Flattening Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve

And now, days later, as I field my own self-initiated questions with no ready answers, I make a promise to myself to make my memories matter. To write.

Flattening Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve
Photo by Spencer Davis / Unsplash

by Jen Schneider

I recall buying bread (Martin’s Potato) before heading to the venue, but not the scent I wore when first wed.

I remember the hospital beeps (all vitals stable/monitored) but not the feeling of relief when the eleven-hour surgery was moved from ongoing (operating room doors red) to complete (parents welcome, all lights green).

I recall odd flavors. Pickles on toast. Butternut squash with a dash of pepper. Curry on rice. But not the sound of my sons’ and daughters’ first cries. Or the names/flavors of their favorite lullabies.

Most days the highlights (an old-time Kodak-smile, print on demand memory reel) involved nothing more than a tub of Elmer’s and a library book or two. We didn’t make do. We did well. Library visits each Wednesday. Tote bags stocked.

I remember evenings of books by the water tower. Hungry Caterpillars and Good Night Moons put to the test. Along with an infinite number of treasures with no end of the rainbow chest.

Moon cycles mostly fueled of bologna and mustard on rye. Macaroni and cheese. Grilled peas. Bares soles on grass. Freshly mowed. Chasing puppies to rid fleas.

I recall first base hits though I never recall the outcome of a game (too long / too slow / too much of the same).

I remember tooth fairy wishes, but not first kisses.

I recall saying no to a fellow on a landline connection (elastic cords and knuckles closely intertwined) but not the first wooden block chipped during a belt test (no kicks below the hip).

I remember the soccer boot (cleat met mud) from midfield but not the shoe (patent or wedge) she wore to her first prom.

I recall sitting at the kitchen table planning a mitzvah but not the flavor of the food so carefully ordered.

I remember the sound of the car engine in the driveway but not the sound of my daughters’ voices traveling eighty with Bruce blaring on the Highway.

I recall the paper curtain in the hospital emergency room. And the nurse’s whispers. Clearly confused. You don’t want medicine, one said. Yet I don’t recall the pain of the birth. Neither the degree nor the time r(t)ally. Cries in stereo.

I remember the OB’s blue gloves still on while talking about the Chinese food he had ordered for his girls at home.

I recall insisting I couldn’t be in labor -- the washing machine still on.

All spices on yet I no longer recall what was on my tray. Those delivery days. Or the one after.

I remember the newborns - times four - wrapped and tucked in baby blanket but not the weight of the fibers (and the moments) nor the feel of their fingers or the scent of their breath.

I recall the chocolate pudding on the floor but not the taste of it on my tongue. I remember the mouse in the basement but not the feel of the baby’s toes on my shoulders.

I remember the laughter of my oldest son – 7, 8, 9, more – streaming from under his door as he read (far past bedtime). But not the name of the books he devoured.

I recall the day we drove to pick up our newest puppy, a long wait. But not the lyrics the children sung in the back seat of the van.

I remember the tech’s words (don’t move), but not the sound of his voice as the MRI machine whirred.

I recall the doctor speaking (three, two, one) as he inserted an extended needle into my newborn’s hip, but not the sound of my baby’s cry.

I remember sitting in small office receiving big messages, but the contents of neither.

I recall Halloween treks and pillowcases stuffed of Twix (no Twinkies allowed) and Babe Ruths (an unexpected favorite, a persistent truth), but not the costume attire (or if the children ever tired).

I remember the piles of art that returned as desks were cleaned at year end but not the images any of the sheets contained.

I recall nursing through the night, but not the songs I’d sing to welcome sleep.

I remember games of Candyland, Connect 4, Othello, Chess, and Mastermind. But I no longer recall whose favorite was Curious George and Charades.

I recall the leaning towers of ABC blocks and the sound of my husband’s key turn in the front door lock but not the food we ate when we were out of eggs and low on milk.

I remember second helpings of sweet and sour meatballs but not the sound of voice of the recipe’s creator.

I recall knitting needles (sized eight) but not where the final product would wait.

I remember shifting furniture to clear space for the annual Thanksgiving play, but neither the plot, the lines, or the sounds of the day.

I wish I had learned of Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve sooner. Or perhaps I simply hadn’t remembered. The brain both a sponge (by age three, the average child's brain has reached about 75% of its adult weight / up through at least year five scholars say) and a leaky faucet (information and memories quickly lost without explicit attempts to retain). Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience suggest learners remember only 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, and 30% of what they read. Life’s series of propositions (and prepositions) not only fleeting but less a meeting of the minds than a field of buckets, crosswords, and hide and go seek.

Each of us always going somewhere. Destinations as nebulous as origins. Even now, as I write, the recollections flutter. Suspension builds. Motors blend with melodies. Dimensions stir.

