Erasing Memories

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.

Cake? What cake?

Cake? What cake?

“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.”




As children, both my brother and I had a favourite cuddly toy. You know the toy I mean. The one that has to come absolutely everywhere with you, the one that shares your bed and the one you sneak into your bag when you go off to uni and hide under your pillow so that fellow undergrads don’t spot you with it.

My brother’s was “Nijlpaardje” (Little Hippo). He started off looking healthy and plump, but after years of love he ended up being pretty much invisible from sideways on.

Nijlpaardje, looking plump, a long full life still ahead of him

Nijlpaardje, looking plump, a long full life still ahead of him

My comfort object was Mauw. This was a peculiar animal, knitted in bulk by my grandmother and distributed to all her many grandchildren. In some houses the Mauws lived on the shelf, but mine became The Toy and I carried mine around everywhere I went by its long ear. Mauw was originally intended to be a slightly elongated rabbit, but I decided that Mauw was actually a totally unique species. I invented a Mauw country with a Mauw society and drew maps, wrote guide books and published magazines for young Mauws, complete with advertisements for Mauw hair gel.

Mint condition Mauws

Mint condition Mauws

Mauw is quite disgusting now and mostly unravelled. He is spending his final days in a bag in my knitting drawer, waiting to go to the Great Mauw Meadow in the sky where he will be reunited with Baby Mauw, who was tragically lost on the way to the library during a school trip when I was 6.

I even drew portraits of mauw. Such was my devotion.

I even drew portraits of mauw. Such was my devotion.

Now I have children of my own and I can cuddle them and take them everywhere – and it is their turn to have comfort objects. Almost from the moment The Boy could crawl and interact with his cuddly toys, I was eagerly waiting to see which one would become his favourite. He eventually decided on Teddy – not what I was expecting, but it made sense. It was his very first bear, given to him at birth by Gran. On the rare occasion that he wakes up in the night, it is because he can’t find Teddy.

Then my daughter came along and we looked on with interest to see what she would fix on. She seems pretty keen on hugging and carrying around almost anything furry or squishy and has been particularly excited about “wabbits” of late. But there does appear to be one constant companion, the only one she actually asks for early in the morning if it has not come downstairs with her.

It is Pop, her doll.

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Just in case you were impressed with the imaginative name, it isn’t. “Pop” is just Dutch for “doll”.

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Pop being force fed grapes

Pop gets carried around everywhere, pushed around in a buggy, hugged in bed at night and kissed gently on the head in the same way that I kiss The Girl’s. She gets put down for a nap, coerced into drinking juice through a straw and occasionally gets her head lovingly bashed in with a foam fire axe.

The Girl is very protective of Pop (axe attacks aside). The other day Pop was in the car with us and the Girl played Horsey Horsey with her on her knee. I thought this was adorable, and later on at home I took Pop and bounced her on my knee in the same way. The doll got snatched off me and I was told sternly by The Girl: “No. Not mama horsey Pop.” Then she sat down and did it herself.

There is one small issue with Pop. A ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

Pop is not actually hers.

Pop actually belongs to the Boy.

The doll was bought for The Boy by Opa and Oma when his little sister was born, in the hope of encouraging gentle, nurturing feelings in him that he could transfer to his new baby sister.

I have quietly made the shift as Pop became more and more beloved. To begin with I referred to her as “the doll”. Then slowly as her popularity grew, I started to talk about “The Girl’s doll”. The Boy has not objected to this. But there may come a moment when he remembers the doll was originally his – and what will we do then?

I hope I will be just as wise as my mother was about Hippo.

You see, Little Hippo was originally mine. Bought for me in Hamley’s on a holiday to the UK.

I had forgotten about this for years. Then one morning I woke up and suddenly remembered. I remembered the day that the little hippo was bought for me, and that it was actually mine. Aflame with a fire of righteous indignation, I marched up to my little brother and took the toy off him. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was definitely old enough to know better, and my brother definitely not old enough to shrug it off. Hippo himself was already greatly slimmed down through years of devoted cuddling. My little brother cried and cried, and my mother came to see what the fuss was about.

I explained that Hippo was rightfully mine, and I wanted him back.

My mother was quiet for a moment. Then she said: “You’re right. Hippo is actually yours. If you really want him back, then you should have him.” Then she pointedly turned to look at my little brother. He was in floods of desperate tears, inconsolable at the thought of losing his favourite toy for ever. I looked too, and realised that I couldn’t do this. Yes, perhaps Hippo had been bought for me, but he really and truly belonged to my brother. I couldn’t take him away.

So I gave him back.

I still look back on this as my mother’s finest parenting moment. She was strictly fair, but let me discover for myself that sometimes there were more important things in life than what was ‘fair’. It was a very valuable lesson in empathy. Let’s hope that when the moment comes and The Boy demands to have Pop back, I can do the same for him and his sister.

Until then, Pop is enjoying being read to and fussed over and snuggling on the Girl’s lap in much the same way that the Girl and her brother love to cuddle up with me – always welcome visitors now Mauw’s glory days are over.

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