Some are sweet, others bitter. Some are recent, others are old. Some are unforgettable; others vanish the moment they happen. Such are memories.
The human brain has limitless storing capacity. Each and every single thing we experience from birth is recorded in different parts of our brain. The brain holds information we need to use on a daily basis ─ like the names of the people we interact with every day, family and friends’ phone numbers, our internet accounts’ passwords, our bank card’s pin code. While you’re likely to instantly recall such information, you will need a few seconds, minutes or even hours sometimes to remember the family name of an old friend that you haven’t seen for a while.
A well “rehearsed” memory is a powerful one. If we do frequently recall old events or names, we are sort of rehearsing our brain parts related to the memory whereas if an event didn’t leave an impression, no matter how hard we try to recall it we are unable to because it has been pushed back in the brain.
I am writing this long introduction so that I can put it in some context when sharing a rather strange event that occurred a few days ago. I was dozing in front of the TV when a childhood memory crept to the surface of my half asleep brain.
I must have been in the third grade when our Arabic teacher asked us to read something. It was about a little boy who used to call the phone operator, a nice and educated lady, every day to ask her random questions that she would patiently and wisely answer. The picture attached to the text is still clear in my head: a little boy standing on a chair and holding in his hand the phone that was hanging on the wall.
I didn’t just recall this. I remembered something I had erased, or thought I had, from memory. This text really impressed me and I believed every single word of it. I was at an age where children liked to ask questions and could not get enough of the 4 Ws: “Why? Who? What? When?”; I wasn’t satisfied by my parents’ laconic answers. So there I was, in the school bus, waiting impatiently to get back home and call the operator. I was thinking about all those unanswered questions and how this lady was going to explain to me “where do babies really come from?” because the “cabbage” answer my older brother had given hadn’t been convincing ─ though I had stopped eating any kind of salad for a while, just in case a baby was growing in there). I had a million of other questions to ask: where does the rainbow come from? Is it true that when you bite your nails a tree of nails grow in your stomach? If you squint and someone scares you, will you remain cross-eyed for the rest of your life?
Finally, the bus dropped us home and I rushed up the stairs. As soon as my mom opened the door, I ran for the phone. I remember hanging up the phone more than 10 times before having the courage to dial the number mentioned in the story. As I waited for the phone to be answered, I thought soon I would have all the answers to all my questions … But then a “robot” voice answered: “The number you are calling is out of reach.” I was so disappointed at that time, but thought that hundreds of other children were probably keeping the nice operator busy with their questions so I promised to try reach her the next day.
As I was sitting there, remembering my disappointment and my vain attempts at reaching the operator over the next days, I found myself reaching for the phone and dialling that same number. This time, however, I had “grown-up” questions to ask: “Why did we succeed in sending a man to the moon but haven’t found a cure for cancer yet? Why are children dying from starvation in some countries while others battle obesity? Why are wars being waged in the name of God, while all the holy books teach us love, respect and tolerance?”
As expected, the number was more than ever out of reach.
(Sarah Sfeir, who holds a Master’s degree from USEK University in Lebanon, is a Ph.D. candidate in translation. She can be reached at: email@example.com).