As parents we are mostly in the business of making memories.
But often it is as important to get rid of them. Like the memory of rashly made promises that you find yourself unable to keep. Or of the chocolate cake you blithely set about making with the children the night before, forgetting that you are keeping your daughter off dairy for a week.
“The cake needs to cool right down before we can eat some. It needs to cool down overnight,” I said, hoping sleep would induce amnesia.
This morning, as I set about erasing the evidence with a cup of tea in the kitchen, I thought gloomily that my plan was doomed to failure. My son, who has taught himself to read primarily by building up a dizzying sight-vocabulary, has a near-photographic memory. Times this by ten for memories that are inconvenient to you. Times this by a hundred for memories involving snacks.
Just yesterday he asked me about the banana chocolate chip muffins we had made last week, wondering where they were. To his great disappointment, I had to admit that they were all gone now, and he pressed me for a detailed accounting of the fate of each of the twelve muffins.
On occasions when the Fairy Godmother is babysitting I give her a quick rundown of the important information of the day while rushing out the door. “And I did say that before bed he could finish sticking the alphabet land book he was making earlier, but he’s probably forgotten about that by now,” I say dismissively.
“Yeah, all those things you say he has probably forgotten? He never has,” the Fairy Godmother replies gloomily, as I run off to work leaving her in craft-hell.
Sometimes there are things the Boy actually wants to forget, but can’t.
His intense curiosity, lively imagination and sensitivity are a bad combination when it comes to films, books or TV shows that contain what is laughably referred to as ‘mild peril’. (For the record, Disney, to a four year old, an adorable little rat being swept away on a raft by a rushing river and getting separated from his family, while being shot at with a shotgun is not ‘mild peril’. Yes, I am looking at you, Ratatouille.) The Boy will back away from the screen, squeaking in fear, his eyes still glued to the TV, unable to look away. These are memories that he will refer to later and mull over, trying to unpick their meaning.
The images that have haunted him above all else were from a Barbapapa book about pollution and animal cruelty. (I know, not the ideal topic for a children’s book. It has taught me to re-read my childhood favourites before showing them to my children…) He loved the book and wanted to read it all day, asking me questions: why were those people hunting the animals? What did they want to do to the animals? What is coming out of that chimney? Why are the animals sad? What is the dirty stuff in the water? What are those people wearing on their faces? (They were gas masks. Barbapapa doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pushing its idealistic agenda onto the next generation). What are the people doing now? Is the air clean again now? Will the animals come back?
He woke in the night crying bitter tears, his dreams filled with smoke from chimneys and a sky that had gone black and would never be blue again. We talked, I explained, we prayed together, he slept. The next day he woke from a car-nap, again terrified and in tears because people had destroyed the earth and the sky was black.
We had really good conversations about all sorts of important things off the back of this book, but how I wished I could hide the book and erase the memories.
In the end, he worked out a way to do it himself.
“See,” he said, “This is the book all about me. It has lots of pages.”
“What book?” I said. He wasn’t holding anything.
“Here, in the air.”
I looked up. He was pointing proudly at nothing. He told me that the book had pictures, and he could look things up about when he was two or when he was three. I started to understand. The book was imaginary. It was the book of his life, with all his memories.
“But some pages I will take out,” he said very seriously. “Like the pages about the chimney with the smoke and the sky that is black. I will rip those pages out of my book.”
“That is a good idea,” I said. “And we can put nice pictures on the pages instead and fill up your book with good memories.”
“Yes,” the Boy agreed.
“Great,” I said, giving him a hug. “Let’s bake a chocolate cake.”