by Laura Berger Laster
As it appeared in the column "Days of Juice and Crackers" circa 1990
I watched my son's face fondly the other night as I half-listened to his impassioned discourse on aerodynamics. While instructing my face to look rapt, I was actually remembering him as a toddler, just beginning to walk and talk. I could picture the way his whole body used to leap with the thrill of detecting an airplane soaring through the sky above our yard. I recalled the time in kindergarten when he excitedly brought home a book about airplanes from the school library, and together we struggled with the concepts of lift and gravity, drag and thrust.
Suddenly I wanted to tell my son about something that seemed more important than anything I could think of. I wanted to say, "Daniel, do you realize that I know nearly everything there is to know about you? I know the lines and texture of your body better than I know my own, as well as the painful origin of every scar and bruise. I remember exactly how you looked at the very moment of your birth. I can even vividly recall the feel of your embryonic, bony ankle as it pushed against the taut skin of my pregnant belly. And now you sit across from me, convinced I am listening attentively to your rocket design ideas. And all I can think is, 'Child, I hold your life within me still.'" For my memory embraces him as tenaciously as, if less surely than, my womb ever did.
Remembering, it occurs to me, is an essential function of love. How many times as growing adolescents did we hear our parents'friends start sentences with, "I remember you when..." In our youthful ignorance, we failed to appreciate the magnitude of these remarks, the treat of being held, in the moments of our becoming, by the memories of these interested on lookers, I will say it to my friends' children, at their weddings or graduations - "I remember you, Teddy, when you loved to catch frogs in the pond behind your house." "I remember you, Sophie when you asked me up to your room to see your collection of petticoats." "I remember you Lauren, when you were the first little child on the block." They will smile politely at my doddering nostalgia, missing all over again the gift of free mental storage space for the scenes of their childhoods.
With my own children, I am a repository for so much more than isolated scenes. I like to think that I have it all recorded somewhere in the neural matter of my brain. I may not be able to answer the doctor accurately when he asks when Daniel had his last tetanus shot, but I remember precisely how he used to smell when I lifted him from his crib after a hot summer afternoon's nap. As Proust discovered, it is our senses that record our memories most deeply. The complex acrid-sweet smells of babies are forever trance-inducing to mothers for the rest of their lives. And I don't believe I'll ever forget Daniel's particular intonation when he proclaims something "Awesome!" Our memories, like valuable antiques, are our valiant, meager resistance against the transforming rush of time.
I know my children's lives won't always be so tightly interwoven with mine. Already Daniel, my older child, drops items into the conversation that surprise me. "Where'd you learn that?" I demand. He shrugs with slight irritation. "Somewhere." Somewhere other than here, from someone other than me. Increasingly, the scenes of his life will take place without me in the audience. I'll consider myself lucky to hear the retelling.
Lately, Daniel now seven, has developed an attitude. "Oh man!"he moans. "Don't you know anything?" he groans. " The thing! You know, the thing!" and he's infuriated that I don't know which thing he's referring to. A year ago, I probably would have known, but his world is moving beyond my reach. We share, a least, a sense of grief that my mind will never again, in quite the same way encompass his.
As I recognize this loss, I admit to the ambivalence common to most parents. While I celebrate with great relief the progress my children take toward independence, I know that the small part of our lives that we fully share together is quickly receding into the past. So, while my memory provides the drag and gravity to slow his flight, I feel both pride and sorrow watching his struggling thrusts as he lifts off into his own undeniable future.
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