Memory is fascinating. When the topic comes up, most people think about how good they are at keeping track of details or how far back they can remember. But memory is broader and deeper and more ethereal than that.
When my grandmother started showing signs of dementia, the way in which her memory defined her was both alarming and intriguing. The rules of conversation had to be completely rewritten to accommodate her when we visited. Relationships formed in recent decades went out of focus, but figures from the past loomed large. The purpose of time spent with grandma had to be accepted in new ways because we would travel ten hours to visit with her knowing as soon as we left our efforts would be forgotten. I hadn’t realized how much I considered visiting people in terms of ‘creating memories’ until that part of it left the equation. Being with grandma toward the end was about being purely in the moment because the memory would be one sided at best. In the case of someone like Mona, neither she nor my grandma would likely retain a memory of their time together, Mona being too young to remember and grandma being too old. To watch any interaction between them was surreal knowing I would likely be the only person in the room to come away with any memory of that time at all.
I seem to have a pretty good memory, although I wish it were better. One of my brothers doesn’t remember much from his childhood from before age 12, so when he wants to recall something from his past he asks me. He declared me keeper of family memories at one point. It’s a nice role, I just hope I do it justice.
But parenting has altered how I think about retaining memories. I used to fear losing any memories about my past because it felt like part of me was disappearing. I kept things simply because I had clear memories associated with them, whether those memories were worth holding onto or not. That changed when I was pregnant the first time and was clearing space for the baby. I didn’t care about the details of my past the same way. My childhood was done. I was excited about the new memories coming that would be about a new childhood. Building memories for the baby mattered to me more than preserving my own past. I was able to let many objects go. I would look fondly at something, enjoy the memory that went with it accepting that it may be for the last time, and then give it up either to the trash or Goodwill. Having children is more about looking forward than looking back most days, and I’m fine with that. It’s almost a relief.
It has been stunning to observe how memory works in my children and what they experience. I am constantly amazed by either something they remember or something they don’t. Aden has an excellent memory for the objects in my parents’ house in Michigan, for instance, even though typically we only visit once a year. She also has a very good memory for language and emotions. Mona seems to have very strong tactile memories which help her when she’s building things, but labels don’t concern her. She can never remember which room I mean when I say ‘the living room’ or ‘the dining room.’ She has no interest in remembering which of her twin uncles is which and uses their names interchangeably, even if only one of them is around and she’s been told which one it is. But obscure moments from visits to the cottage she can describe in detail, or whole strings of dialogue from a show she likes that we haven’t seen in awhile will roll off her tongue with no problem. Quinn learned the name and location of every country in Africa in three days at age two. It was impressive, and then he was bored by it and forgot everything. He’s gone through several different phases of learning something incredible and then just letting it go. He recently rediscovered his love of sign language, and I can’t tell if he’s picking it up quickly because he remembers any of it from when he was a baby, or just because he picks things up quickly.
I think a lot about where the cutoff for some memories are. I can tell you with certainty what I ate for lunch yesterday. A week from now that will get sketchy, and at some point it will be gone. I think about how that relates to what my children know. All my kids have been to visit their grandmother in Portland, Oregon. If you’d asked them on the day we returned to Milwaukee if they remembered any of it they would have of course said yes. A week later that would have still been true. But somewhere between now and then there was a day where it slipped away from them, and they no longer remember Portland. Fall of 2008 was half of Quinn’s life ago, so he doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to something we did on that trip. Mona might remember it if we returned there, but can’t recall anything on her own at this point. Aden, if you jog her memory a little, can remember quite a bit, mostly about a unicycle race in the mud we saw. She can tell you a bit about her grandmother’s house, but those memories are not very stable. I wonder about knowing something one day, and having that memory evaporate the next. I think that’s how our memories of being babies vanish, one day at a time.
Today my grandma lives only in memory. I feel her keenly, some days more than others, but I wonder how strong any of my kids’ memories of her will be over time. Quinn does not remember her, and I don’t expect Mona to for much longer. Aden clings to memories like precious objects the same way I tend to, so she will resist letting her great-grandmother go. Photos will help, but photos can trick us into thinking we remember things that we don’t. I have a feeling Aden may be the keeper of our little family’s memories in the long run. She’s a sentimental pack rat who likes to bake and that’s a recipe for handing down family stories and traditions. I wonder who I will be to her when I’m no longer here. I trust Aden to edit me in a good light one day, but I think about that as I interact with her in the present sometimes. I can’t know which of the things we do now will stick with any of my kids. I can only hope they look back one day and see a lot of love and maybe a few really good cakes.
(Mona and my grandma at the cottage.)