Newton teaches that an object in motion stays in motion (the relationship between force, velocity, and torque also distant lesson). Always a fan of first-hand experience, I write to put his theory to the test. I stir. Season. Simmer. Then savor. Ultimately, I’m pleased (as punch amidst gut punches and empty stares) to battle Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve amidst whatever courses lie ahead.

Now, I know. Like Ebbinghaus, Dale, Newton, more. It’s intention that matters. It paves a way for memorialized memory (and opportunities). For curves flattened. For the muse. For the ordinary personal news. For recollections. Our way. It’s true. Bic pens banish blurs. No. 2 pencils consolidate memories into words.

Researchers also tout the benefits of note taking for retention. Notes as much a tool for thought as a tool to document. Sigh. If I knew then what I’d no longer recall now, I’d have filled a thousand notebooks. The beauty of life’s haul. This coming year I resolve to be present and to listen. To myself. For I know that as memory falls (and fails), writing is the only way to reclaim our own senses.

No matter that life is hard. To remember even harder. Senses slippery.

Ordinary days. Extraordinary desires for a replay. The more I recall the thirstier I become.

An insatiable thirst to remember grows deeper as the number of years pile. Like transcripts. And tuition bills. And miles between then and now. Them and us.

It’s mundane some might say but I believe they digress. The mundane are the moments that I long for most. The lazy Sunday mornings just after dawn. No bells to trick. No alarms to outwit. The summer nights under the lights. On the driveway. Doing things our way. Sticks of pastel-colored chalk. No need to talk. Radios on high. No need for cell phones. No reasons to try. To remember. If only I knew then what I’d forget now. I’d have filled a hundred notebook by the light of the evening fireflies. I long to remember / to string / the strands of days’ together in a personal harmony.

Science talks about the novel as sticky (experiences full of fright or extreme delight). Yet I long to remember the ordinary. Grape jam on noses. Puffy sticker trades. Nail polish mistakes. New sneakers on breaks.

In this essay alone, I’ve collected memories long forgotten. Dusted them off. Wiped them clean. Written them down. Sight unseen. In the new year as news procreates and news mountains to climb proliferate, I will write to remember. To not surrender. To challenge Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve to a duo - my Bic pen my sword.

I went to dinner with old friends (none of us old) the other night. Don’t ask the date. Don’t ask what I ordered. I’d just as likely remember the details as not. I probably had a salad (French or Italian dressing) and a burger (turkey or Impossible; cheese and mustard). Condiments on tops. Gluten-free bun and dressing on the side. My husband likely ordered something similar (minus the gluten sensitivity restrictions). All days a blur. Our friends – a trio I have known since the time I first met my now husband twenty-five years prior. For years, we’d spend holidays together. Bid farewell to a year freshly consumed. Welcome the new. In the beginning we tended to always look forward. We were too young to know otherwise. Too few experiences to reminisce and recollect. We’d celebrate with streamers and blow horns. Chili (ground turkey, pork, and beef) in slow cookers. Cards quickly shuffled. Also, counted. “Out with the old. In with the new” – a cliche both often verbalized and long ingrained in memory. The annual gathering was a tradition that began as a group of couples. We’d board planes (pack board games) and gas up cars (along with boxes of Philly Tastykakes). Stuff nylon duffels of canned goods and frozen meat (ground chuck still cheap). Money was tight. Tradition tighter. We vowed to never let up. Seize experiences. Never regret. Never forget.

We made memories (malleable, Play Doh under fingernails / Silly Putty in palms). We made meals (cereal bars / noodles in butter sauce / chicken in wine / macaroons). We made babies (basic science, mostly a classic mix of DNA - both in vitro and otherwise). We made music (bandstand and orchestral - harmonicas and kazoos all around) and chased sounds (creaks in strange beds / unfamiliar birds / basement turds) while watching movies (Memoria and Insects along with classics - Grease and Rent). The babies made travel more challenging. Extra tickets. Extra pureed turnips. Extra time on the road. We’d stream Bruce. Talk about Rush. Strike up conversation with fellow travelers. Compass dials and cloth diapers constantly spinning. No matter the laundry. No matter the mayhem. We were up for the challenge.

We swapped dishwasher duty. Shared caretaking responsibilities. Mostly, the babies bounced to the beat. Most notes in tune. Goldfish in tiny mouths. Trout Fishing in tiny ears. Big fishes on surround sound. One. Then two. Then two to the power eight. Then eight plus four. One – no two, more.  Fourteen in total. Across a span of sixteen years. Quite a feat.

