Writing Memories

Writing Memories

Lauren:Writing MemoriesFor years, I have kept a notebook by the side of my bed, the pages filled with my children’s milestones. With teeth cut, with words uttered, with laces tied, with pedals pushed. When my first son was born, I wanted to catch every last detail, to snare them all, like the slippery fish they are, in the net of permanence language casts so well. I wanted future access to the moments I knew would slip, inevitably at some point, through the cracks of my mind. What I wanted, I see now, was nothing less than to be able to hold his childhood in my hands, once it was gone, and to say, yes, I remember it, I remember it intimately, each fleeting drop.

The notebook was an insurance policy that I would remember who my son was at 16 months old and then again at 36 months old, that I would remember the difference between those incarnations of him and how he got from one to the other. From the toddler who would sleep 15 hours a day to the boy who is still thumping around in his bed gone 10 pm. From the three- year-old with the clipped English accent, performing brain surgery on me with a stethoscope, to the eight-year-old bearer of broad Glaswegian vowels, between whose feet everything becomes a football.

When my second child was born, I bought another notebook. And when the twins came along, I bought yet another two. There were lapses in the entries, of course there were lapses. In between the task of chronicling life is the business of living it. But no major milestone went unrecorded. The when and the how were just as telling to me as the what. Taken together, I felt, these details were evidence somehow of the most important evolutions I would ever witness. I can’t put my finger on why exactly I needed to pin down my children’s development in this way, to preserve these moments like so many butterflies on a collection board, except to say that I sensed, from the beginning, a responsibility.

Before I had children, I was a classicist. An education spent tracing the lines of historical inheritance had shown me that the events of the past only reside with us in the present through the careful transmission of words, because somebody had the foresight to realize this, this is significant, this is worth putting on paper. If I wasn’t that person for my children, who would be? If I didn’t keep custody of the facts of their early existence, there was a good chance those footprints would fade away altogether.

Oblivion was a risk I was not willing to take. And I deemed memory too wily a creature to trust on her own, not with an enemy so powerful as the passage of time. The ancient Greek word for oblivion is lethe, which means “forgetfulness.” The word for “truth” is aletheia, which means, literally, an un-forgetting, because forgetting, the Greeks believed, is the way you lose your grip on the truth. From the night I became a mother and began charting feed times by moonlight, it was clear that, in the battle against oblivion, writing would be my weapon of choice. It was words, I was convinced, that would allow me to hold tightest to the “truth” of this almost indescribable thing that was happening to me.

My pen has not failed me. The written documentation I have compiled over the past eight years has helped me to remember my children as babies, to remember them as toddlers, to remember them in a way that photographs alone, for example, have not. There are reams and reams of pictures saved on my computer, but an image of my daughter at two and a half cannot tell me that that was the age she asked her first “why” question. Nor can it tell me what it was that she asked.

Recently, however, I have noticed a change. While the notebook still sits by the side of my bed, the pages are emptier than they used to be. One of my kids will say something or do something and I will think, aha, a breakthrough in logic! A new feat of independence! But time will pass and I won’t have written it down. My twins, my last children, have just celebrated their third birthday and this can’t be a coincidence. At three, they have pushed through the door which marks the end of the truly formative period, into a room where development is not so fast and furious, where age is no longer measured in days or weeks or months.

Quite suddenly, it seems, we have begun the long march of years. As our family life becomes more about the broad strokes and less about the fine points, so does the way I find myself accounting for it. The details and dates I once obsessed over have given way to bigger-picture essays, essays like this one, that attempt to pin down a different kind of truth. A truth that will, in turn, leave me with a different kind of memory. In Greek mythology, the goddess Memory, Mnemosyne, is the antidote to oblivion. She is also the mother of the muses. Whatever I remember about them in the future, however I write about them from hereon in, the one thing I know for certain is that my children will always be my muses.

“Most sweet, vigilant, she reminds us of all the thoughts that each one of us is for ever storing in our hearts, overlooking nothing, rousing everyone to consciousness.” 

