Snapshots from the road

March 15,2010
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.

I remember reading somewhere that the memories we tend to hold onto from our childhoods are either painfully traumatic ones, or amazingly memorable ones. As kids get older, they hold onto more and more memories, and grow more and more capable of weaving those memories into their lives, so they become a part of who they are. I often wonder about this, because I remember so little from my early childhood--hardly anything, really, until I was five or six. After that, my memories are like snapshots--impressions, rather than true memories. When I was eight, I think, my parents exchanged houses with a Canadian family and we spent the summer in Winnipeg, Canada, while they spent theirs in Maryland. They stayed in our house, and we stayed in theirs--a good exchange, I think. On the drive back from Canada, my parents talked about what we kids would remember from the trip. My brother more, because he was three years older; my sister very little, since she was just five at the time. Me, always in-between, what would I remember? I sat in the backseat of the Volkswagon van and felt suddenly sad that I might forget most of that trip. It was all so very present to me at that moment, and so tangible. Now, thinking back, I only remember three or four things from that summer: they are like photo stills in my mind. One: my father urging us kids to wake up and look! There, by the side of the road, in the gray, murky dawn, was an enormous bear, standing on his hind legs, a wall of dark trees behind him. I still remember the feeling of awe and panic and a strange ache inside that took hold of me when I saw the bear, his head raised into the air. Two: Waking up one morning in the back of the van, who knows where, on our way to Canada. I felt itchy and hot. I lifted up my shirt and saw my stomach covered in red bumps. Chickenpox! And before we even arrived. I can only imagine how my parents felt. Three: Lots of rain in Winnepeg and the backyard flooded, and turned into a pond. We kids made a boat to sail in it, and ended up getting soaked and muddy. And in big trouble. I felt crushed by the injustice of it all--that memory had a taste, bitter and sad in my mouth. Four: Bits and pieces of the house we stayed in--a girl's room, crowded and filled with toys and stuffed animals; a dark laundry closet, a crowded kitchen nook? And that's it. A whole summer spent on an adventure, and I only have those four photo stills to pull out and look at. Most of all I remember the bear, and the trees behind him, and the stretching black of the forest as we pushed on farther and farther from the safe, and the familiar. ******** Not long ago I was telling a fellow parent about our upcoming trip. He shuddered a little when I mentioned the drive. "We don't travel with our kids yet," he told me. They are eight and four. "What are they going to remember, anyway?" I looked at him. Was he kidding? You have to take these adventures with your kids, you just do. It's important, and life-changing, and the stuff of bigger things in life to come. You have to take them, even if they end up only remembering the bear, and a vague, restless ache inside.