In my earliest memory, I am running. I take two or three jolting baby steps in the grass. The sun is shining on my face, and my hair, though brown, glows golden. I look through it at the bouncing grassy horizon of what I think is our neighbor’s yard. I somehow know that I am 2 years old. I do not remember why I am running; a 2-year-old hardly needs a reason. I am probably smiling; I may be laughing, too. The sun’s gold, the jolting steps, being 2 years old: it is a happy memory.
It is also a bit precocious when I compare it with the first memories of friends. I have heard that children can only truly remember once they have acquired the language in which to house the memory. But what of people like Samuel Beckett, who claimed to have remembered feeling cramped in the “dark ocean of agony” of his mother’s womb? Is this a true memory or the product of a creative imagination? Will my own Samuel remember his birth by cesarean or being dropped on his head at 2 months? Will my Becka remember visiting an alligator farm in Arkansas when she was 7 months old? Or, at 4 and 2, have they yet to live through the first thing they will remember for the rest of their lives?
My husband has told me that, unlike me, he remembers very little before age 5. His first memory was climbing a fence to chase a herd of cows on the farm where he was born. He can also recall seeing his mother milk the cows by hand. She died a couple of years later, after a long battle with cancer, by which time the farm had been parceled off by his father and sold to pay for her treatment. He remembers running with his brothers and sisters around the casket at her wake. After that, his childhood was broken and re-broken as he was shipped from one foster home to another for years until he was old enough to live on his own.
My husband doesn’t talk much about his childhood. He does not dwell on the past, but he is one for making plans: build a house, buy a farm, raise animals and bring up our children in the country. I enjoy dreaming and planning like that with him, too, even if my dreams are more fluid and vague than his. Yet something about becoming a mama, and then a teacher of small children, has brought my own childhood into sharper focus. I think a lot about when I was little. For most of my life I have been happy, but as a child I was especially so. A tomboy, free and loved in a distant, Irish way, I ran around barefoot in the summer, told stories to my imaginary friends, jumped in the dirt, the leaves, the snow and the rain, rode my bike to the library and pretended I was an Indian chief. I thrived in school, Girl Scout camp, T-ball and soccer practice. I do not think I am distorting the truth much to say that, for the most part, my childhood was a pleasure: years and years of pleasure.
It was the kind of childhood I now hope to offer my own children. But how? What circumstances, what choices did my parents make to lead me to this happy existence? What do I need to do — or not do — so my children can live satisfying, joyful lives? And how much (ugh!) can I not control? As a parent, I make hundreds of annoyingly minute choices a day, but no roads diverge in a yellow wood before me. Rarely do I get the impression that I am deciding anything really big. Though a small thing, chosen often enough, will grow. The trick is knowing which decisions are crucial.
In the blur of daily life, it is easy to lose sight of my hopes for them, since almost every choice I make as a parent can be directly linked to my answer to the question, “How lazy will I be?” Or perhaps I should rephrase that more kindly: “What are my priorities?” All day long, it is just: TV on or off? Rugrats or PBS? Lollipop or not? Second lollipop or not? Food in the kitchen or the living room? Play-doh or puzzle? Book or clean up? Time-out for hitting your sister or not? How do I respond to crying? How do I respond to louder crying? Change a diaper now or wait a while? Read a book for myself or pretend to be a dinosaur? Tickle or sing? How do I respond to “I hate you?” It’s suspiciously quiet in there: sit down in denial or get up and investigate? Phone an adult or talk to a toddler? Mop up the floor or leave it sticky for another day? And so on. It’s endless. It’s easy to forget that any minute, any day now, my child could garner the first memory of a lifetime. I have the constant potential for leaving a lasting mark on my children. Will it be a happy one? Which leaves a more lasting impression, the constant feel of the day-to-day life, nothing standing out, simply a worldview in creation, the sum and shape of a million tiny choices and circumstances, or is it the one brilliant moment when a child earns her first distinct memory?
After a wonderful childhood, as an adult I have mostly lost the gift of being able to live fully in the moment. I have albums full of pictures taken since college of Christmas trees and trips to pick-your-own apple orchards and the first snows of winter. It is as if, without being exactly unhappy, I have trouble taking pleasure in what I am living without thinking, “Oh, yes, this is supposed to be fun. Let me take a picture to look back on this fondly.” I have a self-conscious need to hoard these good times, collect them like postcards of places I want to revisit. Wouldn’t it be great to be that 2-year-old running happily on a sunny day again? Do I fear I will never again be so content? My own happiness seems greatest now when I reminisce, or when I see my children living happily or at least whole-heartedly in the moment. When I was 2, I was not preoccupied with such endless self-analysis. Joy was joy. A temper tantrum raged. Is it the simplicity that I miss? The unfiltered pleasure?
Is our first memory more than just what we happen to remember first, not simply a pleasant or disturbing image, but the metaphor for a life? Is my husband’s first memory actually a snapshot of what would follow? A boy must overcome one obstacle after another after his mother’s death, always trying to reach the cows, his dream: a farm of his own. Is my first memory simply a reflection of my subsequent life: a child’s joyful frolic, content and self-aware, blessed with sunshine but not much direction? Do we somehow choose what will be our first memory, or does it choose us? What will be important to my children in a few years? What will have formed them? Will it be the harsh words, the lost temper, the pain ignored? Or will they remember a lullaby I sang them, a forest they saw from their papa’s shoulders or the warm comfort of nursing at my breast? What will it mean to them for the rest of their lives?
Somehow I have to trust that each small choice and every one of the few big decisions are making a good shape and the right life for my little ones, in spite of the bumps and maybe the tragedies to come. I must trust them to choose their own right path, and to lead me to live more fully in the moment through their example. How can I find the courage to let go? I do not really know. But, I have seen my own faith and hope and such things grow when I act as if I already possess them. At Becka’s baptism, her papa and I placed her, helpless, on the altar: a sacrifice. Take our daughter, Lord. She is yours. It made no sense. It went against my every maternal instinct, my belief that she was only mine, and my need to protect and guard her. But I did it, crying, without believing, and I think it opened my heart. Making this gesture, even if insincerely at first, led me to a place where faith and trust could blossom. It is easier to witness grace if your heart and eyes are open.
A few weeks ago, in the early evening, I was out in the backyard by our homemade jungle gym watching my children play. Samuel, at 4, was running in a wide circle around me. Becka, 2 years old and brown-haired like me, was running after him, laughing. In a moment of eternal poetry, a soft ray of the setting sun caught her brown hair and turned it to gold. My laughing child and my own sweet memory fused. I breathed in the miracle, almost without surprise, and my heart whispered, “Thank you.”
Siobhan Carroll, now mother of three, teaches kindergarten in Newark, New Jersey.