"Speak, Memory": Or Not?

This morning I inadvertently sparked an amazing discussion in my German Genealogy group by posting a question about the word "Schnabel," which in my house was the word for the broken little pieces at the bottom of the bag, as in "Are there any potato chips left, or is it all schnabels?"  I've never been able to track down the source of that word.  This simple question led to a large number of people sharing childhood words and customs, and many delighted exclamations of "Oh yes!  I remember that too!"  And this got me thinking about memory and its role in family history.

Ideally, we would have all sat down at some point with our elders and noted down all the things they remembered about their childhoods.  Did we?  Probably not.  But did we ever note all the little things we remember about our own childhoods, since that will be family history sooner or later? (Later, please, if I get a vote.)  If you're like me, by the time you're in your sixties it feels as if so much is lost in the sands of time -- what was that person's name?  Where was it we went to get those amazing onion rings?  (This is a question I ask myself.)  Even though it might feel that we're "losing" information and memories, scientists will tell us that long-term memory is 1) unlimited in terms of the number of entries it can record, and 2) permanent, in the sense that entries in long-term memory do not fade.

So what's the problem?  Access.  As we age, it becomes harder to access those memories, which becomes a problem when we finally sit down, upon retirement, with all the time in the world to write down all those stories . . . that now we can't remember.   We retrieve memories or information in four ways:

1.    Recall (simple access without cues)
2.    Recollection (reconstructing memories, using cues)
3.    Recognition (remembering by re-experiencing) and
4.    Relearning (just what it says -- relearning makes remembering easier)

It's the "recall" part I have trouble with most often.  I often feel frustrated when I'm talking with someone who remembers so much better than I -- I wish I could remember things that well!

What can we do to help ourselves remember?  Well, for one thing, the conversation I had with my genealogy group this morning was wonderfully stimulating -- at this point, there are 100 responses to my original question, and they're still coming in.  By sharing memories, cues are created, and any number of the responses had a "Yes!  I remember!" quality to them.  Other people have happily said that they never knew the meaning that particular word their German elders used, but now they did.  I had enough memories stimulated that a blog post on the subject soon will follow :)  If you can engineer a discussion with a number of people that you aren't related to but who share your ethnic or national background, you can bring many things to the surface.

By putting yourself back into certain experiences, recollection can be facilitated.  Eating the foods of your childhood, listening to music, reading a story book will bring back the memories around that subject.  I have an empty purse-size container of Shalimar perfume that had been my mom's -- if I take a whiff, I am transported back to watching my mother get ready to go out, putting on her makeup, doing her hair, choosing jewelry . . . and my sister and me saying, "You look so pretty, Mommy -- "

Finally, this should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway -- when a memory flits through your mind, don't let it go by!  Make a note of it, on your cell phone, on a scrap of paper, anything that will let you recapture it when you have a moment to write down the full memory.  This is precious material!  And we should do all we can to preserve it.


  1. Interesting how that one bit of household lingo got the entire group sharing their memories, Elise. Sounds like it was a lively exchange. Don't you love it when group meetings go that way?

    An aunt by marriage in my husband's family was called by a nickname that she said was a German word meaning something like "dirty face." Family members still call her that, though she is--I assure you--well beyond childhood. One day, in doing genealogical research on that family's line, I thought I'd try to look that word up. Turns out, there was more than one way to say German words back then--something I, not a German descendant, would not have known--and finding that out helped reveal which type of German her mother's family likely spoke. I thought that was useful information. Gaining an understanding of the various branches of the German language also seemed helpful, as a word in high German might not be the same as Low German. In pursuing those childhood memories of the things your elders might have said around the home, I imagine that understanding would come in handy.


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