March 14, 2024 James

There is a painting hanging in my house. It’s an inexpensive print I inherited from my parents, one that hung in our home when I was growing up, a typical picture of houses and landscapes. I’m sure it’s worthless. But when I was four or five years old, just old enough to begin asking questions and young enough not to be able to differentiate between reality and fantasy, I remember staring at that painting in wonder.

It depicts a winter scene. There is a river running from bottom to top of it, transversed by a stone bridge, with forest all around. From the artist’s perspective, I am standing on the riverbank. If I were to proceed “upward,” I could go across the bridge. On the other side stands a cottage, with the yellow glow of a single light shining through the windowpane and reflecting on the water of the stream. Other cottages lie beyond the first, scattered among snowy hills.

The reason the painting fascinated me as a child is because I burned with curiosity, wondering who lived in that cottage. I longed (there is no other word) to know it. I can still recall that feeling. In the last few years, whenever I look at the painting now, I indulge in a fantasy about it—it is a fantasy, I don’t believe it. It is simply that when I die, I will find myself standing on that bank. It will be very cold; the wind will bite through my clothing, for I will scarcely be dressed against it. I will tread through the snow, making footprints as I go. I will cross the bridge. It will be slippery, but I won’t fall. I’ll walk to the cottage and open the wooden door. And I will meet whoever lives inside.

My wife tells me I have an unusual memory for recalling events from the past—various events and conversations, clear recollections from childhood, things like being given a bath in the kitchen sink as an infant and having only wonder and absolutely no words in my mind. I don’t know how unique my memory is, but the other day my wife pointed out that perhaps I remember so much because I have always been fascinated by stories.

I suppose that’s why I write.

If you’re reading this, you probably love stories too. And perhaps because of it, you are a Guardian of Stories—your family’s stories, your friends’ stories. Perhaps you too remember what your best friend said twenty years ago. Perhaps you’re the one who can tell your siblings what “really” happened on a certain Christmas day or Halloween eve. And of course, they disagree.

Scientists say we rewrite our history—inaccurately remembering things in ways we choose. So, for those of us who are better at remembering, are we recalling events accurately or changing them to suit ourselves? I like to think we’re more accurate, we Guardians of the Stories. I hope you think so too.

Because it makes a better story.