For the memories

Sunday, January 24, 2021 - 1:16pm

.

Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

I was sitting at my kitchen counter with my mom when I got the notification that my “Year in Review” on Snapchat had been uploaded for 2020. With not much else to do on that December morning, I opened the application, excited to relive both favorite and forgotten memories that made up an unparalleled year. 

The review began with a video of my uncle on New Year's Day wearing 2020 glasses from the night before and dancing with strangers on a pool deck — all for the entertainment and embarrassment of my cousins and me. I showed my mom and we laughed. 

“Oh, simpler times. Little did we know what was coming,” she chuckled. “Show me more.”

After I exhausted the curated slideshow of moments, I scrolled through other pictures and videos from deep within the Snapchat memory vault. And so we sat tapping through the entirety of 2020: Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash in January, videos of my classroom in February on what were then just average high school days. Continuing to tap through, we reached March 12, which showed a video of my friend screaming at the cafeteria table. 

“This is literally not a big deal,” he yelled. “All the scientists are saying they don’t know why everyone’s freaking out. Everyone needs to calm down!” 

At the counter, my mom and I laughed and shook our heads at the irony and naivete in his confident, assertive voice. Little did my friend know what was coming either. A video from the next day records the dean’s voice coming over the high school’s loudspeaker announcing we would not be returning to school until a week after spring break. 

Ah, the beginning of the end. We kept watching — it was like a movie.

But as my mom and I observed my life unfold in pictures and videos, I began to think about the medium through which we tell stories and recall memories. I realized that my understanding of my family members’ lives before I came into them are based primarily on their words, rather than recorded images.

This is especially true for my grandfather. For as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to him outline scenes from his life with humor, wit and great detail. His most colorful stories take place during the Great Depression. He tells of his days as a peanut salesman when he and his dad stood on the corner trading nuts for nickels. Other favorites include the year he refused to go to school because he was scared of the garbage man — after watching his father beat the guy up in his driveway for catcalling his mother, he hid under the couch every time the truck arrived. There was the time he made his “ma” pick him up from Camp Freedom after they forced him to catch bologna sandwiches flung from a truck. He also frequently details his performances as a Vaudeville dancer and how he tap-danced on stage with his graceful mother and father in glory. He tells the story of when he was held up at gunpoint while working the cash register at his dad’s currency exchange, and of the first time he saw my grandma in Eli’s Deli, though she was uninterested in his introduction at the time. 

From his words, my mind concocts its own videos. Characters since passed away come to life in my head through his anecdotes. My grandfather’s stories make me laugh without fail, usually because of the plot or his word choice. But what stands out to me the most is the ambiguity surrounding the line between what actually happened during those harrowing times and what he relays, because the truth of it all is so unknown. Only my grandfather was at the scene of the hysterical, terrifying or beautiful stories he tells — there’s no other documentation of the man’s colorful life. I just have to take his word for it.

Meanwhile, my mom and I are able to visually witness a moment from almost every day of my past year. We reach the end of winter: a video of my family crowded around puzzles in the dining room, a picture of me on the couch, my prom dress stretched over my sweatpants and my hair in a tangled bun. We watch spring turn to summer: a video of me pressing a button, committing to the University of Michigan. There’s us walking my dog and us in the backseat of our car on rides to nowhere. We see us at a Black Lives Matter protest, chanting with thousands of strangers. There’s my dad sweating in my residence hall room suffocated by layers of masks as he attempts to loft my bed during my move into college. 

There are more stories to tell my children or grandchildren one day about the year 2020 than in the entirety of an ordinary decade. Maybe my grandfather would say the same about his experiences during the Depression. But unlike my grandfather’s past, my experiences will never boil down to my word alone. Many of my generation’s experiences are documented, and I think that’s fascinating. 

Moments that might become stories, along with moments that might have otherwise faded from my mind, remain pristine and permanent on my phone: videos of me sitting in my residence hall room with fear in my eyes as John King outlines the beginning of the election returns, of my friends and I screaming in our pajamas as we read the email announcing that freshman housing contracts would be canceled for winter semester, of the moment Biden won the presidency. I have smaller moments too: the (masked) faces, Zingerman’s sandwiches, breakout rooms and Zoom shenanigans. It’s all there, in living color. 

Not only is Generation Z’s everyday life documented, it’s shared and it’s communal. Through memes on Instagram, Twitter and many TikToks, Gen-Z has the ability to bask in shared experiences. We have the benefit of processing and coping together — often with humor — in the moment. Whether videos record a person’s funny conversation with their therapist, tragic relationship stories or the miseries of quarantine, I watch and know that millions of people are watching (and often laughing) with me. In that, there is vulnerability, connectedness and understanding. 

I wonder what this means for our generation. Something about it makes me hopeful. I believe, unlike previous generations, we have a heightened understanding of what makes us human, what pains us, what gives us joy and how we’re more similar than different. Hopefully, we’ll grow up with these shared sentiments in mind and become leaders who make decisions based on them, not blind to them. 

Yes, perhaps, with our experiences documented we will lose the magic of storytelling. When I’m able to pull up a video for my kids of my friends’ cars parked in a circle while we yelled at each other across an empty parking lot after being locked in our homes for three months, the aforementioned line between what actually happened and the way they perceive it will be less blurred. The possibility of the extinction of imagination, embellishment and freedom to concoct pictures in the mind is upsetting. This begs the question: Would my grandfather recall his childhood stories the same way if he had documentation of them? 

Something tells me the answer is no. Memories change with age, and there is something to be said for revisionist history. From living through 2020, I understand how surviving the Depression would've been traumatic and painstaking, yet my grandfather’s stories sometimes seem romantic. I fear his Camp Freedom story wouldn’t follow quite the same plotlines or have the same colorful commentary if he had a Snapchat memory of it. But I also think about what I’d give to see footage of a 15-year-old version of my 90-year-old grandfather tap dancing on a stage or standing on the street corner selling peanuts with his dad whom I’ve never met. 

For the sake of knowledge, understanding and truth, I think our generation and those to follow possess something powerful. As we’ve seen through recent times, blurry lines, as magical as they may be, can also be dangerous, and fact is important. Perhaps storytelling according to memory will be sacrificed for tangible documentation of others’ different realities. Maybe that’s a positive sacrifice to be made. People may no longer be as ignorant about the lives and history that came before them, or about the lives, feelings and sentiments of people surrounding them at the moment. People may not have the ability to dismiss others’ realities, either. After all, a viral video documenting the truth of George Flloyd’s death sparked the BLM protests this year.

For better or for worse, as I scrolled through my 2020 on Snapchat, I was acutely aware that the way we relay experiences has changed forever. For 2020’s sake, I’m glad. I don’t think I’d have the energy to rehash the year in words alone. I’ll need the help of all Snapchat memories, TikToks, videos and memes I can get.

I closed out of the application and took a picture of my mom at the kitchen counter. My half-finished smoothie, her daily crossword puzzle and a Time magazine with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as its “Person of the Year” on the cover cluttered the table. Behind her on the television, NBC covered the distribution of the first vaccines. Now that’s a good one, I thought. I saved it for the memories.