The importance of childhood memories has been bombarding me lately. First, the suggestion by a careful listener to my book that my characters needed to be softened through their childhood memories, then bird by bird underlining the importance of conjuring up the past as a writing exercise, and then, finally, listening to The Perks of Being a Wallflower on our car ride to Oregon, paying special attention to how the protagonist recalls his own childhood woven seamlessly together with his present.
So, sitting in the car with my husband, brother, and sister, caravanning with the other half of our family in the car in front of us, headed toward what is a yearly family retreat up on the Oregon coast, I decided there was no better place to conjure up the past. As a way to pass the time, I asked everyone to share the first childhood memory that came to mind, then we dug deeper, and deeper, until finally the memories were flowing, randomly associated to the ones before, bouncing us all around the sharp and smooth corners of our childhoods.
Thinking back on my own experiences, I realized my memories are already blurred. It is hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, between what really happened, what I was told happened, and what I probably picked up from some other stories somewhere along the way. Throughout the past couple weeks, I have been reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which while often scattered, is also layered with the complexity of memory and how it propels us forward, even when blurred around the edges.
I’ll leave you with the first blurry memory that came to me playing this game in the car. I invite you try the same thing with those you love or as a writing exercise. You might find something important buried deep inside yourself, something worth remembering.
For a short period of time following my parents’ divorce, we lived with my aunt deep in the eastern foothills of California. Maybe it was not that deep, but as a child it felt like it. We were easily thirty minutes outside Placerville, which is really only a small town itself. To reach Sacramento probably took about an hour and a half, although time is warped in childhood, so maybe it was not quite as far as I remember. Regardless, it was a different world than my brother and I were used to.
In order to reach her house, you had to drive down a long dirt road that was covered in frogs during the late spring, precious little croaking green things that would get stuck in the tires, smashed flat across the dusty road, or worse yet, squashed unwillingly beneath your bare feet. There were no other houses within eyesight, only trees and the kind of pond any kid would dream about. Galoshes were a necessity for traversing the muddy banks, and a huge Border Collie, German Shepard, perhaps even Saint Bernard, mix of a dog named Muttly followed us around, keeping close eye on everything we did.
Save for the occasional encounter with a coiled, ticking rattle snake, it was a childhood heaven. I can still smell the dusty, dry, hot earth in summer, taste all the treats my mom protested so much in the sugar drawer, feel the icy cold water of the swimming pool on my face. But what stands out more than my tough aunt taking a shovel to a rattle snake or me coercing feral kittens to love me or watching chicks hatch or bottle feeding baby sheep was an evening spent with my dad on the steps of the wooden deck, staring up at the summer stars through a break in the large oak trees.
That night, my dad held my brother and me close, and told us to absorb this moment because it would soon pass. I remember sitting there, just eight years old, loving my dad so much, sensing the sadness in his acute awareness of the brevity of life. Of course, this same awareness was lacking in me then, but it was his insistence on how important that moment was that forced me to scrunch my little face together and force the memory of those stars and his love for us deep inside my brain. To this day, this is the strongest recollection of my childhood.