Reflections on Memory

What is memory? What do we remember? What makes something stand out in our mind so that we hold onto it in some format to come out years later in a conversation or on the page?

Yesterday Kathy wrote about her concerns that her memories are not specific enough for her memoirs. I argued that nobody’s memory is that precise, and that I find memoirs written with immense detail somewhat distracting because nobody can really remember every detail of his/her life, unless he/she took precise records on a daily basis.

We also all remember things differently. Even moments we spent together, when filtered through time, space, and the vagaries of personality will come out differently depending on the speaker. Every event can be interpreted with multiple truths like a never-ending production of Rashomon.

Yet, despite the variations in memory, certain things stick out. Tonight, as we took Sarah on her second round of Trick-or-Treating for what I am calling Halloween 2011, And Event that Never Ends she started complaining that her toe hurt.

The fastest runner gets the candy first

“Do you want to go back?”

“No! But it hurts.”

“Would you like me to cut it off at the neck? That will stop the pain.”

My brother, who was with us in his Woodstock costume commented on my choice of words as another parent who I just met said, “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

“I am my father’s daughter,” I answered.

A few minutes ago, as I was trying to watch a movie and Jasper decided he needed some affection I said, “Jasper, you are a better door than a window, even though you are a pain.”

Oh yeah, that's the spot.

Steve, who is spending the night, said, “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

“I am my father’s daughter,” I said again.

What does this have to do with memory, you ask.

It has everything to do with the memory of who my Dad used to be. I have incorporated many of his sayings into my life, and Sarah says some of them. These are phrases that I would hear repeatedly from my Dad once upon a time a long time ago. Because, you see, my Dad is still with us physically but each day moves further away from us into the world of memory, while simultaneously unable to remember anything.

Now, usually, a typical conversation with him involves his asking how old Sarah is and what grade she is in about five times in a row.

I answer each time, because I know he really cannot remember.

Today we learned that one of Dad’s oldest friends passed away. I do not know how he took the news, as I haven’t talked to Mom yet to find out. Would the news of a friends passing push him back into memories of younger days, when age and illness hadn’t entered the picture? Or would he simply forget soon after hearing the news, content in a moment not embedded in his memory?

In Colorado.

Despite the fact that both my parents are still in my life, I struggle to remember specific moments in my childhood. It is not that I had anything majorly traumatic; I just cannot remember a lot. Occasional snippets come into my mind, like a movie jumping from scene to scene with poor editing:

  • Me presenting my mother with a homemade Mother’s Day present that involved a real branch and paper flowers.
  • Me running into the house after a bad day, running up to my room and hiding from my mother and trying to ignore my mother’s knocks as she asked me what was wrong.
  • My parents sitting near each other on the couch and my father reaching over and giving my mother a gentle touch, unaware that I was watching. I believe this was my first awareness (as a pre-teen) that my parents were intimate.
  • My father’s recitation every year in early spring of the following snippet of classic poetry: “Spring has sprung, the grass has ris, I wonder where the birdies is? The birds is on the wing, no the wings is on the birds.”
  • The one and only conversation I ever remember having about sex with a parent, when my mother was driving me back to college one day (and this doesn’t even count as a childhood memory)
  • My mom frosting a chocolate cake for someone’s birthday.

This list of tiny moments of memory could go on forever, but I struggle to remember anything substantial. What memories of my life will I return too if I succumb to this awful disease? What memories of life will I leave Sarah with as she moves on into her own life?

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and rediscover the moments of childhood that mean the most. I wish I did not have to rely on memories that are either faint or misremembered.

I wish I had kept better records of my own life and the lives of my family, but all I have now are remnants and habits that come from sources that I barely remember. As I search for more detailed memories, I realized that memories live within me. In the phrases I use to speak to my daughter, in the foods I cook at special times of year (recipes from my mother). Memories don’t always come back with a full picture, but they can appear in the smell of baked apple pie.

What happens when there is nothing left, not even memories?

This morning I woke with this song in my head (although I struggled to figure out what it was–thank goodness “There’s an APP for that” and that my brother had it). In some ways I think it is perfect because it reflects the challenges that often come when trying to communicate through the inconsistencies of memories.

Mother Daughter Swap

Like millions of Americans, I called my Mother yesterday.

Having tea a few years ago.

“I just called to say Happy Mother’s Day.”

“Thank you. And you too.”

I always find Mother’s Day awkward. Partially because, despite the fact that I am a Mom, I think my mother still sees me as the daughter who needed her all the time. Or the daughter that she wanted to need her all the time.

I’m no longer the daughter my mother knew.

