This post is about memory. About how critical it is to understanding family life, about how “wrong” it is, about how it differs so sharply from family member to family member. I use to put great stock in my recollections of my childhood. I used to recite narratives about what happened and what people said and who was responsible and even why people did what they did, as if I had any access whatsoever to the why’s of other people’s actions, especially as a child. I used to tell these tales with fair confidence. They were true because I remembered them. But I don’t do that so much anymore. Even when I’m explaining moments form my past to my therapist, I usually mention something about a grain of salt and not quite a grain of faith in my recollections. I don’t know if it’s feeling more and more like a grownup, or if it’s my exposure to my own kids’ narratives that occasion me to tell my tales with reservation, but I’m learning that family memories are a peculiar thing.
One of the harsh realities of mothering I think is that our children use this peculiarity of memory as a significant guiding force in how they understand who they are and who we are and the choices we made that shaped their lives, even though none of our memories may be particularly ‘accurate’ and few of them in synch with each others’ memories. Our kids remember shared events differently than we do; sometimes these differences are stunningly absolute. And yet their narratives of these events are what will guide their lives; not the ‘accuracy’ of the details or how well their version meshes with ours. I remember falling asleep exhausted as I read picture books to my daughter, and wondering as I garbled the words in semi-consciousness whether she’d recall that we went through stacks of library books each summer, or that I lost consciousness halfway through them. The answer, as it turns out, is she seems to remember neither. My son mentioned recently that we always say we’re going to get him a bike for his birthday in June and then never do. I reminded him that it is HE who says he wants a bike in April and May practically every year, and then by June he’s decided he wants something else. I suspect that his version of being annually denied the bike is the one that will stick in his narratives. My daughter remembers walking home many times in the dark from karate class while in junior high; she actually walked home once, at dusk. My son says we always say we’re going to go camping and never do. I say we DID go camping, him and his sister and me, quite a lot in fact; but now his two weeks at summer camp knocks out 40% of his summer break given his year-round school, and he has made clear that he is in no mood for more camping. And I’m in no mood for cajoling unwilling participants at the campground, I’ll tell you that.
In a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned one my father’s evening rants, which included storming down the hallway, flicking on the light, shouting “and another thing!” and scolding us about that other thing, to be followed by another thing, and another thing, in sequence. My sister read this post and swears that this script was performed by my mother, not my father, and confirmed this with our other sister. I have distinct memories of fearing my dad’s hallway rants so that’s the recollection that sticks for me, but I don’t make much ado about narrative accuracy any more. I do fear though, the more profound ways in which my children’s narratives of their lives with me implicate me in ways that go beyond picture book and birthday bicycle memories, venture into “you never” and “you always” memories, and move wholly out of synch with the memories I thought I was shaping for them. How our children narrate their lives is an element of mothering over which we finally have no control. And letting go of the desire for it is one the greatest challenges of motherhood for me.