-Orphic Hymn to Memory

Read more essays on ages 1 – 10 in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

A Journal of One’s Own

A Journal of One’s Own

NINAThere are acts of independence many kids demonstrate in the earliest years of elementary school: they learn to tie their shoes; they make suggestions (and demands) about the food in their lunch boxes; and they have strong opinions about the clothes they like. The most pleasant surprise of having school-age children, however, has been my older two kids’ requests for a notebook they could keep in their bedrooms. They each wanted a journal, they said, or perhaps they said “diary.” Either way, the mother and the writer in me rejoiced.

Sam, 8 at the time, came up with the idea. During that patch of second grade, his best friend was getting chummier with a different boy in class, someone with whom Sam didn’t particularly click at the time. The friend in the middle didn’t know how to bring Sam and the other kid together. Instead, he took turns playing with Sam and “Sam’s rival” at recess and lunch. When it was Sam’s turn, Sam was thrilled. On the off days, Sam was distraught.

“So can I have a notebook?” he asked me.

Of course I said yes, but I was curious what made him think that a journal would help. Immediately I pictured the hidden box of my journals that chronicled my life from the age of 13 to 25. In those pages I kept a diligent record of every frustration with my family and friends, every moment of unrequited and requited love, and an infinitely less illuminating record of what I weighed along the way. I operated with much less confidence in those days, and I found the notebooks a source of escape and comfort. I never went on a trip without a journal, and I habitually read old ones when I wanted a reminder of how infrequently my past worries came to fruition. Despite the benefits I knew so well of having a private notebook, it never would have occurred to me to offer the same tactic to my 8-year-old son.

Sam said he got the idea from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. Now I had two reasons to feel a debt of gratitude towards those books: they got Sam to read, and now they’d planted the seed of keeping a journal.

When I brought home a red notebook for Sam, he got to work drawing pictures and writing a sentence or two about his best friend and the other kid. I know this because he insisted on showing me the pages. He kept the journal in his nightstand and made a big announcement to his sisters and baby brother that they were forbidden to glance in its direction. Still, he wanted to share his progress with me every day.

I explained to Sam and to Rebecca, 6, who was also in the room, that a journal was for their private thoughts, including complaints they had about their parents and even each other. When Rebecca asked if she could have one too, but not a plain one, I brought her to the store where she selected a multicolored cover complete with a silver sequin ‘R’ in the center. Last year, in kindergarten, she drew pictures in the pages, but this year, having made a leap in her ability to write, she’s been writing poems, songs, and a litany of complaints about Sam and Elissa. (In her eyes, her youngest sibling, Nate, can do no wrong). Again, I know these details because she also occasionally shows me what she wrote.

The only other opinion, other than the privacy issue, I’ve shared with Sam and Rebecca about how to keep their journals is to suggest that they don’t tear out sections when they’ve changed their minds about an issue. I hope they’ll just take my word for it since they’re too young to understand that the power of keeping a journal goes beyond the actual moment of jotting down frustrations and joys. It’s the record of those collected experiences that can prove the most therapeutic. I wrote in my journal whenever I thought I was going to die of embarrassment or when I was down or ashamed about anything. Then, when I had those feelings again, I could go back and read about how things eventually got better, which helped me remember that my current problem would likely go away, too. I only wish I’d never stopped keeping those notes when I was 25 as I could still use reminders like that nowadays.

When I started my blog in 2010 (I was 33), I thought of that forum as a different but equally valuable kind of record keeping. Seeing my kids turn to their notebooks, however, reminded me of the special nature of private notes not intended for anyone else to read. It reminded me of the enormous difference between writing and publishing.

Soon after buying Rebecca’s diary, I went to the store and picked out my own new notebook, a spiral-bound, practical one, which I knew from over a decade of experience made it easier to use the backs of pages. I only write in there once a week, and usually it’s about essay and short story ideas more than anything else now that the angst of my teen years and 20s is long gone. I’m there on the page though, just me and my awful, but familiar handwriting and occasional hand wringing. It feels good to be back.

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