Tuesday, January 30, 2007


It’s no coincidence that one of the fattest categories over there on the sidebar is called "Memory Lane." I’ve always enjoyed remembering things. When as a teenager I had occasion to clean out a closet or drawer, I always lingered over the task, sifting through report cards and art projects, photo albums and birthday cards. "Taking a trip down memory lane," my mother called it, and it was one of my favourite treats.

Hubby, on the other hand, has virtually no memory of the past. His childhood memories begin at about age six, the age I was when my family moved to "the new house," thus time-stamping my multitude of previous memories as belonging to the preschool and kindergarten era. I have long claimed that my earliest memory is of my first birthday party. I’m sure that what I am remembering now is not so much the event itself as my many later recollections of it, but it is a remarkably vivid memory for all that: I can readily recall my grandfather’s shocked and delighted expression as I took my first tottering steps towards him, my father’s steadying hand poised just inches away from my right elbow.

One’s first conscious memory is considered in some quarters to be highly revealing; a psychoanalyst might observe the emphasis mine places on achievement and male approval (ouch). What interests me, however, is the mechanisms that have preserved the wealth of memories I enjoy. There are many rituals I perform – writing, most notably – with the specific intent to preserve memories. I have always been greedy, that way: I want to keep as much of my life as I can.

Equally mysterious, of course, are the processes by which we divest ourselves of memory. When I was a young child and my pregnant mother told me that I had once lived in her tummy, just like the new baby, I was delighted but bemused. It seemed unlikely that my mother would lie about such a thing, yet search as I might, I could uncover no lingering memory of that experience. I tried to imagine a warm, comforting darkness, but there was no answering echo in my memory. How could I have forgotten? How could such a significant part of my life have slipped so totally past the grasp of my conscious mind?

We never completely get used to that reality, I suppose. Freud’s theory of the uncanny suggests that the frisson of terror we feel when we hear a good ghost story arises ultimately from the reminder it provides of those hidden dimensions of our lives that lie beyond the bounds of consciousness. The goblins that break in through the basement are always our own forgotten selves, terrifying in their familiarity.

Our toddler selves are usually lost entirely to this, the most banal form of amnesia. In this article, however, researchers claim that the age at which memories begin can be influenced (surprise, surprise) by mothers. A child’s ability to form memories is fostered by "high-elaborative" communication. High-elaborative mothers discuss experiences with their children at length, asking open-ended questions, while low-elaborative mothers do little more than elicit the facts before moving on to other matters.

I am, by nature, a high-elaborative mother. I am thwarted at every turn, however, by a son who considers the past to be a closed book. "Did you go to the mall today, Bub?" I’ll ask enthusiastically. "No," he snaps – falsely – before turning his attention to the task at hand. "Did you have a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch?" I pester in a doomed attempt to elaborate. "Okay!" he responds enthusiastically, looking around impatiently for the additional sandwich to appear.

Bub will have no memory of this part of our lives when he is an adult. He has no memory of this part of our lives now: any reference to a past event, whether it occurred yesterday, a week ago, or just this morning is met with the same combination of confusion and annoyance. It’s not just that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about: he doesn’t know why I keep talking about the mall, or about grilled-cheese sandwiches, when clearly we aren’t at the mall, and we don’t have any grilled-cheese sandwiches.

I’m too clever for him, though, too clever by half. Not content with entrusting his life to the porous mechanisms of his episodic memory, I record it meticulously and then post it on the internet, where it can never be lost and where someday, I hope, he’ll want to find it.


Becky said...

I haven't got any vivid memories of my childhood. I remember vague things, snapshots really - likely as a result of recalling events purely by looking at photo albums rather than actually remembering the events themselves.

Which is why I'm always intrigued when Kai chimes in about things that happened many months ago when we drive by a place that triggers a memory of the past. He happily explains what he recalls of the event, stunning me that at barely three he could remember things that happened when he was just over two years old.

BUT (big but), we are equally thwarted by blatent lying when it comes to what he did *today*. "Did you go to school today, Bub?" "NO." "Oh, I'm pretty sure you did..." "Nope." "Well, did you go to your swim class?" "Nope." (Again, pretty sure he did.)

Oh - and that reminds me - I've never mentioned this that I know of to you, but we've been calling our little one "bub" for almost 3 years now. It was originally "bubba", but it got shorted to "bub" simply because that's the way of things. I don't know how I really feel about calling a little child "bubba", but it fit him. Anyhow, I thought you might get a kick out of that...

Mouse said...

OK, to echo your "redundant" comment over at my blog, Scooter is like this too. He has improved in some respects, but I'm still never sure if what he tells me he had for lunch is truly what was served.

On the other hand, he is a lot like Becky describes--remembering things that are more removed. We went to a pirate festival in August; when we drove near that spot late in the fall (and on the Gardiner, not the same route we had used before), he mentioned the pirates.

And for another ditto... Scooter was a Bub/Bubba for a while after he was born. We still use it occasionally, though it is more frequently "Buddy" now.

BlogWhore said...

great site!

is everyone in the blogosphere from Canada?

