Memory keeper - FamilyEducation

Memory keeper

February 25,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

When L. was first born, a dear older friend (and mom of five children!) gave me a blank notebook with calendar pages and told me I should write down all the funny/interesting/important happenings in our new child's life. It would be especially important, she instructed me, to write down his first words--those first declarations of self out into the world. And I did try to commit as many of these as I could to paper, that first year and a half of his life. But of course, like the children's baby books, the documentation was a little hit-or-miss, so what I have is just a sampling of all the delightful and curious things that came out of L.'s mouth and mind in those early days. But even just a sampling is treasure enough. When you're a parent, you always think you'll remember every little funny and brilliant thing your child says or does, because how could you not? But I've learned that the memories fade, too, supplanted by other ones. So while you're there in the moment, thinking you'll hold on forever to your child's first word, suddenly you find yourself six or seven years down the road and you can't remember what it was. Luckily I have the notebook, with one or two lines in it, and reading just those samplings alone connects me to the past in complete and very real ways. I thought about the notebook last night, because L. has said some very profound and take-your-breath-away things these past few days. For instance: On Sunday I tiptoed past L. in the hallway on the way into my room. Yes, he is back to camping out in the hallway at the top of the stairs in his sleeping bag. He falls asleep there around 10:00 and Scott carries him into bed when he comes upstairs. But that night, as I tiptoed past, L. shot up like an arrow, wide awake. I made him get up and walk back to bed, and he was groggy but talking. "Time to sleep, L.," I told him. "Yes, but will I be able to get back to sleep?" (Always the million-dollar question at our house.) "You WERE asleep, and so you can go right back to sleep," I told him. "I wasn't asleep, Mama--I was walking on the margins of sleep." And that just blew my mind away--that image--L. in his pajamas, walking like a gliding spirit around the periphery of sleep and dreams. Oh, I'll remember that one forever, I told myself when I came downstairs Sunday night after tucking him in. But then I wondered, would I? Would it stay with me? Would I remember ten, or twenty, or thirty years from now? Would telling Scott about it be enough for the both of us? Fast-forward to Monday night. It had not been a good day for L., and I felt disconnected from him and craved a talk and a snuggle. So we lay in his bed, with his dog-eared airplane posters all around us, and his piles of books on the foot of his bed, and we talked about school, and about how hard it has been for him. "Do you know what the happiest time of my life was?" he asked me. "It was the summer between preschool and kindergarten." I waited. "It was that little window--" here he cupped his hands together. "That grain of sand between those two times..." I couldn't get him to explain more, but again I was blown away by the image, this time of a grain of sand--the one I could almost see held between his palms: one grain, perfect and distinct and utterly beautiful before it slipped away, caught up in the rush of everything else. It's a hard job, being a memory keeper for your children. I think of these moments--small and special revelations that form such an important part of my chidren's worlds, and I worry that I won't remember them some day. Years ago, when the kids were small, I didn't have those same fears--but now I have the wisdom that only comes from watching your kids begin to grow up. I want to write it all down--every last word and moment of it. I'll need volumes of notebooks before I'm done, I think.