Monica Sheppard mug 2018

Monica Sheppard

I’ve been going through old photos over the holidays. Boxes of old photos from our childhood at Mom and Dad’s house, as well as old photos of mine from the college years that have been in storage. It is not unusual to feel reflective at the end of a year. Looking back on what has lead you to now is appropriate and expected as you plan how you will shape what lies ahead. Looking through time stamps of frozen moments in the past has reminded me, however, of how we shape our past in much the same way that we do our future.

Have you ever had it happen that you recall a story from the past with others who were there and the telling of your version differs from the way they remember it? My mom has always been a fantastic cook and even now that she can’t get in the kitchen like she used to, she collects recipes and plans menus for our visits and helps us keep her specialties alive by reminding us that we should make them again. This year while we visited for Christmas, she requested that we make her old linguine with clam sauce. I remembered her making it, remembered liking it, even remembered the cookbook the recipe was from once she showed us the photocopied page we were to work from. My sister didn’t remember it, I didn’t remember that it had mushrooms, and when we ate it, Mom felt like it didn’t have the flavor of the clams as she remembered it, but we all enjoyed it all the same.

Mom was kind of a Southern health nut in the way that only 1970s Atlanta could produce. Each morning, there was usually a pile of vitamins by our bowl of oatmeal, or Cream of Wheat, or Grape Nuts, or Shredded Wheat (sweetened only with the honey Dad produced with his beehives). There was a huge garden in the backyard and each year the harvest was preserved in the chest freezer and rows of mason jars on shelves in the basement. But, there were always biscuits and pies and cakes and cookies available, all made from scratch with real butter or Crisco, etc., only sometimes she would use honey to cut the sugar, if possible. A good old-fashioned Southern breakfast is my greatest weakness to this day, thanks to Mom’s opulent Saturday morning spread, complete with all the unhealthy parts.

One of my favorite things that Mom made was mayonnaise muffins. Sounds gross, I know, but they are so light and moist and delicious, and she had various versions with additions to fit the menu. One of my favorites included a hearty amount of cheddar cheese, and there is nothing better with a bowl of chili, trust me. The recipe is simple: 2 cups of self-rising flour, 1 cup of buttermilk (you could use sweet milk, but did I mention the South?) and half a cup of mayonnaise. A funny story in our family is that Mom never told Dad what was in them because he hated mayonnaise. They were so popular that Mom had shared the recipe with our neighbor and when she served them to him one evening, he asked what they were and she said, “Those are Carol’s mayonnaise muffins!” He would eat them after that big reveal, but never with the same gusto that he had before.

For years, I have had a special morning stuck in my head in which Mom served us chocolate mayonnaise muffins for breakfast. It might have been someone’s birthday, or a snow day, or some other special occasion, but I remember them so distinctly that I can still taste them to this day, warm and chocolaty and magical. I finally remembered, several years ago, to ask Mom how she made those chocolate muffins, and she had no recollection of them, at all. None! How could something so delectably burned in my brain not remain in her memory, at all? We have never been able to get to the bottom of the mystery and have never determined what the recipe might have been.

As I flipped through those old photos, I realized details in the way that I remember things that are different from what I saw documented before me. It’s interesting how we shape the way we recall things, sometimes to suit our needs, but sometimes for reasons we can’t even imagine. I don’t know why those magical muffins were so important to me, especially considering they may not have even existed, but I will never forget what they were to me. It is called hindsight bias, and while they say hindsight is 20/20, it is usually colored by our perspective on the details, to the point of sometimes completely distorting the truth and sometimes assuming predictability where it may not exist at all. “I should have seen that coming,” or “I ignored the red flags,” are phrases that come up when we can look backwards and believe that we should have known what was about to happen.

As we look toward the future, it is good to realize that what we see behind us may not be exactly as it appears. Given the likely skew to our perspective on the past, maybe a bit of forgiveness for ourselves and our loved ones might be in order to bring forward progress into better perspective. Perhaps, as this new year begins, we could put a bit of emotional and rational distance between us and the things that have loomed so large in our memory. Maybe I’ll try making up a recipe for chocolate mayonnaise muffins and forget about that magical mystery version from the past. I mean, they can’t possibly be bad, maybe just different than what I recall.

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.