What means remembering?

This guest post comes from my twenty-year-old cousin Mara Lewis, who spent the last week up in Maine with us.  It’s about the challenge of building a relationship with a little boy she sees only a few times a year.

I first saw Jay on Sunday morning a little after 9am.  I had arrived with my mom in Maine at the house where my cousins grew up the night before, and was sad to learn that he’d gone to bed just before we’d arrived.  When I awoke the next morning, my first thought was that Jay was probably already awake, too.  I ran downstairs, only to learn that he’d left for the park down the street.  I quietly ate my cereal and waited for his return.

About an hour later, I heard Jay’s voice in the driveway.  Then I saw him walk through the front door.  I stepped out of my chair and ran to give him a hug, but he just hid his face behind Caroline’s legs.

I tried to mask my disappointment, but inside I was crushed. I’d spent the last two months looking forward to seeing Jay again, and now here we were, reuniting with a denied hug.  I wasn’t sure how much Jay would remember me.  Six months ago, I’d spent two days with him in upstate New York for Christmas.  Our time together then still felt so recent to me, and I convinced myself that it would feel that way to Jay as well.

I moved past our unsatisfactory introduction and attempted to make Jay comfortable with me again.  The whole family went out to the backyard, but my focus was on Jay.  We picked blueberries, knocked around a plastic golf ball, and sat on a tree swing.  Within minutes I’d won him back.  He held my hand as he asked me which blueberries were ready to be eaten.  He let me hold him on the swing and let me tickle him to the ground.  He developed a fascination with a game I had on my iPhone called Draw Something, and painted me pictures of elaborate ice cream sundaes.  It was hard to believe that only 30 minutes earlier Jay had viewed me as a stranger.

Jay was filled with questions. He asked why about everything, whether or not it had an explanation.  One afternoon, Jay, Caroline, and I had planned to go sailing, but were forced back at the last minute by storm clouds on the horizon.  As we walked home from the harbor, hand in hand, Jay asked, in his typical construction, “What means storm?”  I explained a storm is when it rains and thunders, and he asked why those things were going to happen.

I did the best I could to answer him.  “Because the weather changes and sometimes it’s nice out and other times it’s not.”  Insufficient.  “Why?” he asked again.  “Because there are dark clouds in the sky and those clouds are filled with rain that will soon start to come down.”  When he asked “why,” again, I had nothing left to tell him. “That’s just the way it is,” Caroline and I said in unison.

After only three days of our vacation, I felt closer than ever with Jay—so much so that I started to miss him almost as soon as I said goodnight to him each evening.  And while I imagine this closeness meant more to me than it did to him, I think he felt it too.

One night just after Caroline had put Jay and Wally to bed, I was in the kitchen doing dishes.  All of a sudden, I heard a voice at the top of the stairs. I knew that Caroline probably wanted him asleep, but I couldn’t resist.  I left the dirty dishes on the counter and went to join Jay on the stairs.  We talked and laughed together, and I realized that I was in fact genuinely enjoying the company of a three-year-old.  We talked about our favorite parts of the day and what our dreams were going to be, a bedtime tradition that Jay keeps with Caroline and Kevin.  I told Jay I was leaving in the morning, and he gave me a big hug.

The day after I’d gotten home to New York, I called the house in Maine to say hi to my mom, who was still there (I’d had to leave early because of work obligations).  My mom came on the line and in the background I heard Jay running and talking as exuberantly as ever.

“He wants to say hi to you,” my mom told me.

“Put him on the phone!” I replied eagerly.

“Hi Mara.  I miss you,” he said.  My face lit up and I couldn’t help but smile.  Although this was just a day after I’d left, it gave me hope that when I run to hug him at Thanksgiving, he’ll run to hug me back.

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An early morning sail

Jay and Caroline the previous afternoon.

This morning just past dawn my brother-in-law Andrew, Jay, and I crept out of our house in South Freeport for an early morning sail.  We brought life jackets, toast with peanut butter, a bilge pump, and a thermos of coffee.  The sun was coming up over the pine trees that line Wolfe’s Neck as Andrew pulled the cord on the two-stroke outboard and we headed for the mooring, the water like glass, the air inauspiciously calm given what we proposed to do.

