange shag carpet at about two o’clock on a summer afternoon. The only evidence of this memory I can point to are the small, square black and white pictures that my dad took of the television screen. The pictures are vintage with wide, white borders and JUL ‘69 printed on the bottom, and they chronicle Neil Armstrong’s descent down the ladder. Growing up, I would look at these pictures again and again; they were kept in one of the two family albums my mom put together. With the photos as my marker, I have convinced myself that I remember watching the lunar landing live on TV, though I was not yet five years old when humans took that one giant leap.
This July day in 1969 is one of those “Where were you when…” moments, a flashbulb memory (link for more youthful readers). Many moments such as these dot our timelines, and we can vividly and confidently recall the scenes.
For example, I clearly remember sitting on the roof of our mobile home on a cloudy Sunday in May, looking south for any trace of a volcanic ash cloud. Sundays were for sleeping in, so I would have been snoring through any sound that may have travelled from Mt. St. Helens to my home. Later that same year, I remember standing at the record bins of my part-time job, restocking them with inventory on a quiet Monday night. When my manager Leslie told me John Lennon had been shot, she was crying; I did not know how to feel. But I do remember thinking we did not have enough copies of Double Fantasy in stock.
Another such flashbulb memory happened on this day in 1986. I was attending SFU, living with my grandma, and driving a Datsun that cost me $850. I was going to be a teacher!
January 28th was a Tuesday that year, and I was happy I didn’t have classes on that day because my car would not have got me there. So, instead of spending the day catching up on my reading or working on papers coming due, I spent it under the hood. The smell of oil rags, brake fluid, and exhaust return to my senses when I think about that day. I can see my friend Jeff pulling up in the alley; he hopped out of his working vehicle and came around to join me in staring at my own cold, quiet engine. Leaning in under the hood, he said, “Did you hear about Challenger?” Until that moment, I hadn’t. And then an image in my mind of Christa McAuliffe’s students watching live TV that morning ended any chance my car would be repaired that day.
Flashbulb memories return in living colour with vivid detail, and this can be attributed to the powerful emotions which are evoked when we hear news of these events. The power of these memories is also attributed to how they fit into one’s overall history. As a result, these memories become etched into our minds much more strongly than other memories, making us even more confident of their veracity. For example, I can taste the popcorn my friend Dave and I ate with the movie we were watching on that August night when the car crashed in a Paris tunnel; I can feel the stunned and prolonged paralysis rooting me in front of my English 10 class when the news of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrived that April; and I feel the confusion, and smell the Old Spice soap on my half-shaven face from that September morning when I stared, numb with disbelief, at the two large, burning matches on the TV screen.
Typically, moments considered in this way are significant and universal. And they are not always catastrophic and painful. I feel the November cold on my feet when I recall waking our children and bringing them to our cold basement TV room to witness Barack Obama and his family waving to the Chicago crowd celebrating that night. However, there are certainly many more personal moments of lucid and vivid recollection, both joyful and wracking. On the first anniversary of my standing in a COVID-19 testing line, Dr. Bonnie Henry referenced another anniversary which is likely a flashbulb memory for herself, and perhaps for many in our province. And this moment happened on this day in 2020.
It was January 28th, 2020, that Dr. Henry confirmed the first case of COVID-19 infection in British Columbia. I don’t have a clear memory of where I was that day; I’m sure I was consumed with semester turn-around demands and was too busy to watch or listen to anything broadcast between 8 and 5. But as evidenced in Dr. Henry’s comments this week, powerful emotions surface at this anniversary. She noted that after two long years, we are all “very tired of this virus.” Then with audible fatigue in her voice, Dr. Henry added, “no one more than me…” As if to steel herself – and her audience – with some optimism, Dr. Henry continued: “Our reality is that COVID is here with us right now, and we’re not yet over it… we have more distance to go, but we will see our way through this phase of our storm as well.”
The funny thing about flashbulb memories is that, while they are vivid and powerful when recalled, they are susceptible to influence through the years. We can convince ourselves that associations with a ‘Kodak moment’ are true memories, and sorrow or glee may be exaggerated with the passage of time. Rose-coloured or otherwise, I am eager to be moved by the rush of vivid recollection that will arise when prompted with, “Where were you when the pandemic ended?”