I don’t often write about my family for a number of reasons.  Guilt. Frustration. Anger. Sadness. They all filter my relationship with my family.

Please understand that I am not blaming them, I blame myself. For a long  time I tried to perceive my family differently and to keep my connection with them in the ideal family sense. But I failed.

We all failed.

Yesterday Mom sounded pretty good. She had a positive lilt to her voice which she doesn’t always have. Of course, she was disappointed that my older sister decided to celebrate a friend’s birthday instead of Mother’s Day. But that’s not surprising to anyone, really. My sister’s role in the family is one of the reasons I don’t write very much about the family. It hurts too much. (And don’t worry, she very rarely reads this blog I’m sure. My brother does–you know him from The Odd Ramblings . . ., but I’m sure he understands what I mean.)

Then the conversation took a surprising turn.

“I think I’m retiring in July,” she tells me. “But now everyone’s telling me I shouldn’t retire. First everyone told me I should, now everyone’s telling me I shouldn’t.”

“Who is telling you not to retire?”

“Auntie Sis and one of your Dad’s home care people.” (My Dad has Alzheimer’s and I feel awful that I cannot spend more time with him or help. Another reason I don’t write about them often.)

I hesitated before I responded. I have been encouraging her to retire for a while now, because she complains about being tired all the time and about how she cannot get anything done. But, I know my mother. She’s not the most social being. She is no longer likely to pursue a project or a hobby simply because it interests her. She always has an excuse as to why she cannot do something.

So while a part of me thinks she should retire, another part knows that retirement might lead to fading away.

So this is what I said:

“Mom, I understand what they are saying. If you retire and do nothing, simply fade away, then that’s not a good choice. I know you, and that could happen. But you are the only one who can make the choice. If you can promise yourself to DO SOMETHING when you retire, then you should retire. But I can’t make you do anything, and you have to choose.”

“I know. That’s what I’m afraid of. I have a lot of thinking to do.”

Just like that our relationship changed. For a brief moment, she heard and accepted what I have to say.

It hurts to be so far away from my family, because I cannot help them deal with the changes that come from age and life. But, it also hurts to be near them because I cannot stop the changes anyway.

Each of us have chosen paths in our lives. Now all we can do is live them to the best of our abilities.

I leave you with a video my brother made. Watch closely and you will understand why. His original post of the video is called “Time Passes (a visual poem)“.

Home . . . Sick

Mom, Dad and Sarah before it all changed.

I’ve been struggling about what to write this morning.

Usually the first thing I do in the morning is start my daily post.  But, this morning was different for a few reasons.:

  • I had to drag my carcass out of bed in order to drive my husband in to get a school van at 6am–why then? I don’t know.
  • The inevitable post-show blues hit, right in the middle of the show yesterday. Causing me to miss my curtain call! I didn’t know they were going to give me flowers at the end of the show. I thought they hated me by this point. Anyway, the post-show blues are often followed by some kind of physical thing, and this was no exception. I think it works something like this:

Germ 1: “Ooh, we haven’t been able to get to this one in a long time! She’s been so stressed, that we couldn’t even squeeze in. I want to get her bad!

Germ 2: I know. She is like a crazy person. And whenever she’s crazy those white dudes never let us in. It stinks.

Brain Chemicals: She finished. Now let’s make her feel sad because its fun.

Germ 1: Oh! The brain chemicals are out and she’s loosening up! Now is our chance! Let’s get her!

Germ 2: ATTACK!!!

And so, I am home sick, today.

But I still was stuck for anything to write about, so I visited some of my favorite blogs instead, in the hopes that I might get inspired. I read this sad and beautiful post by CM Smith called “Why?” CM and I are going through some similar experiences right now as we lose our fathers to the silences of Alzheimer’s. I haven’t written much about it, because I feel guilty in many ways. Living so far away from my family, I’m not there to witness the daily struggles or to offer help and support. I rarely talk to Dad on the phone, and Mom doesn’t really like to talk on the phone either. In many ways, this disease has widened the communication gap between my family and myself, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap. So, I simply avoid thinking about it–but it is always there. And my sadness about my dad seeps into my thoughts often.

So now, I’m home sick and I’m homesick.

But, reading CM’s post lead me this post about aging by NR Hatch, called “An Age Old Question . . . Old Age”.  She writes this post with a touch of humor, because all of us face the dreaded factor of joints creaking, gravity taking over, vision worsening, hearing fading. Face it, even the little babies are doomed to become decrepit old folks. NR’s humorous take on the battle with her parents to try to get them to move into a smaller and more functional situation reflects recent discussions with my own mother who refuses to even consider moving out of her home. I guess I understand, homes signify freedom and memories, but at what point do we say, okay, its time to let go? I wish both my parents could find freedom in old age, by holding onto memory rather than things. But memory is being slowly stripped from my dad, so my mother clings more to the things.

