A friend of mine justified the parental labor of some onerous activity designed mostly for the pleasure of children (i.e. traveling the length of the state to the shore, which requires packing a great deal of equipment and a high tolerance for in-transit sibling warfare): “we’re making memories.”
I tried to use this tactic with my husband, in attempt to lure him to the beach (which he experiences as a series of sensory impingements—the grit of the sand, the slime of the sunscreen, the beating of the sun on his perspiring brow). He immediately dismissed this notion without further explanation. “I don’t buy into that.” I make a mental note to ask him why not when I felt less invested in his response.
All this got me thinking…what will Sophia remember? How much does it matter that we do our best to fill our children’s days with joyful experiences? What kind of an impact does it have? Why do I bother?
My own memories of childhood are spotty at best. I cannot remember the daily experience of having my mother at home when I was a young child. The odd bits of tape I have in my mind are ones fraught with emotion: the humiliation of noticing that my neighbor was watching me from a tree as I squatted next to my baby pool to pee; the fear I felt running up the street screaming for my mother after watching one of the neighborhood boys step into a bees nest and suffer 82 bee stings; the disappointment upon receiving my first kiss, planted on my lips by a wet-mouthed second-grader deep in the recesses of our spare-room closet. There are good memories, but they too have a deep emotional resonance: visits from my New York cousins who transformed our living room into an imaginary swamp full of alligators that nipped at our feet as we sought refuge on the cough; after years of lessons, suddenly finding myself able to swim in our manmade township lake, with no one around to help or bear witness to my moment of triumph; my father quietly waking me in the middle of the night and leading me out onto a cold Cape Cod beach to watch a meteor shower; we held hands as the sky sung with stars.
All of these memories were forged out of intensity, none were planted or planned.
In the calm of the morning, I asked Kevin, “What is it about the idea of ‘making memories’ that you were so opposed to the other day?” He explained that he wasn’t against going to the shore, per se, not if were going with the intent of having fun as a family. However, he was not interested in creating an experience for the sake of having a picture of it. He didn’t want the intent of forming a memory to trump being in the moment.
Made sense to me.
It is easy to confuse images with memory. There are some things I “remember” only because we have pictures. I am grateful for these pictures, for without them, I would make sweeping generalizations about an otherwise barren landscape. I would only understand those years through the lens of now. The knowledge of the past I possess in the present. But my childhood is not Sophia’s.
I want her to not need pictures. I want her to emerge from these years with the sense that she had a wonderful childhood, whether she remembers the specifics of the day-to-day, or not.
More than once, I have listened to an interview on the radio during which the person being interviewed said something like, “I had an idyllic childhood.” I felt envy creeping through me. This envy is my motivation.
Every day, I do my best, if not to create specific memories, then to create a context of joy. When it occurs to me, I pull out my camera and snap pictures that capture thin slices of this joy. But even if no record existed, I am hopeful that the feeling will be encoded in her brain, etched deep in her neurons. That she will be someone, someday who can toss off the words, “I had a lovely childhood.”
It may be that she won’t remember a damn thing. That she’ll have to dig through digital recordings of parades and playdates and parties to piece together her past. But perhaps she will take experiences from the relationships she enjoys now…with me, with Kevin, with our relatives, friends and neighbors and carry them forth to her relationships in the future. And she will be happy.