Searching for the Why of a Memory

I mentioned before that my kids gave me a subscription to Storyworth, which sends weekly story prompts to me. At the end of the year, the family will get a book of the stories. Here’s the prompt and my story from week two.

What was your most memorable birthday? My 21st.

I’m in our tiny apartment living room, and in the middle between the couch and the TV is the ironing board and a basket full of wrinkled clothes. The TV is on, but the incessant drizzle and gray sky outside the sliding glass door overpowers the 24” TV screen. The wet pavement of our cracked patio looks nasty with blown damp leaves. Bedraggled, drooping petunias surround the cement square. It’s my 21st birthday, and my husband is at work. Eventually I get dressed in my new jeans and matching vest with leather trim. Half the laundry is still in the basket, but we’re meeting at Valentine’s nightclub in the Kalamazoo Center. I drive toward downtown. The rain has let up, but there is still a slight mist, and the streets are wet. A 21st birthday is supposed to be a big deal, at least that’s what I’ve heard. But this is a disagreeable Tuesday, and I’ve been completely alone all day. As I get close to the outdoor mall, the sun wakes and a brilliant rainbow spreads it wings across the sky. I park my car in the parking garage attached to the Kalamazoo Center, then I head toward the convention building, across the skywalk nestled underneath the rainbow. I look down the long expanse of hallway. The new sun is glinting sideways through the glass. What’s that lying on the ground halfway across? When I get closer, I stop and look down. There’s a $100 bill, partially folded in half, as if it fell from a large wad of money. Or as if it descended from the rainbow.

Note:$100 in 1976 is $469.71 in 2021


I’ve wondered why this birthday was so memorable to me. I’m not a person motivated by money, much to the gardener’s annoyance. A gloomy, gray day with icky ground isn’t my idea of a fun time. Neither is ironing, something I almost never do today.  And I’m sure I had a lot of fun at Valentine’s, a club owned by actress Karen Valentine. They made great Brandy Alexanders, and I loved that drink in those days (drinking age was 18). But the memory of that particular evening escapes me. Instead, I have a very detailed, almost extensive, memory of the afternoon ironing and then the drive downtown and finding the money.  It seems that the effect of a pleasing surprise arriving almost miraculously after a period of feeling depressed was so powerful that I’ve never forgotten it. In fact, it probably contributed to me becoming a more optimistic person than I had previously been.

This memory is involuntary, as described by writer and critic Sven Birkerts. It’s been 9 years ago that I wrote about working on my memoir (hahahahahaha) and how important involuntary memories are to the pursuit of the meaning of our memories. You can read it here: Breaking the Codes of Childhood

Imagine if I hadn’t found that $100 on my birthday. I might be a different person today.

And guess what? I found a photo of me in that jeans outfit in the same month as my 21st birthday! This is a different night, at a friend’s home.



Filed under #amrevising, #writerlife, #writerslife, Flash Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Writing

52 responses to “Searching for the Why of a Memory

  1. Amy

    That’s remarkable that you think that that moment changed who you became. I am not sure I have one such moment.

    21 and you were married! I thought I was young at 23 (I didn’t then, but now I think of how young, innocent, and naive I was).

    I asked my husband to ask my daughters to get this for my birthday. I am STILL waiting…my birthday was 25 days ago! (He forgot…)

    • I never would have thought that that event changed me in any way until I really started to interrogate that memory.
      We got married at 19!
      Do you want me to contact H? Is he on Facebook? I can kick butt when I need to ;).

  2. I think I would remember that too, finding a $100 bill – even now, with today’s inflation. Finding that bill probably helped you remember the rest of that day for such a long time too. Associations are great triggers for memories.

  3. All fascinating…story, style, thoughts on memory. Why remember this and not that? One day my sis and I encountered a woman at the Toledo Museum of Art. My sister recognized her. The woman obviously recognized me, but I had no memory if her or her twin sister.

    We were at the museum because I wanted my sister to do something enjoyable in the midst of caring for two difficult parents.

    That encounter must have 23 years ago. I remember that meeting that lasted a minute but not being in a high school choir with the woman and her twin for two years. Maybe I remember because I felt stupid. Or because of my sister.

    • That’s awful when someone remembers you and you don’t remember them. My mother has had several people over the years tell her they knew me in high school, and I have zero memory of them :/. Of course, that was a disturbing time of my life. I agree that maybe embarrassment made you remember that encounter at the art museum. Embarrassment is a powerful emotion.

  4. I was married at 18, and I remember what living small paycheck to paycheck was like. $100 would have represented freedom from worry for a short time. You’re right that involuntary memories are such strange things to figure out.

    • Wow, you were even younger than me (at 19)! So unusual to find people today who got married so young. Yes, I well remember. I also remember working so hard for my $300 scholarship LOL. Involuntary memories are just the dumbest little things. Sometimes they are hard to put into words because they are not much more than an image that when you interrogate it for details gets more blurry.

  5. Wonderful story! I love the $100 feeling like it had descended from that rainbow and I imagine how you looking for it and noticing the pleasant surprise of it was part of your feeling of optimism that would develop…Similar to how the poet Mary Oliver had written something along the lines of ‘If you do not have angels in your head you won’t ever see one.’ 😊🙏

  6. Even back then you were a “pet” person! I have a vivid memory of my dad’s wake. I was eleven. Not so much the funeral though.

  7. I think I’d remember finding $100–just writing that, I remember finding $10 on the pavement when I was a teen. It seemed like so much money then!
    I didn’t realize you were so young when you married. I was 21 and a 1/2. 😀 I spent my 21st birthday studying for a final. My roommate made us whiskey sours to celebrate my legal drinking age.
    Cute photo!

