Culture

My job is to remember

How will the stories we tell ourselves about who we are change when there’s a lifetime of photographic evidence?
Culture

My job is to remember

How will the stories we tell ourselves about who we are change when there’s a lifetime of photographic evidence?

People tell you that you’ll barely remember the first year of motherhood, that it will pass like the shitstorm that it is, that you’ll be almost thankful that when it’s over your memory has blocked out some of your worst moments. Memory loss can be merciful and part of me, sometimes, wishes that those people had been right.

I wish that I didn’t remember saying, very quietly in a sing-song voice, “fuck you,” to my eight-week-old daughter as she lay in her crib refusing to sleep, staring up at me, helplessly, looking for direction. I wish that I didn’t remember that, when she did eventually fall asleep that early spring afternoon, I went straight to the bathroom, closed the door, and screamed into a towel.

But I remember everything. Nothing escaped me in those first months. Everything was catalogued by my brain, and where my brain dropped out I have diaries, sleep charts, and the app I eventually started using to track naps and feedings. I can still tell you how long she slept on any particular day in the first two-and-a-half years of her life. I also relentlessly tracked my own failures, my own stumbles. And then there are the photos and videos. More than 50,000 of them in the first four years of Zelda’s life, not even counting the photos and videos that her father took on his phone, or the camera that we sometimes brought out.

There aren’t any pictures of me until Halloween of 1977, when I was more than four months old. My mom always said that “the camera was broken” at the hospital where I was born so there isn’t one of those mugshot-style close-ups they used to take. Beyond that, I don’t really know what the hell was going on. There are entire albums of my older brother David before he was a year old but for me, nothing.

The lack of documentation of my earliest life means that I don’t have many second-hand memories of my life before mine kicks in. I don’t have any sense of what my family’s life was like, either. My mother died seven years before Zelda was born, and my dad is not a great documenter of anything, a dedicated shredder of all documents.

This will not be a problem for Zelda.

Children’s memories construct themselves in interesting ways. I’ve watched Zelda gain the ability to remember things long term over the past two years. She’s very interested in her early life; we scroll through the photos on my phone and I tell her about herself as a baby. This helps her to construct a memory of herself where there wouldn’t naturally be one.

“Tell me the story of me being born,” she says every night before bed. We add little bits to the story all the time. Although I can’t tell if this is a desire on her part for more information or merely a stalling tactic so the lights stay on longer, I delight in telling her about “when she was a baby.” The story ends with her saying, “And now I grew and grew and I’m not a baby anymore!” To which, of course, I reply, “But you’re still a baby to me.”

These memories are important to her now, but I know that they won’t be always. Her curiosity about her infanthood is a phase, like riding her tricycle; sometimes she demands days in a row to “practice” in the driveway, only to forget about the bike for weeks.

What I know now is that my mother may have spent similar nights with me, telling and re-telling the story of my birth, only to have those stories lost in the sands of my memory, overwritten by unnecessary, superfluous information.

Zelda June

Zelda June

“I can’t remember,” Zelda often says. Sometimes she can’t remember the name of the letter “R”; sometimes it’s that her memory of going to visit her cousin the day after he was born is slowly disappearing. Her own mind is still somewhat unreliable, even though she is observant and has a sharp eye for detail. “Zelda complimented me on my haircut,” her teacher said once after a week’s break, though she had only gotten a trim. Zelda’s ability to notice slight alterations — a newly hung photograph on the wall of our house while she was at school — is impressive. But her long-term memory isn’t what an adult’s is. And the fact that she knows that she can’t remember everything is what upsets her most.

The two first photos of me from that Halloween in 1977 aren’t even really photos of me — they’re photos of my brother David. I just happened to be in the background, in my pajamas. We’re all at my grandparents’ house, it’s nighttime, and I’m sitting in a high chair. I’m almost five months old. In the first photo, I’m blurry, but you can see baby food smeared on my face. I’m laughing and pointing at my brother, who I think is dressed as Darth Vader. My grandfather sits on a bench beside me. In the second, probably taken a few minutes later, I’m nodding off to sleep, eyes rolling into the back of my head beneath heavy, closing eyelids. Someone has wiped the food off of my face. My hands are fat, and I recently noted that they looked exactly like my daughter’s.

Neither of my parents are in these photos, and yet they always overwhelmed me with their presence when I looked at them as a kid. But I don’t know much about them from this time. My parents: their secret life when I was in diapers. What was I like as a baby? What did they think of me?

As a parent, I’ve overcompensated for this dearth of information as best as I can (it helps that I’m much older than my parents were when they had me, that I’m more stable financially, that I have one child, not four). I have taken 50,000 photos of my daughter in four years. Zelda will never not know what I thought about her. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

In some way, this lack of information about my early life fits well into a narrative I've always had about myself, one that's at least partly based in reality: I am who I am because of my ability to get lost in the shuffle. My brother Daniel was born 16 months after me, so, do that math: I was only six months old when my mother became pregnant with him.

I have always suspected that part of my personality was formed in this tumultuous state of affairs: my mother had another infant to care for before I was able to walk on my own. I learned to fill my time without anyone fussing over me too much. Left to myself, I've often thought I could fill days without ever needing anyone.

David, Kath, Dan, Laura June

David, Kath, Dan, Laura June

I haven’t investigated the science behind memory formation, but I carefully observed the process in my daughter. Around the age of two and a half, a sweeping change came over her — a combination of language skills and the ability to tell a story, emerged when she suddenly started remembering things in a broader sense than she had it before.

At age four, she understands the concept of today, tomorrow, and yesterday. But I still don’t tell her, for instance, that her father has a business trip or that her grandparents are coming to visit more than two or three days in advance. She can muster the courage to face “this week,” but “next year” is quite concerning to her. She gets nervous or anxious for the days to pass. “Today Daddy is coming home?” she asks. “Thursday,” I say. “Two days from now, so, not tomorrow, but the next day.” I can see the gears turning in her head.

Last year, as fall turned to winter and the days began to get shorter, Zelda saw and processed darkness for the first time. “It’s getting black out,” she said, as I realized she’d never been fully conscious of darkness before. “Yes, it’s night,” I said. “Night,” she repeated. “Time to sleep.”

In the process of trying to remember my own childhood, I ensured that I wouldn’t forget Zelda’s. I would sit down after she went to bed and write short essays about her, about what she did that day. I willed myself to remember every little moment of her babyhood that my mind could possibly contain and keep.

But now I know that these memories aren’t just mine: they’re hers as well. I hope that when Zelda one day reads what I have written about her she will learn a little bit about herself. But more than that, I hope she sees that she is so valuable to me I made the effort to remember every moment.


Laura June was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now My Heart is Full is her first book.


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