The tradition was punctuated by periods of spotty connection. Aging elders. Sporadic reluctance (everyone tires) and challenges of antiquated routines (desires for destinations more inspired). Then, a pandemic. Fast forward through time. Framed of middle of the night feedings (two, four, six) and midday fast balls (tee ball then nine innings of fastpitch and softball). Now, the babies turned toddlers are nearly grown. Graduates who’ve been toasted and then traded nylon duffels for frequent flyer miles. New coasts. New roasts. The first to wed uttered vows this past summer.

We joke he married young but he’s the same age several of us were when we too exchanged rings.

The other night, travel offered a spontaneous opportunity to meet. Around a wooden oak table. No babies at our feet. Menus in hand. Laminated and layered. Liquors and lay-ups. Appetizers and antacids. Speakers and surround sound.

The dinner served as a new meet-and-greet. One of the initial crew had separated. A new partner, eager to learn more of the often-recollected banter, joined. She asked about firsts. First meetings. First getaways. First looks.

“Tell me about your first date,” she said.

My mind drew a blank. I hesitated, then excused myself and forgave my silence. I paused then admitted an obvious truth. I cannot recall what we did. Where we traveled. Or what I first said when returning from that date. I know I walked one way and he the other. The weather - perhaps it was sunny. Or cold. Or heavy with cloud cover. I no longer remember the weather on the day my first (second / third / fourth) born first cried. Or the daily news. The books talk about postpartum blues, but they less often acknowledge the memory divide.

She shrugged and waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter.”

I smiled. “Doesn’t it,” I whispered to myself. Then admitted a hard truth. Memories matter. And, like most things of great value, require effort to curate.

As I sat at the table, amidst heavy chatter, I committed to do what I could. What I knew I should. If only I had for years prior.

Silently, I resolved to make my memories matter. And to write. To remember. In ways both bare skinned and butt naked.

Over a bottle of wine, we traded recollections. Truth be told, there were more guesses than reality-based confections. I wandered miles without moving from my seat - mostly in silence. East. West. North. South. Traveled years like supermarket aisles. Mostly browsing. I told myself I left my list at home (Trader Joe’s in the same complex), but the truth is I forgot that, too. I sought origins. Faced the realities (and limits) of my memory.

And now, days later, as I field my own self-initiated questions with no ready answers, I make a promise to myself to make my memories matter. To write.

I may not remember the hue of the icing on my children’s homemade birthday cakes, but I know there are no second chances. I’m well trained in the fallibility of memory. It stings most when what’s lost is personal.

“Lost but not forgotten,” the Hallmark cards say. I opt, instead, to smile and admit the inevitably of memory decay. Ebbinghaus first wrote of the phenomenon in 1885. There’s a proven solution, you see. Hidden in repetition. And though I may not be able to remember today, I promise myself to seize the opportunity to retrieve. Come what may.

For as long as I can write, I will. I pledge to do so – to remember. My story. As lived. In a thrift story fleece hoodie. It’s neither fancy nor fine. Neither upscale nor ready for resale. Simply - mine.

I no longer recall how we spent the hours from dawn until dusk.

But I remember the scrapes on knees and dizzying trees as I chased a newly converted bicycle. Wheels downsized.

“How did you meet your wife, sorry I forget,” the newest group member asked my husband and his pal to my left. Both paused. Spoons stuffed of hot apple pie perched in midair. Each of us lost in searches and recollections of our collective lives and scented layers of gauze.

My husband joked as he often does and dished up a story on steroids. A meeting of chance on a NYC night flush with holiday cheer. Smack in the middle of Times Square. A meeting of love at first sight he mused. He was lost in recollections both baked and perfectly delivered. Expertly packaged. A hint of cinnamon. A dash of spice. An off the shelf romance.

While he savored his version of reality, I realized my truth formed far from his. I recall a blind date that I believed was of neither high-quality design nor destiny.

The reality is neither of us remember the initial feeling. Not the words exchanged. Not the way we spent the day. He believes we shared a slice of pizza. Pepperoni on top. I recall a pretzel. Extra mustard. No salt.

Now, as we prep and plan for a new year to come, I pledge to write to remember. My news. Not to confuse. To consolidate. To recollect. To curate.

Time always fleeting. It’s neither mine nor ours. Like babies turned toddlers. For every flower there is a season. For every evergreen there is a reason. Seeds first planted later sprout.

After the dinner ended, I grabbed my Rite-Aid ballpoint pen. From my faux leather tote. A Bic no doubt. A way to write. A way to remember. Not for clout. Not for consumption. But to document without presumption. Truth much more authentic when one’s own. I write now. To hold on to the sweetness of life before it’s outgrown.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. Her latest collection, 14 (Plus) Reasons Why from free lines press, is now available.