    • $10 to a teen in those days would have been wonderful! We were actually 19 when we got married :). We got married on a Sunday, spent the night in Grand Rapids, an hour away, and went to classes on Tuesday. And, you’re right, I was still in school on my 21st birthday as I graduated one month later, in August.

  8. Loved the vivid birthday memory with a happy ending and also loved the picture of you at 21!
    I so often wonder why I have the memories I do – I think they are triggered by photographs. I have a million, and the only person who took them all must have been my mother – who as far as I know never looked at them in her older years. Go figure.

    • So funny about your mother not looking at the photos when she was older. When we’re younger we want to hang onto all those moments, so we take pix. But how can we go through them all and still keep on living? Does that make any sense at all? That said, I do like to see a small amount of old pix in a week. Not enough to be overwhelming, but a few to keep the memories spinning around. Because you’re right, of course, that the photos really do trigger the memories. They say the sense of smell is best at memory triggering, but I think photos are even better.

  9. Luanne–you are a cutie!! Sweet pic, of course with an animal:) I like the idea of a seemingly mundane event changing your identity, or transforming it. Your family gave you a thoughtful gift that will yield so much back to them. What a great concept!

    • Yes, it was a great gift! Every week, even if I don’t want to, I dutifully respond to the writing prompt so I don’t let the kids down. It’s brilliant haha.
      And, yes, of course, I’m with the animals.

  10. I enjoyed your memory. I have always had a soft spot for my 21st. My mom sent me a check for 21 dollars which translated to 84 draft beers. I’ll never forget that recognition on my birthday. I’ve had brandy Alexanders in Kalamazoo. It was at a private dining club but I’ll never forget the drink but can’t remember the name of the place.

  11. What a cool memory! It makes sense to me that you’d remember the gray dismal day, the rainbow, and the “pot of gold” more than your birthday celebration. I don’t know why it makes sense … it just does 😉

    • It does, but why do I have involuntary memories of that one moment on the dance floor at Valentine’s? Or sitting at a certain table at this other club down the mall from Valentine’s? I don’t even know when these happened, and why are they important enough to remember the candle on the table, the sawdust on the floor?

      • Oh, goodness, I have no idea. I complain to Greg about my wonky memory. I don’t know if there’s any good scientific reason for why we remember the way we do … but you do write some very lovely poetry from your memories 🙂

  12. You have a fantastic memory, Luann! I have snippets of that day and nothing quite so lovely. I think I will sit down tonight and see what comes to mind. Thanks for sharing. There are no accidents, you know. That was the Universe conspiring to cheer you up. If it had been a $1, $5 or $10, it would not have made the same impact. $100 is a statement. Funny, I don’t mind ironing. It’s like doing dishes or pulling weeds. Meditative.

    • Just found out how far behind I am in responding to comments. Good grief. I have no idea how that happened. Yes, $100 was a huge statement. About like finding $1000 bill would be today. Is there such a thing? I wonder . . . . I am not fond of weed pulling either. Doing dishes is better because I have read Thich Nhat Hanh and began to understand . . . .

  13. My brain is (or was when I was working) analytical, and one of the first things I did when writing my memoir was to label an expanding file with years and drop into each one any little thing that related. My brother was a hoarder and he used to send scraps also, like the ticket to my primary school end of year concert. As well we have one photo album, so any photo in it has a meaning. I used these triggers to compile various chapters, which eventually became simply source material. The odd thing was, the more I wrote, the more I remembered. As if these things were merely the key to the trunk in the attic.

    • What a great idea! Have you written a post sharing that idea in some detail? I am also analytical and organized. Part of the reason I’m organized is that I have ADD, so it’s necessary to organize so as not to be mass chaos. However, I LOVE to organize, so that’s another good reason to do it. I also understand about pulling out the memories as if they are on a connected thread. But the other weird thing is that the more you write a certain event the more the memory of it fades away!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Hmmm, well I certainly could do that. And it would be a good post for my website, which I am trying to keep strictly to writing and book related things.
        I am (usually) meticulous, methodical and detailed, which is one of the reasons I could never produce the kind of artwork and collages that you do. But I sure enjoy seeing how the imagination brings them to life.

        • I have a split personality lol—logical and analytical as well as creative. Good at math and English. But it’s created a lot of problems for me in jobs etc. I suspect you are more creative than you know to write that book!

          • You could be right. I can picture scenes in my head when I’m writing, but that is more like stage-setting.
            I worked on a powerpoint presentation with my friend recently and the difference between us was remarkable. She was leaping to the artistry, music and animation, and I was like, we just gotta get the content in first.

  14. I was 21, first time – you may know I was widowed less than two years later. Much later, when my youngest two teenagers quizzed me on why so early, I made them squirm by saying that we had not been able to do things they could now.

  15. Who and Why?, if we humans get a closure on this life will not become great but will become a little easy

  16. I’m not sure if I’m ready to put my memories and the ‘why’ together. They are 50/50 joy versus pain, however, I’m motivated to use this wonderful post as a prompt for working on the character development of my protagonist!

  17. What a darling picture! What a precious memory! Funny, though, isn’t it? The sort of ‘little’ things that stick with us for so long…? Thanks for the link (…codes of Childhood) which I plan to devour!
    Here’s a memory of mine, from just a few years older – well, maybe 30, 31!

  18. This is a sweet story, Luanne and finding the $100 bill surely was a great birthday gift. So, may you live to be 100, healthy and wise!

    • Oh!!!! You’ve given me the idea. Maybe that was what was meant!!! I’ll live to be 100 and healthy and wise!!!! I love that idea. Thank you for THAT gift, Carol. XO

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