I sit at the computer scanning photographs that cover 25 years, hoping to give my two young adult children a digital record that will be the insect in amber, preserving a bit of who they were and what we all did together in those years we thought would go on forever.
A pile of pictures slips from my lap to the floor, fanning out into a kaleidoscope of faces that stare back at me. If the mouths in those photos could move, I think they would speak two truths I already know.
One is that of course it would end, those chaotic years under one roof. And it would end sooner than anyone in the throes of homework (that no one in the house knew how to do), temper tantrums (the parents’), swim practice, stomach viruses, broken arms, broken hearts, driver’s ed, head lice, and shopping for prom dresses ever thinks it will.
The second is that, when we look at any one of those photographs, the unspoken story therein will be read differently by each of us.
How and why we remember things fascinates even the experts in the field of psychology. Ask any two siblings about their childhood and you’re likely to get two vastly different accounts of the same town, same house, same parents. It’s the Rashomon effect, whether it’s about witnessing a crime or sharing a family story.
Will my two kids recall how I pretended to love sleeping on the ground, cheering from the sidelines, and waking at 2 a.m. to go out in the bitter cold so they could experience camping, soccer, and shooting stars? (For that last one, I grumbled a lot about the ungodly hour and the freezing temperature, but I now concede that nothing compares with lying on your back in a dark field with your kids, watching for the Leonid meteor showers.)
They both possess literally volumes of reminders that I had to quit my bookstore job after Michael was born, not because a second child was time-consuming, but because I had bought so many children’s books, I always owed more than I earned. “The Little Engine That Could”, “The Snowy Day”, “Miss Rumphius”, “The Runaway Bunny”, “Curious George”, so many others. Even when we weren’t reading them, they were crammed into bookcases or piled like teetering cairns to silently beckon or simply reassure.
As for music, I wonder if in some future moment of sleeplessness, they will stumble upon the ballads of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell and be taken back to the nights they nodded off while those exquisite old folk lyrics rose up from a CD player wedged in the narrow hallway space between their bedrooms.
Our rituals were few and uncomplicated, but I’ve got pictures that reveal their essence. How I treasure (do they?) the snapshots of the birthday girl, boy, mom, or dad, basking in that singular moment of attention while balancing the breakfast-in-bed tray on his or her lap, trying not to spill orange juice all over the bedspread.
The juice spilled many times, of course. There were yellow stains on the blankets to prove it. Even Goodwill didn’t want them. The wooden breakfast tray will never be tossed, wobbly though it is. It is a family icon.
Enshrined in their memory better be how I rarely required them to do dishes or rake leaves if such banal chores interfered with scholarly pursuits. This is set in stone. No matter what they say. How could they ever forget that instead of assigning mundane tasks, I took them apple picking or bike riding? Oh, wait…that was their dad. I was probably reading on the porch, modeling scholarly behavior.
They may not recall serving food in a soup kitchen in one particularly dicey city neighborhood. Marita was about four and Michael was still crawling (I remember this well because he would nosh on whatever fell from the trays of the hungry). I hope they have absorbed the spirit of those activities.
Seder meals shared with friends, a Mass celebrated by a radical woman priest, blissfully quiet Quaker Meetings, poetry readings, and political protests. I hope their memories of these are visceral but also intellectual. It is clear that these experiences have shaped their desire for peace and their love of justice.
I doubt they remember their very first museum visits, each child, in turn, swaddled in a sling across my chest, mother and baby one amorphous being, contemplating serene Hudson River School landscapes or provocative Andy Warhols.
Recently, I crossed paths with a young dad strolling his baby through a gallery. I warned him that if he made a habit of it, the kid just might grow up, as one of mine did, to become an art history major with meager job prospects.
One story that gets recounted with unassailable veracity and needs no embellishment is Michael’s early sex ed lesson, though he didn’t know it then. A late start and then a detour en route to a vacation spot landed us in a cheap motel for a night. As we settled in for the unexpected layover, telltale sounds from the next room became louder and louder.
What was unmistakable to us was at first mysterious, and then disconcerting, to a six-year-old. We turned up the volume on our television and tried to distract him with marathon games of Uno, accompanied by our own inordinately loud conversation. Soon we couldn’t contain our laughter.
When the headboard on the other side of the wall began to bang, Michael’s eyes grew wide and he said, “Daddy, I think someone’s being killed in there!” Finally, we convinced him that it was a very rowdy movie on the TV in the next room. “Oh, like Jurassic Park?” He seemed relieved. Yes, we agreed, must be something like Jurassic Park.
So what do I wish them to erase from the magic lantern of the mind? When I yelled too much or too long. Worse, when I made my displeasure known with silence and pursed lips. When I said “No, you can’t” instead of “Yes, go ahead.”
How I hope Marita and, more importantly, her friends have forgotten a certain long-ago Dave Matthews Concert. Surrounded by the gaggle of sixth grade girls, I fist-pumped in the dark auditorium and (cringe) swayed. Then I put us on the wrong return train back to the suburbs. Yep, I did that. At least I wasn’t wearing mom jeans. I’m sure I wasn’t wearing mom jeans.
Recalling a gaggle of a different sort – real geese this time – I hope Michael has no flashbacks of the slow moving birds I hit on a rural road one bright morning rife with sun glare. Who screamed loudest as blood, bone, and feathers flew across my windshield? Me, the doomed flock, or the boy in the back seat? Better to forget.
Let’s forget, too, all the times I fussed over baking a perfect cake for company instead of allowing two curious kids to make a happy mess of measuring and stirring and letting flour dust down on us like snow.
Here’s a tough one: Do I want them to remember, or forget, or at least understand the times I searched their backpacks, smelled their coats and their breath, and eavesdropped on a few of their conversations. All I can say is I breathed a huge parental sigh of relief every time my worried sleuthing turned out to be unwarranted.
My very first memory of my father is a vivid one. I am sitting on his shoulders holding a light bulb that he is about to exchange for the burned-out one in the ceiling lamp of our front entryway. (He was tall enough to forgo a step stool.) With one upstretched hand keeping me steady and the other deftly replacing the old bulb, he brought light to the darkness that moments earlier had threatened to engulf my three-year-old psyche in fear.
The scene made an indelible imprint on me, but my father has no recollection of it. I suppose for him it was one of a million times he had changed a light bulb, and I am one of 10 children he had held aloft, no doubt, for one reason or another. What parents dismiss as quotidian, children, for better or worse, often elevate to something momentous. Ask any therapist, or any poet.
In the years to come, when my children reminisce together for laughs – and I hope the laughs are abundant – I want them to agree on one thing only: that the parenting patchwork of bright silk and rough edges, missteps and triumphs, was sewn together with one unbreakable thread of love.