One of my best friends and I have a tendency to reminisce about our shared experiences. During these (sometimes admittedly nostalgic) moments of looking back, I am always amazed at the different things that have stood out for each of us – a telling word, gesture, expression that I or she would not have ever recalled without the presence of the other.

In a way, then, my friend and I help make each other’s history more complete by remembering details that the other has forgotten. In a way too, it means that the past – or that particular version being remembered in bits and pieces – becomes quite spontaneous for us, entirely dependent on the course of the conversation, on the ebb and flow of memory on that particular day. Reminiscing about the same experience with my friend years later, I find that other aspects surface; the past is, one might say, renewed and re-created in each instance of remembrance, a mental landscape that is both familiar and yet full of surprising colour too.

I think one of the interesting aspects of conducting oral history interviews – which I had the privilege of doing recently with one of the former staff members at a local health care institution – is observing that very organic and spontaneous process of memory in play. While I, of course, did not share in any experiences of my interviewee, bringing only my knowledge of certain aspects of the history of the institution to the table, it was interesting to see how certain memories surfaced for her based on the flow of the conversation.

My understanding of this institution’s history informed the questions that I prepared. Yet the interview was by no means confined to these questions. They became starting points, triggering memories of other aspects of my interviewee’s experience – ones that I had not thought in advance to ask about and perhaps ones that she had not revisited until that moment in time. Another day, another interviewer, would undoubtedly bring other memories to the surface, revealing new pieces of a multifaceted history that can be tapped and reconfigured in so many ways.

And speaking about fragments of the past, I left the interview with an unexpected piece of history – literally. My interviewee was excited and eager to give me a brick that she had kept from the first building of her former work place, constructed in the late 19th century. Embedded with the shape of an animal, it now sits at the foot of my desk, a tangible piece of the past that stands in contrast to the transience and spontaneity of memory.

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