Recently a read a wonderful book by Brandon L. Garrett called “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong” about innocent people who were convicted of major crimes and freed years later through DNA evidence. Many of these people were convicted by compelling eyewitness evidence. The witnesses were sure when they testified, but the book demonstrates ways in which memory can change and be manipulated. Even knowing those facts intellectually, we still trust memories that seem clear and sharp in our minds. Boy, did I get an incredible lesson in how wrong a memory can be!
I am currently working on a book about my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1903 and died in 1966. This book requires a lot of historical, genealogical, and anecdotal research prior to the actual writing, but the cover and title have been firmly pictured in my mind from the start. I can visualize Laura’s headstone clearly , and was planning to use it as the centerpiece of the cover photo. The stone was a pinkish sand color, curved top with carving on the ends. The name “Schomaker” was in large letters across the whole stone, then with Laura’s name on the left side and George’s on the right. The birth year and death year was underneath the first name for each, with a simple dash between the dates. I had seen the tombstone exactly twice, once in 1966 when my grandma died, and then again in 1979 when grandpa George died, but just figured that the clear image in my mind was there because of the importance attached.
Last week my husband and I drove down to the cemetery to take lots of pictures of the tombstone for the book research. Well, that was one reason. The other was that we had talked for years about taking a day to drive down and spend some time visiting the gravesite and enjoying a beautiful, serene cemetery. I absolutely love cemeteries, and remembered this one as the loveliest I’ve seen. We talked about what we remembered, gorgeous old trees, emerald green grass spreading across acres of rolling hills, carefully tended plots with lots of flowers, mausoleums and monuments of every possible shape and size dotting the grounds. We remembered being able to see part of San Francisco Bay way out behind grandma’s grave, and the sound of the delta breeze whispering around us when we stood at the site.
Prior to our trip I called the cemetery to find the location of grandma’s grave, but somehow they had misplaced her. Well, not really misplaced her, but the staff couldn’t find the records for a few days. Our first stop on the trip was at the office, where the staff helped us with a map showing right where to go to find her. The place was every bit as beautiful as we remembered, lush and green with a cool breeze rustling the trees. The major change was the number of monuments. There were also many more buildings surrounding the cemetery, completely blocking out the old ocean view. An awful lot of people have been buried since our last trip 34 years ago! It looked like every plot had a stone, while we remembered lots of empty spaces.
The map was great, so we drove a short distance, parked the car and walked to the gravesite. But something was terribly wrong! We found the spot right away, saw “Schomaker” almost immediately, but it was the wrong headstone. No pinkish stone with the curved top, nothing but a square gray stone with the one word on the front. Then on the left side of the stone I saw Laura and George’s names and dates, carved in small letters near the top. It was definitely the right place, but I actually told my husband somebody must have changed the headstone. He said that couldn’t be it, since there were three other names on the right side of the stone, all buried more than 20 years before Laura had died. Moss was growing in many places too, so the stone was clearly the original. I was absolutely stunned to see that my crystal clear image was completely wrong.
Looking around, we found a stone somewhat like my supposed memory picture, but with a different name. It looks like I’d somehow noticed that headstone and merged it with the funerals, creating a total fantasy and then believing it as a true memory. I know I’ve forgotten things before, but to find out that I had fabricated a memory in such stunning detail was extraordinarily difficult to process. It was humbling, shocking, and will keep me from getting into arguments with anyone unless I have documented proof of my position! I guess you could say that my grandma had one final important lesson to teach me, 47 years after she died.