Memory Blank

I grew up in a bookish home. We moved stacks of books off the table in order to eat and off chairs so that we could sit. Naturally, I read prodigiously. Unfortunately, I rarely remembered much in the way of actual content.

My father must have suspected this because when I was 10 years old he gave me a lapel button. "We never guess," it said, "we look it up." Well, of course we did — if we could remember the topic.

After years of secret shame, I have finally discovered why my memory is so unreliable. I have bad CREB. In layman's terms, I'm firing blanks.

This liberating self-diagnosis came to me courtesy of a recent magazine article. Scientists, it seems, have identified CREB as the gene that triggers much of the neural pyrotechnics responsible for long-term memory. What is meant by "long-term" is, of course, subjective. For our purposes, long-term memory refers to the time between when the brain first absorbs something and when it is no longer able to retrieve it — about 1.5 seconds, in my case.

I'm talking about impaired memory gene function. Here's how it works. I was 32 when I gave birth to my third child, Tim. One afternoon I bundled him into a carriage, walked to my sister's house for a neighborhood party and parked Tim in the shade of a tree. An hour later, as I was leaving, a friend ran over, clearly agitated. She waved toward the tree. I looked and yes, dear God, light dawned. The synapses flared, my memory stirred. I had a baby! I retrieved him and crept home, vowing to bind him to my wrist until we achieved the sort of mind-meld I so obviously needed.

Long before that incident, I saw a T-shirt that spoke to my spirit. A Brenda Starr-type woman was emblazoned across the front, her face twisted in anguish. "Oh my God," she cried, "I left the baby on the bus!" And so, in a way, had I.

It is some small consolation to discover, even at this late date, that perhaps my affliction has biological roots. And yet I remain troubled, for not only have I misplaced a baby, I have also wandered aimlessly through my brain seeking the most ordinary yet strangely elusive information. If my memory can generously be described as selective," it is so in a most distressing way. I can rattle off all the wives of Henry VIII but have been known to address my sons by the name of our dog. This wouldn't be so bad except that her name is Jenny. I remember that a geek is actually a carnival performer who bites off the heads of live chickens but can tell you nothing of the Robertson Davies novel where I picked up that tidbit.

All this fills me with a certain melancholy. The phrase "not so bright" springs to mind, and would seem confirmed by my sixth-grade report card. In the spot reserved for the parental signature, my father wrote: "What can we do?"

Now I have achieved some measure of peace. Not only do I understand the root of my problem, but science is rushing to the rescue. Apparently, by tinkering with the CREB of a fruit fly, researchers have produced a fly with a photographic memory. The question, of course, is how to accomplish the same feat with humans. I say eat the fly, but I might not grasp all the complexities here.

On the other hand, I'm getting desperate. My son Matt, an otherwise extremely bright young man, has inherited my deficiency. Recently, he flirted with sudden death when he forgot to unplug the toaster before plunging in a knife to extricate a piece of toast. Not long before, he ruined the garage door when he forgot to raise it before backing the car out.

I think there's a fruit-fly sandwich in his future.

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