Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Early Childhood Memories

Katie came downstairs where I was writing to ask, "Mom, have you seen the Shrek Forever After DVD?"

"No, but I bet it's on the shelf there with the other DVDs," I said, pointing with my head so I didn't have to remove my fingers from the keyboard.  I was in the middle of a thought and I didn't want to lose it by removing my fingers.  They sometimes contain a better memory of things than my brain does.  Just as if I try to think too hard what my various passwords are and I cannot for the life of me remember them, if I sit down and key them in, my fingers know what to do.

Katie found the DVD on the shelf and started back up the stairs.  Her feet stopped.  She asked, "Mom, have you ever seen Shrek Forever After?"

This question was big enough to break my concentration.  I spun around in my chair to face Katie on the stairs and I said, "Yeah!  Don't you remember?  I'm pretty sure that's the first movie Daddy and I ever took you to see at the movie theater.  We had so much fun!"

Katie's blank face led me to believe she wasn't following me.  "Don't you remember that, Hon?" I asked.

"No.  How old was I?" she asked.

"Oh, when does the DVD say the movie was released?" I wanted to say she was about three, but I can't help but be a librarian and have to verify my sources, even when I'm off duty from the library.

Katie turned the DVD over and scanned it.  "2010," she said.

"Yeah, so if the DVD came out in 2010, the movie would have been out in theaters even earlier than that, so you would have been about three," I said.

"I don't remember a lot of things from when I was three, Mom.  That was a long time ago," Katie sounded so mature saying this to me.  She'll be seven in a couple of weeks.  Where has the time gone?

"Yeah, most people don't remember things that early.  The memory parts of our brains must not be fully developed until we're like four or older," I explained.

"I remember some things from a long time ago," Katie said.

My stomach felt butterfly-y.  I knew where this was going.  Katie's told me before what her earliest memory is and I'm sad it's not a happy one.  And it's my fault.

"Oh yeah?" I said bravely.  Butterflies or not, I'm her mother and I must remain strong in the face of her criticism so we can both learn from my mistakes.  "What's your earliest memory?"

"My third birthday party," Katie said.

Oh, I wasn't expecting her to say that.  "Oh yeah?  The one where you hid in your bedroom because you felt shy?" I asked.  This one was still my fault, but it's an easily forgivable mistake.  I'd invited all our relatives to Katie's third birthday party, forgetting that she was going through an uber-shy phase.  I didn't ask Katie if she wanted a big birthday party.  I just made the plans without talking about it with her.  So when thirty people, almost exclusively grown-ups, showed up to her third birthday party, Katie hid in her room for the first thirty minutes, crying.

"Yeah.  There were too many people in the house and I felt scared!" Katie said.  "Then Aunt Dale came into my bedroom and talked to me and she made me feel better."

My heart melted like a Popsicle on a sunny front porch.  "Aww, I'm so glad Aunt Dale made you feel better. What did she say to you?" I asked.

"She said to come out and have some birthday cake!" Katie exclaimed.

I was pretty certain I had tried that same tactic when I tried to get her to come out of her bedroom too, but this memory is not all about me.

"So next time you won't do something I just need to offer you some cake?" I asked, winking.

Katie rolled her eyes at me.  So mature.  I don't know how much I like this whole growing-up thing.

"Well that's a pretty good memory.  I was afraid you were going to say your earliest childhood memory was when I yelled at you that one time you smeared your poop all over the living room like it was Play-doh," I said.

"I remember that!  You were so mean to me!  How old was I when that happened?" Katie asked.

"Oh, I dunno.  Probably about two," I couldn't remember exactly.  I don't think I documented the event like I do when I have a proud parenting moment.  I don't think I wrote, "Today I screamed at my child for doing something perfectly developmentally healthy and I've doomed her to many psychological disorders stemming from early childhood potty trauma" on my Facebook status, in my diary, or inside Katie's baby book that day.

"So that was even before my third birthday."  Katie just had to point that out.

"Yeah, so I guess that really is your earliest memory.  I'm so sorry, Honey.  I should have never yelled at you for being curious about your poop at that age.  I was ignorant about it and I was so disgusted to have to clean up poop from all over the living room I just freaked out," I explained.

"What's ignorant mean?" Katie asked.  It made me smile that she is more interested in word definitions than in defining her mother as a bad mother from this one bad parenting incident.

"It means I didn't know any better.  My mommy told me that kids should be fully potty trained by the time they're two and I had never heard of any child playing with their poop.  So I reacted by yelling at you, and I shouldn't have yelled at you.  Yelling never helps anyone learn something.  And also, since it happened I've read about it found out that lots of kids play with their poop when they're two.  It's a gross, but perfectly healthy, stage of development."  I stood up from my chair and walked over to Katie on the stairs, to give her a hug.

"I'm sorry.  I hope you can forgive me," I said as I climbed the stairs to meet her halfway.

"It's OK, Mommy," Katie assured me, receptive to my big squeeze.

She started back up the steps.  "I'm gonna watch Shrek Forever After now."

I turned around to head back down.  "I can't believe you don't remember seeing that movie with Daddy and me at the theater.  It seems like just yesterday to me," I said, back-to-back with her on the stairs.

"Not to me!  Katie countered, climbing the stairs, "I was three a loooooog time ago, Mom."

I sat back down at my computer, but I didn't start typing right away.  I sat there for awhile thinking about my own earliest childhood memories.  Many of my earliest memories are of traumatic things, sexual abuse, my dad yelling, my mom crying, my siblings plotting revenge against my dad, being told to hush and keep secrets.

But if I think about it, I have fond memories of early childhood too.  Warm, protective hugs.  Eating popcorn out of a brown paper sack in the back seat of the car at the drive-in with my parents in the front seat and my giggly siblings surrounding me.  Listening to songs on the radio.  Watching "Sesame Street" on TV.  It wasn't all bad.

Why are bad memories so much easier to remember?  I have posttraumatic stress disorder.  One of the symptoms of PTSD is having flashbacks of traumatic events.  But even with PTSD, if I sit quietly and focus my thoughts I can recall good memories of my early childhood.  Not to cover up the bad experiences of my early life.  But to remind myself of the good alongside the bad.  Life's beautiful ambiguity.

I heard the movie come on upstairs.  What I like about all the Shrek movies is that they have good soundtracks.  When the first song came on, I heard Katie upstairs call out, "Oh, I remember this movie!  It's goooood!"