Kyla said...

My earliest memory was between 2 and 3. I had begged my mother to let me play out in the snow with my (older) sister and cousin. Once out there, they largely ignored me and I got trapped in the snow. I was surrounded on 3 sides by dog poop, and on the fourth side the snow was too tall. My cousin had to come rescue me and she lost one of her skis in the process. I have no idea what that says about me.

BubTar also can't remember what he did today, but remembers months and even years ago in amazing details. It always surprises me!

Mary-LUE said...

I am currently reading a book called Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Seigel and someone else who's last name escapes me at the moment. According to the book, our ability to form explicit and autobiographical memories doesn't begin until around age two. Memories before that are implicit which have more to do with response feelings, etc.

The authors also make a connection between someone's ability to remember details of their past with how they were parented. Not just being talked to and having things explained to them but whether or not there was empathic listening going on. They give examples of adults who respond to children based on their expectations and experiences and basically run roughshod over the child's experience.

For example, a child who is trying to connect with their parent who comes home after a long day at work might be put off by the parent. The parent, wanting to change clothes, etc., before spending time with the child is not "getting" the child's need to connect. The child, upset, continues to try to connect, following the parent through the house, crying, etc. The parent, frustrated by the child's behavior, doesn't want to "reward" the bad behavior and thus, the cycle continues.

A child who has had lots of experiences like this (and the book is quick to point out that a child needs a "good enough" parent, not a perfect one) will often feel disengaged from their memories later on.

Based on what this book is saying, I would think that not only do you have early memories because of being talked to about things like your first birthday, etc., but your memories were reinforced by the positive connections that were made between you and the adults in your life.

Anyway, this is not to say that your husband can't remember things before six because he had bad parents. I'm barely understanding and grasping the ideas in this book. What you wrote, though, reminded me of those ideas--which I may completely have miscommunicated to you and your readership! ;)

Suz said...

I write, am compelled to write, for some of the same reasons. I want to grab at the present and tell it as it becomes to past, to save and preserve it in some form. That having been said, it's rare that I take a "trip down memory lane" by delving into the archives. It's like, for me, the act of capturing memory is all.

Mimi said...

I'm interested in thinking through how fast our memories change -- for example, Pynchon and I find ourselves many an evening now, as Miss Baby slumbers early and without a fuss, musing about marching her around the house in the sling until 2am, about her bouts of inconsolable screaming, about car trips gone awry, at our own desperation. The keenness is gone. Everything is snapshot clear ... but the feelings are dimmed. I am pretty sure it's all looking better in retrospect than it did at the time. Hm. We are *re*creating memories here. I know I am.

My earliest memory is from when I was nearly 2 and a half -- my crying 10-ish month old sister is being put in her playpen by my mom, and I'm holding her hand through the bars: she's crying because I accidentally on purpose let the front screen door close on her hand, and she's hurt. Mom doesn't know this and I feel incredibly guilty and ashamed. What a great first thing to remember, eh? Yeesh.

bubandpie said...

Mimi - Your comment reminds me of that other very commonplace form of amnesia: the one that leaves a vivid imprint of all the plot elements of my birth stories, while omitting all recollection of what the pain of labour actually felt like.

Jill said...

I wonder if there is a male/female difference in memory. I also have memories going back to age two, whereas the husband claims to remember nothing before age six.

I also think your "time stamp" theory has some truth to it. We moved a lot when I was small and my memories are catalogued by where we were living. I think that aides memory retrieval.

Beck said...

My first memory is of glowering through the bars of the crib at my new baby brother. I don't know what that suggests about my personality - I like to take umbrage, perhaps?

Jenifer G. said...

I am thinking about this really hard and I can't recall a single "first" memory. I think mine are more as Becky described above, snapshots of certain events categorized by various "time-stamp" events in my childhood. My parents divorce especially, divides many of my recollections.

I am always stunned when Papoosie Girl will mention things we did when she was two or three. She will remember what she was wearing, what she ate, signs, minute details that I am shocked she remembers. She has an uncanny memory it seems, things she has done, places we have been; it honestly shocks me sometimes.

I have been very diligent about putting our photos into albums. Starting with my ultrasound with Papoosie Girl they are completely up-to-date, it has been my mission. Life prior to kids - those (except wedding and honeymoon) are in a Rubbermaid tote in the basement. My girls love to pour over these albums and now that Papoosie Girl is reading she reads the captions I write to her sister.

I know this is reinforcing these wonderful memories. What Papoosie Girl remembers defies anything in the albums but, it is still wonderful to look at these and hear her memories of these events.

I would definitely say I am high-elaborative by nature as well. I like to talk, discuss, and listen too. My daughters are talkers too and why this makes my head hurt some days, I think this helps them develop the skills to recall.

I need to be more diligent about recording my family memories, the supposed reason for starting my blog! Not just the details, the date, time, etc. I am envious of those who can capture the mood, the emotions so eloquently. I owe it to my family to keep trying. I want them to have something wonderful to look back on.

Mad Hatter said...

You clever, clever woman.