This was Jay’s second sail of our New England vacation, which included a week on Martha’s Vineyard with Caroline’s parents and now a week in Maine at the house where I grew up.  The first sail, yesterday, hadn’t faired so well.  No wind and the main wouldn’t raise.  As we neared the mooring Jay declared to me and Andrew, “Sailing is hard.”  I hoped he’d be singing a different tune by the time we returned to the harbor later that morning.

The sailboat is a 22-foot Cape Dory Typhoon, a legendarily sturdy boat with a full keel that, my stepfather informed us all when he bought it last year, could take you all the way to England.  That guarantee doesn’t apply to the boat’s outboard, however.  We started the motor, cast off from the mooring, but as soon as we were loose the motor died.  We were nearly adrift as I reached over the gunwale and grabbed the mooring ball with the outgoing tide ripping us away.  There was some cursing and jumping about before we managed to reattach a line, after which we deduced the problem with the motor as a closed valve on the gas can.  Jay, who has a good sense for when things aren’t as they’re supposed to be, was nearly in tears amidst the commotion.  Eventually we reassured him that the boat was working fine and that no one was going to crash, and we got back underway.

We motored out of quiet Freeport Harbor, through lobster pots and sleeping sailboats, with Jay at the tiller.  Andrew explained to him that you push to the left to turn to the right and pull to the right to turn to the left, and he understood what we were saying even if his precision was off, so that we jerked to and fro through the channel like a sailor stumbling home from the wharf-front bars.  We eased past Pound of Tea at the mouth of the harbor and emerged into the early morning splendor of Casco Bay, where we cut the engine, the world suddenly and improbably transformed into silence.

Except for the inexhaustible Jay, who wanted to know where the seals were and what the birds were eating and what the distant lobstermen were doing, and why, for the love of God, weren’t we going any faster.  With the sails slack along the mast, Andrew climbed out of the beseeching cockpit and laid out on the boat’s narrow foredeck.  I passed Jay up to him and then came up onto the deck myself.  The sun was bright and warm against my face and I leaned back on my arms.  Jay asked me why we’d moved, would our legs reach into the water, weren’t we going to crash if no one steered the boat.  I told him, “shhh,” and explained that one of the best parts of sailing is not saying anything at all.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot with Jay on our New England vacation, how there are two kinds of learning: The learning you do when an adult tells you things, and the learning you do when you let go just enough to sink into a new experience.

The first time I had this thought was two Tuesdays ago, when I was reading Jay a story from Frog and Toad as we lay beside each other on the bottom bunk at the house on Martha’s Vineyard.  We were reading “The Spring,” a funny story where Frog tricks Toad into thinking it’s May instead of April so that Toad will give up hibernating and get out of bed to play.  It’s a story we’ve read nearly every night for the last several weeks, and as I read it to Jay that night I peppered him with questions, asking him why Toad didn’t want to get out of bed, and what kind of trick Frog was going to play, and prompting him to anticipate the end of sentences I knew he’d already memorized.

I asked Jay these questions because I wanted to push him to think harder about the book we were reading, but in the middle of the story, it occurred to me also that the cost, as it were, of asking Jay all those questions and trying deliberately to build his reading comprehension skills, is that he lost the chance to be immersed in the story, to be born away into the world of Frog and Toad, and to wake the next morning with his blood still thick with the tale he’d gone to sleep by.  When I realized that, I stopped asking Jay questions about the book and just read to him.

There is a place, of course, for both deliberate instruction and experiential learning, but parenting culture today skews towards the former.  It’s easier to see the value in teaching a kid to make predictions about a book than it is to quantify the benefit of giving a child the experience of falling in love with a story.

So too, this morning, as I sat beside Jay on the deck of the boat, I thought about how there were any number of lessons he might take way from our morning sail, including but not limited to the fallibility of his elders, the fickleness of the wind, the difference  between the jib and the main, and the amount of time that a seal can hold its breath underwater

But maybe what I most wanted him to get out of the morning was an understanding of what it feels like to be sitting on a sailboat on a sunny August morning in Maine with his dad by his side and the glory of the Atlantic spreading out before him.  I wanted Jay to know that feeling for its own sake, and for the lesson he could draw from it in time, which is that there are many ways to feel in the world, and that figuring out which ways you like best, and which experiences give rise to those feelings, is far more essential knowledge than anything I or anyone else might have told him that morning.

