I spend a lot of time thinking what it must be like to be one of my kids. Before you say, “Oh, you’re such a good mommy!” it’s not really like that. If anything, I’m all the more culpable for being so mean sometimes. I actually can really, vividly imagine what it’s like to be, for instance, so so upset about someone saying that “Catsy Cootsy Tatsy Wootsy” is a stinky name for a robot — and yet I still say, “Oh, don’t be so silly, who cares? You stop crying and clean up this room.” Even though I remember what that’s like.
Anyway, I was thinking about those strange, stranded childhood memories that stay with us. We say, “When I was little, we always used to sit under the lilac tree and play farm using fruit snacks for animals” when really that only happened one time. Or our entire sixth year of life is represented by a memory of a maple seed helicopter that someone drew on with green marker and put in our hair. Probably something else happened that year! But that’s all we can remember, is the helicopter.
I just wonder how these memories stick. Why? I drive down the same country road four times a day, five days a week, with the four little ones strapped into their dank car seats. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we listen to music, sometimes they yell and kick at each other, and fight over the last of the graham crackers. But most of that time, they’re just looking out the window.
I glance back and see those dark, placid eyes drinking in the golden leaves, the endlessly unfurling stone walls, the occasional thrilling squirrel or cocker spaniel as we rattle down the road — that familiar landscape that ought to be so soothing and reassuring, and the perfect, idyllic setting for a whole year of comfortable childhood memories. There’s even a funny plaster bull in somebody’s yard. That would make a nice memory!
But I know perfectly well the strangeness inside a child’s head. I remember that simmering stew of comfort and confusion, tedium and alarm, affection and sudden spikes of dread. And I remember all the adults trotting along so callously, so bafflingly unaware of all the terrible dangers in the world, the savage mysteries that grown-ups pretend are nothing at all, just a shadow, just a plastic bag caught in the wind, just the sound of the house settling.
Some of my children are worriers and brooders, and I understand them. I can tell them, “It’s all right — it’s all right. You’ll grow up, and you’ll see that the world is not so terrible. There is a way out of this dark hole, and there is so much to look forward to. Just hang in there, and you will not always be a child! You can do it.” But that doesn’t help them now. They don’t know what I mean, and they don’t realize that I understand.
I wish I could choose their memories for them. When I’m feeling up to it, I try and bulldoze them over with poignant, satisfying experiences, so that they’ll have something good for when they grow up. And really, I know it’s not for their sake — it’s for mine. It’s so they can tell me, “Remember when you used to sing that song you made up while we were waiting for the eggs to scramble?” and I can say, “Oh, yes, you were such a difficult child . . . but I made you happy, didn’t I?” and they will say, “Yes, Mama, and we appreciate that. You were a good mother.”
Ridiculous. That is not what will happen. When they have their own kids, they’ll wonder why I couldn’t have been nicer, why I had to be so critical, so capricious, so impatient and embarrassing. They will love me, but it will be love with exasperation, accomplished with fortitude. I know that whoever my children will turn out to be, it will be because of their own experiences, their own personality, their own genetics, their own little portions of grace that God chooses for them. So very, very little of who they are will come from me, even though I crack my brain trying to think of everything they will need.
And of that, they will remember – – what? The time I yelled at them on their birthday; and maybe also the time I made kitten-shaped pancakes for lunch. Maybe they’ll just remember me brushing their hair.
I hope the time they remember is the time I remembered to be gentle.