My mother likes to tell the story of how, at the age of two, I threw a monumental tantrum. She isolated me in my bedroom which I then promptly destroyed. Whenever this family story is aired, I always protest: “But I don’t remember doing that. It wasn’t ‘me’.” Because I like to think ‘me’ started with my very first memory.
I think of my earliest memories. I remember the day I walked into a big iron boat swing at the children’s playground. It was one of those enormous heavy swings meant to carry four people. A huge shove was needed to set it in motion and then it rose and fell in a most satisfying manner. There were two of these swings isolated in a corner of the playground by a fence. I remember jumping down after my ride and running towards the gate. I ran right into the other heavy iron boat and my next memory is of being rushed to the hospital, where my head was sewn back together again. That was definitely ‘me’. I have the scar on my forehead to prove it.
I remember both of my sisters’ births. Vicky’s birth was rather exciting. Our family was moving house. She wasn’t due for a few weeks so my parents must have thought there’d be time to move and settle into our new home before her birth. Dad was driving the car loaded with us and suitcases and pillows and blankets... It was night time and I guess I was dozing in the back with my sister Barbie. I remember waking when Dad stopped the car, and I recall a policeman shoving his head through the driver’s window to find out why Dad had been speeding along. He soon took in the situation: an anxious father and a mother ready to give birth.
With the police siren blaring, we were escorted to the hospital. It was a thrilling ride. Mum disappeared. Barbie and I played in the waiting room. It seemed strange to be up and playing at a time when we should have been asleep. I remember sitting on a big rocking horse while we waited for the news of my sister’s birth. Yes, that little girl who waited sleepily for her baby sister to be born was me. I remember being that small child.
Sometimes we like to play “Do you remember?”.
“Do you remember living at…”
“Do you remember your old bedroom at…”
“Do you remember that long walk we went on just before
was born...? Charlotte
“Do you remember our beach holiday at …?”
Is it possible to keep memories alive for little children by talking about them often? Or do they only think they remember when really they are just repeating our memories?
A few years ago we had a wonderful beach holiday, our first holiday in a long time. Everything about that holiday was so perfect. When we returned home, the kids made a scrapbook with diary entries and photos and postcards. They want to remember that special time forever. Gemma-Rose was three when we went to the beach. She still talks about all we did in that wonderful week away: “I didn’t like the kookaburra who stole my sausage! … Dad had to carry me on his shoulders through the lagoon … I was scared of that dog who chewed up our ball.” But does Gemma-Rose really remember? Or is she just repeating what she has heard many times?
Sometimes I say, “Do you remember Thomas? Do you remember the day he died?” Felicity, Duncan and Callum, without hestitation, will answer, “Yes.” Imogen always says, “No.” And this surprises me. She was almost five when her brother died. She has many memories of the months leading up to Thomas’ birth. She can remember living in the dilapidated cottage. But she can’t recall anything about her little brother.
“Don’t you remember holding Thomas as he died?”
“Don’t you remember wearing your beautiful new pink dress to his funeral?”
“Don’t you remember throwing earth into his grave onto his coffin?”
And I feel so sad that Imogen cannot remember anything at all. I want her to remember her little brother. I want Thomas to be part of Imogen. I wonder why she does not have any recollection of this sorrowful but important time of our lives. Why doesn’t she remember an event that is etched so deeply into everyone else’s memories?
I think about those early days after Thomas died. My memories of his pregnancy, life and death were so very painful but despite this, I never wanted to forget. These memories were all I had of our son. Everything else was gone. I was so afraid that all these precious, if sorrowful moments, would fade away with time and I would be left with nothing.
It has been 11 years since Thomas died and I am quite surprised just how vivid my memories of our son still are. I can still feel Thomas’ soft pale skin; I can still hear our sobs as we cradled him as he was dying; I can still see us processing after his tiny coffin as Father F led us to his grave; I can still smell that sweet over-powering scent of funeral flowers; I can still feel the pain of saying goodbye.
I don’t remember that hot tempered little red haired girl of long ago. I don’t remember the huge tantrum she threw. But I guess, even though I don’t like to acknowledge it, she is still 'me'. She is there deep, deep within me. And perhaps in the same way, Thomas is deep within Imogen despite the fact she cannot remember her little brother.
There are a lot of people and a lot of experiences that I do remember that have helped make me who I am: my red haired grandmother who shares my birthday, a grandfather who called me ‘Susie', my mother who sewed me a long party skirt at a moment’s notice, a sister who held my hand on the way to school, a friend I shared secrets with, a husband who looks at me with love.
And a son who died much too soon after his birth, but who never really left me because he is alive in my memory, and now is part of 'me' forever.
What people and experiences are we surrounding our children with? What will become part of their memories? And what will live with them forever, becoming part of who they are?