What memories did you make this past holiday? How long will they stay with you? (“Not long — I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast this morning,” I can hear half of you joking. Or maybe that’s just me.)
Celebrating the Fourth of July here in what should be designated the nation’s capital of such celebrations (get on that, elected representatives!) made me nostalgic for the Fourths of my childhood. And it got me thinking about why I don’t remember many specifics about those long-ago moments in time, though I remember I loved them. More on that in, well, a moment.
My childhood Fourth of July celebrations were simpler affairs than here. Running barefoot through the darkening backyard holding a lit sparkler. Trying to throw mine farther than my siblings and watching the arc of light as it traveled through the air. Worrying someone might step on a still-hot metal end. Shrugging and throwing another one.
My dad loved fireworks. We’d search out the best official displays in neighboring towns. And sometimes he would light off his own. Nothing extravagant — roman candles, firecrackers. One tube he stuck in the ground shot little balls of colored fire in the air — red, yellow, purple, pop, pop, pop.
I can see in my mind’s eye, though, like I was still there, one Fourth when my sister Lisa tied a black trash bag to a big branch on our old apple tree and lit the end. We laid on our stomachs, chins propped in our hands and watched wide-eyed as the bag dripped drops of fire onto the ground. Needless to say, this was the era of riding in the way-way-back without seatbelts, so please don’t try this at home!
However, I was mesmerized by each drop, shaped like a big tear as if the bag itself was crying. I can still see it exactly. It’s a flashbulb memory. If I’m reading the science right, it’s a good thing I don’t have more of those related to the Fourth of July.
Turns out, flashbulb memories — memories you hold in photographic detail and are retrieved easily — usually occur when there are three conditions in place: The event holds an element of surprise, it is significant, and it’s emotional.
Often, the memories can be recalled so clearly because there’s a public aspect to the associated event, shared by others and repeated in the media. Where you were when you heard about JFK’s assassination is a common one.
Beyond shared tragedy, positive but heightened emotional moments can become flashbulb memories — when you first held your newborn baby in your arms, for example.
Maybe I was scared by the tear drops of fire, and that’s why I remember them so vividly. Or I wasn’t really scared but excited by the sense of adventure — even danger — of being near such a homemade “firework.”
I have a couple other stand-out childhood Fourth memories. It’s family lore that one year another older sister took me to see fireworks without telling my parents, who for a few harrowing hours thought I’d gone missing. That same night, my baby brother tripped over the hose and broke his collarbone, but no one noticed until he wouldn’t stop crying in his crib because they were focused on finding me.
Mostly, my Fourth memories are hazy and happy. No drama, just fun.
This year, I was wowed as always by the Festival of Arts, despite the weather. But at some point, I’ll try without success to remember exactly what we did to celebrate in 2023. I won’t be able to conjure a flashbulb memory. And that’s perfectly OK with me. Some memories aren’t made to remember in detail. Even — maybe especially — the fun ones.
Virginia Buckingham is the president of the Current’s board of directors. Her column appears weekly.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”