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Autobiographical Memory and Identity Updating - page 9 / 19





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We’ve got to work for the right firm.  Whoa!  You’‘re a child of God.”

Framing a Life: Camp Meeting and Autobiographical Memory

In the context of this volume, our interest in Salem Camp meeting is that it serves, among other things, as a particularly powerful framework for shaping autobiographical memory for regular campers in some very special ways.10   It is an excellent example of the ecological nature of autobiographical memory, its dependence on the specific places, relationships and objects that comprise a landscape of memory affordances.   These issues of memory are very salient to Salem campers. The historical and relatively unchanging nature of the Campground and its routines are a major attraction of the place.  Of course the place has changed over the years.  A hotel was built on the premises in the 1950s to expand sleeping and eating facilities for campers who did not have their own cabins or who preferred stay on their own in a hotel.  Over the years new tents are built, and old ones are renovated.  Some families have updated their tents with wooden floors, television and air conditioning (a fact that inspires a lot of disapproving gossip from some of the older campers).  Others are more conservative and have kept their tents relatively unchanged, with sawdust on the floor, old fashioned appliances and nineteenth century decor.  But despite these changes campers still insist that Salem never really changes in its basic layout and it’s temporal rhythms.  All tents, whether or not they have sawdust or air-conditioning,  are potent memory objects. Their walls are filled with generations of family photographs and other family memorabilia.  Their sights and smells provoke for campers generations of memories.

Recollecting past events and people is at the heart of camp meeting.  The daily schedule at Salem acknowledges this by building into to the daily routine plenty of “down time” between the two daily church services, time for folks to cook together, eat together, and simply sit on their porches for hours catching up with one another and recounting stories of past camp meetings.  While there is a sports and activity program for young children, there is plenty of time for three generations of friends and family to talk and to hear each other’s stories.  

One of the notable features of these stories is that they slip back and forth between present and past so easily that the effect seems to be a blurring of historical and present consciousness.  Mary Ramsey11, matriarch of one of the largest and most prominent families at Salem, gave us a tour of her family’s tent in 2003.  Her dark green cabin, Salem’s oldest “tent,” looked more like a museum than an occupied cottage. With fresh fragrant sawdust covering all the floors and every room filled with antique furnishings, generations of family photos and other family memorabilia, the Ramsey tent was far and away the most elaborately decorated of the family tents at Salem.  

As she took us through the rooms, and showed us the old photos and other family heirlooms, every object and photo seemed to trigger in her mind  a powerful story.   So rich and illuminating was her tour of the Ramsey tent that I quote her extensively.

It’s the oldest one. It was built in 1840 by Spence’s (her late husband’s) great, great grandparents. (Enters the house) Alright,  duck your head.  Alright, this is what we call the living room. And these (photos) are the oldest ones that started.  And then Mrs. Ramsey and Mr. Ramsey and all the connections there. . .  

This is Mr. Ramsey, Spence’s father and that’s a larger picture of his mother, and that’s Martha, the sister. Spences’s sister, Martha Ramsey who never married, she was very weak – and she’d had heart trouble and everything. We begged her

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