THE events and impressions that fill the storehouses of our memories are filed away at random in segments and categories according to our own individual systems. We don't plan the systems. They just develop as we go on about the business of our lives.
One of my card files is titled ''Presidential Elections,'' and every four years that drawer in my mind automatically slides open and out pops a parade.
As any good parade should, it begins with a brass band and a banner. In this case the banner reads 1932. We were depression-poor, and my parents' radio was a magic carpet transporting friends and family to the center of a compelling time. I associate the event with a feeling of expectation and the aroma of apples and popcorn.
The 1936 card file also contains a gathering at that same radio; the popcorn and apples, the sense of expectation and celebration. In 1940 I was 16, and my parade was gathering momentum. The high school I attended boasted a total enrollment of 250 students. Our civics teacher encouraged debates on the issues and spent the first few months of the fall term stressing the electoral process of our democratic system. I call that card file ''The first time I really understood what was happening and personally cared about the outcome.'' We still had the popcorn and apples, but it was more than just a party.
In 1944 my parade took on a military look. At the age of 20 I was eligible to join the Marine Corps, and spent election day following the usual routine of a boot camp private. Like a good number of my compatriots, I was not eligible to vote for the man who would be our commander in chief. There were no apples and popcorn that year.
But my 1948 election parade float is by any judge's account the outstanding entry. Colorful and bright, it marked the first time I cast my vote. As a new bride I renewed the tradition of popcorn, and with my husband listened to the returns in the converted garage we called home.
We knew that the man who barnstormed the country on the observation car platform of a train just had to win. (If everyone who now claims to have voted for him really had, there would have been no famous Chicago Tribune headline gaffe.)
The 1952 and 1956 entries were staid and dignified. The reason they take up two file cards instead of one is because we experienced them in two places. In 1952 we were in our first home, had two children, and watched the returns on our first television set.
By 1956 we had moved across country and back, were in a larger home, and had another child. One of those card files, I'm not sure which, has a picture of Adlai Stevenson with a hole in the sole of his shoe.
And then 1960, another red-banner entry with a special glow, a lot of fanfare , and humor. The excitement was clear and crisp and lasted all the way through election night as the outcome hung in the balance. Everyone old enough to remember it must have a card file full to overflowing on that year.
After that my parade begins to slow up and drag a little. It has never since had quite the color, quite the excitement, of 1960 and those preceding entries. Grim reality and television overkill began to take over the entire process, consuming each succeeding band and banner with a voracious appetite.
Then came the computers and projected outcomes. In 1976, I barely had time to pop the corn before victory was announced. In 1980, I made the mistake of waiting until late afternoon to cast my ballot. When I emerged from the booth I was greeted by a television reporter asking about my reaction to the outcome, although a full three hours still remained before the polls were to close. The resulting uncast votes of people who decided it didn't matter really did.
This year's election parade card file actually began in 1983. It started out pretty disjointed and not very exciting. There were too many confused slogans and a jumble of candidates. In part, I suppose the loss of expectation and excitement comes with the territory of growing older, ''progress,'' improved communications, and creature comforts.
In any case, this year and in the future I plan to get to the polls early. And I will continue to mark each election day memory card file with that certain unique and very special sense that comes over me when I am alone in the booth making my private choices. That will never change.
But even so, something very special is gone from my parade. I miss the echo of that last hurrah. I miss the once bright bunting now drooping in the rain of political excesses and projected winners. I miss the popcorn and apples.