Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

When we left Philadelphia this summer, Caroline and I talked about how Jay will probably never remember the city where he spent the first two years of his life.  It made us sad to think that he’ll have no memory of Ms. Kim at the produce store who slipped him cherries, or of Rittenhouse Square where he jumped in puddles, chased pigeons, and cowered from dogs.  In one sense there is no surprise in this—all toddlers forget, after all.  But at the same time, it’s hard to square this inevitable forgetting with just how vibrantly present and alive Jay was during his time in Philadelphia.

On the drive out to Ann Arbor Caroline and I talked about a grim question—if we disappeared tomorrow, how long would it take before Jay forgot us completely?  I thought maybe six months, Caroline thought nine.  Neither of us would go so far as a year.  For about 20 minutes outside Cleveland we rode in silence, both thinking, perhaps, of how the proceeding days would settle over Jay’s memories of us like snowflakes on a field.

Since moving to Michigan Caroline and I have been curious to see how long Jay remembers Philadelphia.  Sometimes we’ll ask him with questions—Who’s the person who would draw you spoons? Who gave you the yellow truck?—but he’s an unreliable interview even about topics he knows well, so for the most part we just have to pay attention to how often he brings up Philadelphia on his own.

The single biggest part of his life that Jay left behind in Philadelphia was “school,” where he went five hours a day, five days a week, for almost a year.  At school he had his teachers, his friends, his routines, and a collection of vivid experiences that he continued to talk about even long after they’d happened—the day he had his picture taken with a firefighter, the day he bit Ariana, the time Ms. M. brought in chocolate cake.  It seemed fair to assume that Jay’s memories of school would hold up as long as his memories of anything else from Philadelphia.

Jay saying goodbye to Lola and the blue chairs on his last day of school

For the first three weeks in Michigan Jay didn’t mention school once.  Then early one morning we were all lying in bed, at about the time we used to leave for school, and Jay said “I want to see friends.”  We asked him what friends.  “I want to see friends at school,” he said.  Caroline and I were caught by surprise, and we weren’t quite sure how to explain to Jay, “You’ll never see your friends again.”  So we asked him instead if he’d rather have peanut butter or jam on his English muffin that morning.

A few days later we got another chance.  Jay was sitting in his booster seat eating a granola bar when, apropos of nothing, he said, “I want to go to the school with the blue chairs and the yellow chairs.”  It was touching to think that in his swirling consciousness the color of the plastic chairs in the toddler room was one detail he’d managed to hold onto.  This time Caroline and I didn’t duck the topic, but we did soft-pedal the truth: “We’re not going to school today,” Caroline said, “But we are going to the playground where you’ll make some new friends.”

After his comment about the chairs, Jay went awhile without bringing up school, and I began to wonder if he ever would again.  Then Wednesday evening this past week I was cooking dinner while Jay rifled through a drawer of Tupperware.  He was spilling the containers all over the kitchen floor and I was getting a little annoyed, when he pulled out a clear blue plastic lid.  “I bring this to school,” he said.

And sure enough, written on the lid in fading black marker was “Jay H.”  Every morning when we’d arrive at school, I’d take a container with that lid out of the bottom of the stroller and hand it to Jay, who’d open the refrigerator and drop it into the crate with the other toddlers’ lunches.

It is a thing about forgetting that you can never pinpoint when it happens.  In this, watching Jay forget reminds me of an experience I had several years before he was born, during a period when I had fewer responsibilities than I’ll probably ever have again.  I was living near the beach and every afternoon around high tide I’d sit on the sand and watch the waves roll in.

For some reason, each day I was interested in trying to identify the wave that made the highest water mark of the day.  Often I’d think I’d seen it and then another wave would come along and eclipse it.  It occurred to me that this was like lots of things in life – an event that can only be recognized after, and sometimes often long after, it’s happened.  When will be the last time Jay remembers Philadelphia?  We’ll never know, and neither will he.


7 thoughts on “Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

  1. Touching and thought-provoking entry. As a consolation or a confounding note, when we went apple picking this year, Noah wanted to know where the jungle gym was–he clearly remembered our experience at a different orchard the year before. That struck me as a pretty long time to retain a memory for someone who’s 3 1/2…

  2. I left our wartime home in southern Illinois in the fall of 1945 when I was just 4. We returned each summer for a week or two vacation until I was almost 9. The combination of those visits, the Kodak pictures carefully pasted into the white leather album, and my mother repeating the stories that went with those pictures all laid down new neural pathways thus creating a rich new set of memories. I believe that is what family does. These stories thus become the oral history of my life. These beautiful and insightful stories that you are writing will be the stimuli for Jay to lay down new memories of old expereinces.

    • I was really touched by your remembrance of your
      wartime home, and encouraged by what you said about a family culture’s
      ability to lay down new neural pathways. And overall I like that way
      of thinking about family: as a place that makes and safeguards
      memories, and provides us with the context in which to know and
      understand ourselves.

  3. This is so beautiful Kevin. I often wonder about the capacity of memories at different ages as well. I’m sure there is a brilliant study on the matter. I will say that I still hold memories of my pre-school that I attended at the age of 4. I recall the room set up and the way the play-dough smelled and the names and faces of a few friends that i kept through grade school. I get flashes some days, and will remember a birthday party at the pool when I was three. Of course, I don’t really know if it’s a true memory or a story I told myself from a photo. But i will say that a smell, or a view, or a taste will bring bad some very old memories. So happy for your move, but so sad you wont be on the streets of Philly anymore. Even though we have moved on, I still hold on to the idea that I can fly to Philly one day and run into all my favorite people on the streets around Rittenhouse.

  4. What a touching story. I got a little choked up when I read it to my wife, as we have a 2 year old son who is amazing and I love researching stuff on how the little guys brain works.

  5. I came to this site because I am racked with pain constantly wondering how long it will take my grand son to forget me.I saw him born and he lived at ours with his mum for the first 3 weeks of his life,we babysat every fortnight from Friday till Sunday for 3 years without fail. We looked after him when his sister was being born, she also stayed at ours for the first week of her life with him and his mum. My grand daughter was only part of our lives for a year and a half I suspect she will forget us very quickly, but my grand son and I had a bond and I saw him last on his 3rd birthday. I’m no longer allowed to see them as my daughter said I was such a horrible parent to her but a great nan to them. It’s been a year and I know my grandson is not allowed to speak of me and I am not allowed to be mentioned in front of him, as my daughter has instructed my friends and neighbours and they have told me in turn. I f anyone knows when children forget people I’d really like to know so I can assure myself that my grand children are happy now,thank you for taking time to read this and for any comments.

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