The Fleeting Memory of Childhood

The Fleeting Memory of Childhood. What happens when your child forgets a memory you shared? (Photos - Above, Christmas lights at the entrance to Sesame Place; bottom: Giant cookie monster
“You remember Sesame Place, right? Where we met Cookie Monster?” I said to my four-year-old casually. I was in the middle of contemplating going back sometime this fall.

“No,” he responded and shrugged.

“Really?” I said, tilting my head and squinting at him. His answer completely derailed my train of thought. Visiting Sesame Place had been his first long-term memory, or so I had thought. In fact, it was the one single event he had remembered before his brother had been born, when he was still an only child.

And just like that, it was gone.

That surprise struck me again a few weeks later. We were walking to a pedestrian bridge near our house to watch the trains pass under it. While we used to walk this route daily, Sprout has been more interested this summer in riding his bike or running around the playground than watching trains.

Walking past our neighbor’s house, we spotted their dogs, who are always outside if the weather is decent. Pointing them out to Sprout, I blanked on their names.

“Look, it’s – uh, what are their names again?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” he said, looking confused himself. While me not remembering their names wasn’t surprising at all, him forgetting them left me with my mouth open. He and Chris walked this route every day for months. Every time, he’d stop and say hello to the dogs. He knew their names as if they were our pets.

After a few mental stumbles, I retrieved their names  – “Cupcake and Boo Boo, that’s it.”

“Oh, right,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was remembering them as well or just affirming me.

Diverging Memories

These two incidents reminded me that how and if we remember things is so different from our children. We assume because we were at the same place hearing the same words that we took in the same things. But children have such a different set of values and ways of judging what’s important that we may as well be on different planets.

This can be a good thing. There are times when you are anxious or frustrated and the kids won’t remember a whit of it. While I get annoyed chasing Sprout around the back of our church, I’m sure he just remembers how much fun it is to open and close the doors of the side rooms.  Similarly, this video from Story of This Life is a beautiful illustration of how our children’s viewpoint of a single day may be so very different from ours.

But other times, that gap can be bittersweet. Especially when those memories just seem to disappear. Young children’s brains shed and rebuild connections between neurons in their brains at an astonishing rapid speed. While they gain more than 10,000 connections per neuron in their brain between birth and three, they also drop those that aren’t used often. Most of the time, neither they or we notice it. It just becomes part of the ephemera of daily life.

Noticing Hard

But both of those times, I did notice. I noticed hard.

The Sesame Place trip was a bright spot in a tough pregnancy. Even though I couldn’t go on the rides myself, seeing him soar through the air on a flying fish ride or spinning in the disco-themed teacups brought a smile to my tired face. Him lost in Cookie Monster’s furry arms made up for so many of the stresses weighing on me.

While his memory was different, it was still present, a thing we could both hold onto. Now it wasn’t anymore. Him losing that memory felt like I had l lost part of my own, one that I had cherished.

As for the dogs, they were a staple of our daily walks, a symbol of that beloved ritual. Him forgetting their names made me wonder if he didn’t remember the times he stopped to pick up acorns or pluck dandelions from the empty lot on the way there. It made me question if he had lost the memory of the shudder he’d make when the big commuter train passed by, both scared by the sound and entranced by the power. While I moved from grudging acceptance of these walks to embracing their slow pace, he went the opposite direction. His enchantment faded so much that he hardly seems to know it anymore.

Keeper of Memories

Now those moments are mine to hold onto alone. Just as I wish I had asked my grandmother so much more before she started forgetting things, I wish I had asked him more before his brain discarded these memories as if they were what he ate for lunch three months ago.

Because I can do nothing to restore them, I hold those memories close to my heart. I tell stories and share photos with him, recalling what a good time we had, describing his smile and laughter. We rebuild that connection through story and description. It may be a memory of a memory now, but it’s better than nothing.

In return, I ask my son to do the same for me. One day, my memories will start to fade. Even now, I lose moments in my overstuffed mom brain like toy cars tumbling out of a diaper bag. I ask that in those times, as his mind sharpens and mine dulls, that he’ll hold those family stories close. That he’ll tell them to me with love and grace. That together, we can remember and rebuild our experiences as a family, no matter who is the keeper of any one memory.

Parenting has so many lenses we can see it through, from the moment-by-moment overwhelm to the looking from the outside on a sibling relationship. To follow my reflections on being a mom, be sure to follow us on Facebook. 

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