So, I guess I’m lucky in a way. Yes, I’m home sick, and I can be homesick, but reflecting on age and emotion and illness has led me to an important conclusion. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve said hello and goodbye to many wonderful people throughout my life. I’ve lived many incredible experiences. I’ve had to leave many homes behind. But, I carry them with me wherever I go, and have begun to share them in the words of this blog.

NR Hatch  wrote: “I am not going to worry about the passage of time until my feet no longer look good in flip flops.  If my eyesight fails quickly enough, that day will never come.” Nobody can win the battle against time, so I am not going to try. But, I am going to try to preserve memories in a way that they can never truly be lost–not by collecting possessions, but through a collection of words and images. I know that there is a possibility that I will follow my father down the dark path of oblivion, but I intend to leave a lot of stories behind.

So now, I’m simply home.

Raising a Happy, Healthy, Creative, Independent Child

I recently stumbled upon this website, FreeRangeKids, which has made me reflect on the type of parent I am, and the choices I make as a parent. I, of course, am my own biggest critic when it comes to parenting.  (Wipe that “no kidding” look off your faces, faithful friends and readers.) I also know that I make choices as a parent that my parents don’t agree with, and even more that my in-laws don’t agree with.

But, I am seeing my daughter grow as a person every day, so she can’t be too messed up, can she?

The basic premise of Free Range Parenting is that we live in so much fear on a daily basis that we don’t let children have freedom to grow, to learn. The creator of the website, Lenore Skenazy, has this description on her page:

Do you ever…let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk to school? Make dinner? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free-Range Kid! Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts — safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail. Share your stories, tell your tips and maybe I’ll use them in a new book. Here’s to common sense parenting in uncommonly overprotective times!

Now, I don’t think that I have achieved full “free range-hood” yet, because I am very cautious when  I am in places that are not familiar to me. In some ways, I’m very cautious at home as well, insisting that my seven-year-old daughter stay in sight when she is playing outside. Part of that comes from the location of our home. We are on a busy street, and I don’t want her running out and getting hit by a car. That seems reasonable. But then, I ask myself, isn’t she smart enough to know not to jump out in the street? Isn’t she smart enough to know not to climb into a stranger’s car? We’ve talked about Stranger Danger, and she knows how to respond, so why am I so hesitant about letting her  explore a little more freely?

That said, she does have more freedom. I used to not want her to play outside unless I was outside with her.  Slight Helicopter moment there. But, I have realized that I don’t have to be there 100% of the time, so now I am becoming a Free Range Parent, to some extent.

But, location, location, location makes a difference.

We spent the summer at a summer theater in Iowa where we lived, worked, played, etc. Our first summer there, Sarah was 5. Last summer, she was 7. During both summers she had free range of the lot, which was a big one. She knew the invisible lines she should not cross. When she was five, she was more restricted but still could go pretty much anywhere as long as we knew where she was. She had to come back for naps and bedtime. At seven, reigning her in was more challenging. She was more comfortable on the lot, had more confidence in herself, and was less afraid of leaving my side. I would joke all summer about my brilliant parenting, as my daughter stayed up until midnight or later to attend theater parties. My favorite moment was when she came home to say she was going to the movies with some of the college students, and they were going to see the 9:30 pm show. (She had asked permission from Nathan, but neglected to tell me that part). I let her go, figuring it was summer and why not? Sometimes, however, I thought I was creating a monster, a child who has complete freedom over the summers and would expect the same freedoms for the rest of the year.

But, you know what happened? Sarah grew up. She has become more independent, true, but she knows and understand the restrictions that I set for her. I think, because I showed her trust, she has learned to trust me more. But more importantly she has learned to trust herself. She still tries to test the limits sometimes, what seven-year-old doesn’t? Overall she’s a really good kid.

Her experiences at the theater have made her open to creativity, to imaginative play, and to books in ways that make me proud.  And I find, during the moments when I unintentionally get into my helicopter and start hovering, she resents it more. I’m trying not to jump in whenever she has a problem, but to allow her to talk about the problem and help her come up with a solution on her own.

At the same time, however, I can’t completely let her go wandering freely. She wants play dates with some of the girls in her class, and I won’t let her have them until I’ve met the parents. Why? What am I afraid of?

I guess, for now, Sarah can range freely, as long as she does not range too far. Parenting one day at a time.

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