I have very few early memories and very few memories from last week, truth be told. My husband has a mind like a steel trap. I write the blog partly b/c of my age--I know I won't be able to share memories with my daughter when I get older unless I write them down.

Her Bad Mother said...

He'll want to find it. It's such a tremendous gift - regardless of whether one remembers the details of one's childhood history or not - to preserve that story. He'll want it, he'll love it.

lildb said...

you're so gorgeously articulate, G.

it makes me happy. :)

penelopeto said...

I learn a lot from you.

I pepper my 20-month old with questions about her 'experiences' all the time. Her response is almost always the same, regardless of question - a rather cautious, quiet 'yeah,' clearly, as you said, confused about both the question and why I'm asking.

I used to think I was asking because I work, and I need to connect with the part of her day that I miss, and show her that even if I am not there, her day is so so important to me. (And get her into the habit of telling me everything in case anything ever happens that I should know about.) Now, I will be adding, 'cultivating high-elaborative motherhood' to my reasoning.

Andrea said...

I've never wanted to think about what it means that I have so few memories from the before the age of 8 or 10.

It's funny, though--such different experiences producing the same motivation. A great part of what got me into blogging was the thought that by writing down Frances's early life, it wouldn't be lost the way mine was.

jen said...

This is something I think about frequently - I have virtually no memory before the age of seven or so, and it's often made me think that M will have no recollection of any of this - and yet i know how critical it all is anyways, that the sum of impression it leaves her soul with is deeper than any specific moment.

as always, nicely done.

Mayberry said...

I agree with HBM; I'm sure he'll want it, and devour these entries so filled with love and thoughtfulness.

T. said...

He'll want to find it, and he'll treasure each word you wrote. It is such a wonderful gift that you are giving your children.

I am so thrilled you choose to share this gift with us.

Christina said...

I'm not even quite sure where my memories begin, and what are "false" memories from being told what happened. I have some fuzzy, blurry images in my head - like looking at a snapshot through a thick fog - from maybe around 5 or 6 years old, but no concrete memories until I was much older, and the ones I have aren't very pleasant. I look at pictures of me back then, but have no recollection of anything going on in them.

I wonder if being raised by a single mom, who was gone so often working that I was alone much of the time, has something to do with it?

I can only hope that Cordy will have more memories of her early childhood, either because I hope to be around more, and take an active role in helping her form those memories, or because I will have the sense to write it all down, so she can at least read my memories of her childhood.

Kristen said...

You know, this is interesting. I'm an elaborative mother too - and Bryce seems to be an elaborative son, asking me just as many open-ended questions about my own experiences as soon as he's done elaborating on *his* after *my* questions. I get frustrated sometimes because the talking never ends, but I know it's because that's just the way he is, and he probably gets it from me. Quinn, on the other hand, responds like Bub - he seems to have no interest in talking about the past and often assumes if I ask him abou the past that we're actually talking about the present, and then he acts like *I'm* the one who's confused. Just another example of how different all kids are...

Kelly said...

My mother wrote down a lot of little details about my life: words used at whatever age, when my teeth came in, what I got for Christmas. She was never a writer, so she wasn't really into elaborating about events, but I appreciated having these things recorded. It is especially delightful to finger the locks of hair my mother collected from a haircutting, securing them with a ribbon and attaching my age so I know when each surprisingly light-colored bundle was snipped.

Your children will appreciate it too, and seeing that you are not only a writer, but a damned eloquent one, I'm sure the details of their growing up will be even more special to them as they discover what you have recorded.

Some of my first memories: pooping on the floor in my parents' room (I was maybe around 2 1/2?); moving into our new house and playing with the electric stove, and my dad seeing the burner on and holding my hand over the heat while yelling at me. Seems a shame to have my first memories be negative ones...

Bobita~ said...

The ending to this post was so perfect, so beautiful...
I, literally, gasped.

Off I go to make my children squirm, roll their eyes and try desperately to resist my high-elaborator ways.

Alas, they shall fail.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I've been out of town and missed this post, so I'm sorry for the delay, but it struck me in a few ways.

First, my father is like your husband, and even Bub. He sees no value in talking about the past. Something happens; you learn from it; you forget it and move forward. Mostly I don't envy this but it sure does cut down on guilt.

Second, I didn't know that first memories were revealing; but now you say it: my first memory is of a gift from my parents (3 Musketeers bar when I lost a tooth too early). And that pretty much sums me up. Overly optimistic & secure in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, will always take care of me!

Lastly: my son has a lot of trouble answering open-ended questions. (He just turned 5.) It's like he doesn't know what to answer. "What did you do today?" Answer, after a long pause: "I don't know." I often wonder whether responses to these kinds of questions are learned -- if, after awhile, kids learn what we want to hear when we ask a question like that & only then are able to answer.

ewe are here said...

My memories of my early childhood are fairly vague, and I don't have too many of them. Sadly, I think it's because it wasn't a particular happy time for my mother...so probably deliberately blocked a lot of it out.

I do remember sledding and building a snowman with my grandfather though when I was very young. A very happy memory, that one.

I hope I can do better for MF.