“Mommy, tell me again about when Sarah was a puppy and she ate your school book while you were in the shower and you were so mad at her and you had to go buy another one?” my daughter asks at least once a month, usually in the car on the way to or from one of her extracurricular activities.
I’m not sure why this particular memory is her favorite; it was never really that meaningful to me. But perhaps for my daughter, knowing that our beloved dog remained beloved even when she was naughty gives her comfort. Or maybe she understands the irony that once, my dog actually ate my homework.
My own memories of childhood now seem yellowed, the color of old paper, brittle and fragile and far away, untouchable. No happy thoughts of Thanksgiving football games or picnics in the park come to me when I try to recall my youth. Mostly, they are not memories at all, but rather a general sense of loss, of things absent - the feeling borne of spending Christmas Eve with one parent and Christmas Day with the other, or having to choose whether to have my high school graduation dinner with my mother or my father, and always being betwixt and between and never at home.
My daughter’s memories, on the other hand, all seem to spring to mind in vivid color and rigorous detail at the slightest provocation. She tries to engage me in frequent games of "Remember the time..." but usually I don't remember, or not as well as she does.
She relishes the retelling, and rakes over the recollections for nuggets of meaning. It is in the telling and re-telling, the rolling over of images and words in her mind looking for a glimpse of a larger truth, that allows her to own these memories. I love being able to give my son and daughter the sweet memories that go with a childhood well-lived. But I also want to claim some for myself.
I don't want my identity to be defined by scarcity. I want to understand the past so that I can build a different future. I want to be able to offer my children, and me, a scaffolding of history within which identity is built. I want to understand the ways in which events come together to create a life.
In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion asks these questions: “What was the meaning and what was the experience? To what thought or reflections did the experience lead us?”