Yesterday afternoon T. and I sorted through the big plastic bin where I keep all the bin-worthy school work and art projects from the school year. You do know, of course, that it's impossible to keep everything your child makes, no matter how much the hoarder in you wants to. At the start of each school year I buy a large, flat, plastic bin--long enough to hold large posters and oddly-sized artwork. When I pull a particularly charming or wonderful or brilliant piece of school work from her book bag, I put it into the bin. At the end of the school year I mark the lid of the bin with big letters and numbers, denoting the year and grade.
As always happens when one of the kids and I sort through old things, the stories come out. The memories unfold, like the colors on a blanket when you shake it out under the light. Together, T. and I retraced the first weeks of kindergarten: her shaky backwards writing from those first weeks, to the stronger, neat penmanship of these final ones.
"I'd forgotten about this!" T. said from time to time, stopping to gaze at a picture. I could see her mind reaching back, back into time and space, to another moment, then forward again, as she gauged her progress.
"I've grown a lot," she said, mirroring my very thoughts.
I tried an interesting exercise on my summer school English Composition students a few classes ago. It goes like this: close your eyes and think back to your oldest, earliest memory. Once you have that one shaped in your mind, write it down and then work upwards, putting down the next four memories, until you have five altogether, in a somewhat sequential order. If you do this with eighteen or nineteen year olds and you are forty yourself, be prepared to feel old. My students pulled out an array of charming early memories--first days at daycare, watching an uncle help a dog birth puppies, sitting on a parent's knee and watching siblings playing in the yard--and some sad ones: a relative's wake, moving into foster care, a first beating, a father being taken away in handcuffs. All memories ended, at number five, with some type of typical recollection from high school. So their hierarchy of memorable moments were constructed, representing the only eighteen or nineteen years they've spent on earth so far--they are, after all, kids really, despite their often tough exteriors and Big Attitudes.
I think the older you get, the harder it is to come up with onlyfive memories. Perhaps one for each decade would be a better measure. I think quite a bit about what my own kids will remember, when they look back on their childhoods ten, twenty, or thirty plus years from now. I watch them play and interact with the world in different ways each day. They learn new words and concepts; they string them together, throw them out like long, shimmering lines into clear waters, and wait for what they will bring in.
Before we left for our big trip to Greece, a few summers ago, we talked at the dinner table one night about what an experience it would be for all of us. We talked about how T. might not remember much about the trip, but that it would still be important for her, and that the experience might steep itself into her subconscious somehow, and become a part of her.
L. was worried about what he might remember:
"What if I don't remember it all?" He asked. "What if I forget?"
"Well," I answered him, without missing a beat. "I'll remember it all for you. That's my job!"
And I will, I hope--it will all be etched into my soul, become a part of me; and when I can't remember anymore, I hope my sleeping mind will dream about my children and their childhoods. I'll transcribe list after list in my sleep of what I remember, from that first breath they drew, and the first sight of their perfect, longed-for faces, to everything that followed.