The Texture Of Things

Long Memory

July 11th, 2008

As I read Hedra’s recent post, I was reminded of something. It wasn’t the main point of the post at all – far from it – but her mention of her son remembering a hurt, a broken promise, from two years ago made me remember something the tot told me a month ago.

We were driving to see my mom in the hospital. It was a week or so before the tot’s birthday. I knew at this point that there would be no big family/friend birthday party for the tot because the logistics of it were just too difficult with my mom in the hospital for an indefinite stay. (Turns out it was short, but we couldn’t predict at that point.) I rationalized that hey, she’s four. She had a big party last year for her third birthday where we rented a pony party place owned by the family of a friend of mine. She doesn’t need a big party every year, especially with a sibling on the way. How on earth would we afford that for two kids, let alone just one? So, I chose to let her daycare caregiver have a little lunch party for her at day care on the day after her birthday.

FWIW, even in hindsight, I think this was the right choice, and that’s saying something for me. I often overthink, rethink, and regret the way my choices played out. It’s the doubter and the perfectionist in me. But this worked. She had fun, she had several friends with her, she got presents, and she had a regular “Happy Birthday” cake, song, and dance. She had the birthday experience.

But I’m skipping ahead. What I was reminded of came before the party.

We were driving to the hospital and we were talking about the party, which would take place the following week. I had been telling her about it, narrative style, so she’d know what to expect. “On Thursday, the day after your birthday, you’re going to go to L’s.”

“And I’m gonna have a party?”

“Right. You’ll get there, and you’ll hang out with your buddies, and –”

“And I’ll get presents?”

“–and your party will be at lunch time. I don’t know what you’ll do first. Maybe you’ll have some lunch –”

“And cupcakes!”

“– and cupcakes, and they’ll sing you ‘Happy Birthday’ –”

“Ooh! Can I wear my tiara?”

“Absolutely you get to wear the birthday tiara!”

“And I’ll get presents!”

“There might be some presents for you. It is entirely possible.”

And there was much smiling and happy wiggly dancing from the booster in the back seat.

She got quiet for a second and then she said, “When I was at my party and there was a pony there and I felled off.”

What happened in my head went a little like this:

Uncertainty: What? [Replaying the sounds in my head. I hear Matter of Fact, not Distress.]
Fact-check: She’s right!
Realization: Holy crap, she remembers falling off the pony at last year’s birthday party, when she was THREE.


“That’s right, tot. You did. Do you remember what else happened?”

Work the narrative, work the narrative.

“I had a party and there was a pony and I felled off.”

It was all I could get from her, but I had the hunch she remembered more than that, so I offered up some narrative to see if she’d fill in any gaps.

“You had a party at K’s grandma’s farm and everyone got to ride on a pony.”

“And I falled off!”

“Daddy put you on the pony and you sat in the saddle. A lady walked the pony and you rode it!”

“And then I slipped and I falled off.”

“You slipped and Daddy was there and he shouted and the lady turned around and caught you.”

“She catched me and I didn’t get hurt!”

Oh good, she did remember that part, but boy, what a long memory for a four-year-old.



I let this conversation roll around in my head for a while and then I guess I forgot about it until I read about Hedra’s son. When it came back to me, it came as a flash, complete with sensory and emotional information – how warm it was in the car, how bright it was that afternoon, how it was mostly quiet with the windows only cracked and the sunroof open, how tired I felt and how I wished I could just be driving home from picking her up from daycare.

It came with a further-back memory, one from her infancy, when I was fascinated and a little obsessed with what would be the tot’s first memory. When she is older, what will she remember about being little? How far back will her memory go? Would it be happy, sad, or matter-of-fact? Tied to this is my memory of a conversation with the director of the daycare center I first took the tot to when she was 14 months old. I had been concerned about how well she would nap there, how long it would take her to adapt to the disparate sets of rules and expectations, and how hard that would be if she was only there two days a week. The director laughed me off. She said, “She’ll do fine! They can remember so much!”

This intrigued me, naturally, because of my interest in memory. “Really? You think so?”

“Oh, they remember everything!”

This, actually, was not what I needed to hear. For me, having a daughter has made me replay memories from my childhood and it’s driven me to share and grow closer with my mom, but it seems like every time I have shared with my mom a childhood memory involving her, she puts a negative spin on it or is aghast that I would remember her “as such a horrible person!” Which is strange to me because I have never deliberately shared memories that I felt portrayed her in a bad light. They exist, I just didn’t share them. Still, I tend to leave these interactions with my mom with a heaviness in my heart. This pattern with my mom was just developing when my conversation with the daycare director happened, and my core reaction was “Oh no! She [the tot] will remember every mistake I make!”

Of course I overreacted. The tot will surely remember mistakes I make, but not every one. And she will remember good stuff, too, things that I don’t even realize are settling with her as happy moments. Moveover, unlike three years ago, I know this is how it is supposed to be. Every human makes mistakes and wonders at some point if that’s one that’s gonna come back to rear its ugly head later. And every human gets stuff right that means more to someone else than they will ever fully know. The hard part for me when I was feeling too incapable to be an adult in charge of raising a little lump of mush was letting go and being okay with making mistakes.

The lesson I work to integrate into every day is that I cannot always be consumed with my child’s future memory of me because if I am, I will miss the now. I will miss her childhood and my parenthood. I will never be able to enjoy the incredible life that is right in front of me. As a doubter and a perfectionist, this is really, really hard. Thank goodness I have such good motivation.

She picked that swimsuit out, not me. So if she comes back in 10 years complaining about how I dressed her, I would like it known that I tried to redirect her several times but she would NOT budge. She HAD to have THIS suit.


  1. Steph says

    Hear, hear, to all the above. And may the tot soon outgrow her appreciation for polka-dotted butt-ruffles.

    July 11th, 2008 | #

  2. Thornton says

    You know, just because the unexamined life is not worth living doesn’t mean the examined one is, either. I, too, suffer from the paralysis that comes from having over-analyzed too many of the choices I’ve made.

    But here’s the real thing: You’re a great mom. (I’ve seen you with the tot, so I feel like I have a decent enough standing to make that claim.) Specific memories are just a function of the intensity of the experience. “Everything’s fine” doesn’t create memories like “That was super-deluxe awesome!” and “That was freaking horrible!” do.

    What she’ll have, though, is a generalized sense of being loved and cared for and nurtured and all that good stuff, and that sense will be like the lens through which all of her memories are seen.

    Of course, that’s me saying that and I’m a huge jerk who makes stuff up all the time. My opinions are largely uninformed and frequently specious. Please move on.

    July 16th, 2008 | #

  3. admin says

    I love you guys.

    Moving on…

    July 17th, 2008 | #

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