Why Have I Forgotten My Childhood?
“Daddy, what were you like as a kid? Tell me a story about when you were a kid.”
A simple request from a girl dimly lit by a string of lights gently woven amongst tiny books and figurines. In a room, I’m certain I won’t forget. Or will I? Will she?
She wanted a funny story. She pawed at my hands as the silence grew worrisome. I’ve always had a couple of back pocket memories I could spin with detail to pad the effect. I looked down at her. Her eyes still too big for her perfect little face. Slow blinks. Anticipation.
There was the time I fell into the lake while peeing off the front of a rowboat at the age of 4 or 5, only to be pulled back in by my father before I could fall to the bottom. This was the story I told her. It was as if I could place myself on the bow, staring into a rippled dusk reflection of a child who wasn’t actually processing memories just yet. Maybe this is why I lost my balance and plunged into the lake.
My father dropped his new rod and reel to grab me. A point of contention I have never been allowed to forget. I remember walking into the house and the bathroom where my mom was primping for work. I remember the brightness of the vanity glass bulbs. The chill of my overalls. There is no sound to this memory. Just images.
The memory does not exist in a first-person perspective. I’m watching the scene. I see the boy. The mother. The father. I am a spectator to a diorama of distilled memorandum. I’m assuming those overalls, dripping onto the bath mat are cold. I empathize with the boy. As he seems familiar.
I’ve always been taken with that scene from Being John Malkovich where Malkovich ventures down the tube into himself. He experiences his life as a tourist of himself. Memories, like dreams, feel like that to me sometimes.
I told my daughter how we lived in a tiny brick house at the end of a dirt drive near a quaint lake. I don’t remember much else. I only remember this because my dad took me down memory lane one afternoon with a beer in the cupholder.
“Do you want to see the house you grew up in?” He said.
“Sure.” I do remember spending a lot of time on dirt roads in the passenger seat of my dad’s car.
We had a piranha. Its tank sat in the living room. We had a dog. Eyegore. A boxer. We once walked to the end of our driveway. He laid there while I played in the dirt. My mother had no idea where we were. When she found us, she spanked my butt all the way back to the house. I remember this because she remembers this.
I have memories that were recounted for me. And somehow, those became my memories. I don’t know if I’d remember falling into the lake had I not heard the details of it so many times. My mind has absorbed the repetition of worry, the hilarity of a toddler falling into a lake, manhood in hand, and the stress of a mother, getting ready for work and digesting the micro-trauma.
The mind does that. Provides detail. Creates it. Deletes it. Rearranges here and there for continuity. I’m struck by how much I don’t remember. About any of it. With all of its formative power, my childhood has been relegated to some splintered shelf in the attic of my mind. I’m standing under the scuttle, in a wall-papered hallway in the house of my mind. A metal ring slowly twists at the end of a white string. It’s out of reach. The memories, so close, yet completely inaccessible.
Later that evening we were standing in the incandescent wash of our medicine cabinets, my wife and I. Brushing teeth. Washing faces. She asked if our daughter wanted to hear a childhood story. I told her I had one, maybe two. She asked me if I remembered my childhood.
“Barely. I didn’t really have a funny story to tell her.”
“Me neither! She asked me and I couldn’t remember anything. Is this what happens? You just forget?”
I don’t know the answer but the fear of aging and wondering if we would forget this moment. The moment we recognized how much we forget would be deleted from the Kodachrome.
We talked about the fear of only being able to recall a few of our memories with our children. Their moments. Our moments. The in-between of major life events lost for the sake of continuity and mental efficiency. How do we hold onto it? Would we hold up pictures later in life without any recollection of the details that pencil in the importance of that memory?
Or are those unimportant memories deleted by a subconscious mind who recognizes the overwhelming task of documenting and organizing a life?
There is the science about this phenomenon. The mind. Memory. It’s editorial license when delegating certain events to the circular file of forever. Jump to: Inside Out when Riley and Bing Bong are clamoring up a valley crest of orb-like memories. Every grasp and foothold giving way. Memories. Abandoned.
I know Malcolm Gladwell has addressed the memory in Revisionist History in an effort to Free Brian Williams. I understand all of this. But, I still find myself in crisis.
My daughter is still lying in her bed, looking at me. The mind has thousands upon millions of thoughts. These selfish, introspective thoughts that intrude upon a father’s last ten minutes of a day with his daughter he promises he won’t soon forget. She’s so perfect.
When I reflect on my childhood I remember the things I did a multitude of times. I remember coasting down Meadowview Lane on my bike to my buddy’s house. Mike. His father was a pastor. And his mother always welcomed me into their home. Memories.
My friends lived in a neighborhood five minutes away by bike. I’d carved a trail through a vacant lot. I jumped the curb in front of the dentist’s office, hit the street, and pedaled as hard as I could until Meadowview turned into an asphalt rollercoaster. I did this hundreds of times. I can still hear the freewheel machine-gun clicking as my speed picked up.
I can see my bike still laying in the piece of grass adjacent to their sidewalk. The slope of the driveway affected your jump shot from the left elbow.
I’m worried about forgetting. I don’t know why I don’t remember. Life is busy? No. Life is long? Perhaps. The cruelty of pace. And the blurred years have to be trimmed somehow. At times I feel locked out of the editor’s booth as he pores over the film, swishing down a blade between frames, holding up a moment to the light, and tossing it atop a pile in an aluminum can. His ashy cigarette falling on the time I almost lost her in an outlet store.
When I watch my kids play and see the joy on their faces, I feel their joy, I’m afraid they won’t remember how happy they were. I don’t know if I care more for them or for me.
I don’t know if I want it to hold up like some dusty snowglobe that I can shake when they’re teens and come home unwilling to make eye contact or speak.
I don’t know if I want it as ammunition to displace a future failure as a parent. “Remember the time you were happy? I was there too.”
I don’t know.
I’m afraid of the sands of memories falling through the hourglass of my mind and piling up. My hand doesn’t fit through the neck of the glass. I can only finger at the sand.
And yet, I don’t know if remembering all of it is that important.
Memories are designed to do what they do quite well. Whatever that means.
Is it our minds telling us to be present? When we age, should we simply be living to remember the times we were more alive?
The crisis of memory I’m experiencing now has nothing more to do with me than it does this little girl still looking at me with a smile on her face because I was able to tell her a story about a boy, about her age, falling off of a boat. While peeing.
It doesn’t matter how the memory got there. It’s still mine. And now it’s hers.
“Tell me another one, Daddy.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”