A gifted musician, one with “perfect pitch,” is able to hear a tone, any tone, and then name its musical pitch. A distant second is “relative pitch,” when musicians recognize a pitch because they can relate it to other pitches that are stuck in their heads. While not perfect, relative pitch is still pretty good.
But what about people who have perfect memory? CBS’s “60 Minutes” did a segment last weekend about people who can remember everything about their lives – from matching a date to a day of the week, to what they were wearing and how they felt on that day. For instance, a 10-year-old St. Louis boy recited the day and date of the Cardinals’ win in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series and the player who hit the deciding home run. I’m sure many of us know that David Freese hit the winning homer, some of us could figure out that it occurred on October 27, 2011, and some of us might know that was a Thursday, but this kid knew it all when he was asked, “What happened on October 27, 2011?”
About a dozen of these perfect memory people have been identified, and they can all say with certainty that September 12, 1953, was a Saturday, not because they were born then, but because they simply know it. When asked what happened on June 25, 2009, they replied in unison, “Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died.” I thought it was fascinating, so I started thinking about what we remember.
We all can probably recall where we were on significant days: the day President Kennedy was assassinated, 9/11, the day a United States astronaut stepped on the moon, December 7, 1941, and the like. And we all have significant memories of our own lives.
My first memory is of the day my great-grandfather and I took a short walk from his home to the little white church behind which he is now buried. I convinced him to “play church,” and I pounded on the piano (a church pianist even then!), and then took up the offering. When he put a dime in the plate, I announced that church was over. We took the dime to go get ice cream. I was 2 and a half.
We also remember things that happened to us when other people were around, but those people may not remember those events at all. My mother talked to me recently about a trip that she and I took when I was a teenager. I didn’t remember anything about it, but she was able to relate the story in great detail. After she began talking, I recalled the trip, but I didn’t remember the events.
Listening to the “perfect memory” people made me wonder what it would be like to re-live all my days. Doing so would allow me to be able to enjoy again the good things, things that have given me happiness, and things that have been significant in my life. But I would also have to re-live painful days, just like the little St. Louis boy, who told about being sad one day. When his dad asked what was wrong, the child replied that the year before, his father had scolded him. I would not be so happy to re-visit bad days, days when I said something I wish I could take back, or days when my spirit was crushed, or days when I watched those I love experience pain.
Perhaps we are lucky that we mortals, those without perfect memory, remember only what is significant to us. In the classic play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, Emily, who died at a young age, was given the chance to return to Earth by the Stage Manager. Against the Stage Manager’s advice to go back to just a regular day, she chose to return to her 12th birthday. She looked at her young self and her family and saw that they were taking each other for granted. “Why,” she asked the Stage Manager, “why don’t we look at each other?”
Perhaps we should take the time to take stock of what is significant to us and make a point to remember.