Jay, who may (or may not) delight in getting under my skin

Last Thursday afternoon, a little after 5pm, Jay, Wally, and I were crowded together in our pediatrician’s bathroom.  Wally, who minutes earlier had had four needles inserted into his fleshy thighs, was screaming in my arms.  Jay, who’d only remembered he needed to pee as I was strapping him into his car seat to go home, had his shorts and underwear around his ankles.

I held Wally in one hand and shimmied Jay’s clothes up his skinny legs with the other.  Eventually I managed to cover just enough of Jay’s essential parts to allow him to walk back across the pediatrician’s waiting room and I turned to leave the bathoom.  As I did, Jay declared, “I need to wash my hands,” mounted a stool, and turned on the water. I thought for sure he was trying to kill me.

Now, it’s not that I have low hygiene standards for the boys.  In fact, many times a day I fight to get Jay to wash his hands.  But in this particular case I couldn’t get out of that very tiny bathroom fast enough, and of course it was under just those circumstances that Jay felt moved for perhaps the very first time in his very brief life to be scrupulous about his hands.  The only explanation I could come up with was that he was deliberately trying to get under my skin, to see just how far he could push his increasingly fragile dad.

I often think that Jay is out to get me.  This morning I went to open the refrigerator and just as I did Jay pulled up in his plasma car and blocked my way.  And on Saturday I was cleaning Wally’s throw-up out of the backseat of the car when Jay climbed over from the front seat and put his foot exactly where I was about to put my sponge.  It wasn’t a great deal for him, either, but still, his timing was too perfect to be mere coincidence.

My tendency to perceive conspiracy in everything Jay does is one indication, I think, of the way in which I’m maladapted to be a father.  A lot of what I instinctively interpret as devious scheming is probably just natural kid behavior.  It’s natural for kids to be interested in what their parents are doing, and with Jay at arms length proximity from me many hours of every day, it’s inevitable that he’s going to get in my way from time to time.

It’s also true that my default mindset as a parent isn’t particularly compatible with his default mindset as a three-year-old.  I want to get through the day in a straight line; Jay is a spontaneous guy who moves by passion and whim.  I wonder why he’s so intent on thwarting me; he probably asks that same question about me.

On the drive home from the doctor’s office, with both boys secured in their seats, it occurred to me that there were other ways to understand Jay’s sudden need to wash his hands.  It’s possible that my first instinct was right, that he wanted to dig the knife just a little deeper.  It’s also possible that he was bowled over by the presence of a stool he’d never climbed, and a short sink designed for little people just like him, and for one intoxicated moment felt his life’s fulfillment lay in turning on that water.

But I don’t want to cut Jay too much slack.

That night at home, I asked Caroline if she thinks Jay takes any particular delight in needling us.  She laughed, because of course he’s pretty good at getting under her skin, too.  Then she said that to some extent, she thinks he does.  She explained that she doesn’t think he has the ability to imagine the feelings he elicits in us, but that he does take a particular kind of thrill in provoking negative responses from us.  He likes knocking me and Caroline off balance, even if he doesn’t know exactly what that means in terms of the emotional state it creates in us.

In that sense, Jay is more intentional than a fly buzzing around my face and he’s more intentional than Wally, who confounds us sometimes too, but he’s less intentional than say a sadist with a screwdriver.  At least a little.

Jay falls apart, puts himself back together

Last Saturday night, at the end of a long contrarian day, Jay stood in the middle of the bathroom floor, spinning.  “I want…I want…I want…” he said, three times, while I stood waiting—junior toothbrush, pea-sized dollop of paste—for him to exhaust this latest flare of will and submit to the nightly imperative that we clean his teeth.

For the last couple weeks Jay’s personality has been out of balance.  At the end of our East Coast driving trip I wrote about how 10 days on the road had brought out the Vacation Beast in him.  Since arriving home those tendencies have seeped into the cracks of our days.  He’s been by turns contrarian and willful, charming and dispossessed, and, as he was last Saturday as I waited to brush his teeth, overwhelmed by the urge to specify his wants and order his world.

This turn is all the more striking in light of the calm that preceded it.  A few weeks ago, I wrote at the beginning of our vacation, “Traveling with Jay this time has felt very freeing, in the sense that it’s easy, all of a sudden, to imagine taking him just about anywhere.”  I meant that and indeed, throughout the spring Caroline and I remarked almost daily about how calm and mature Jay had become:  On the downward half of his third year of life, he seemed to have made peace with his place in our daily routines.

A couple nights ago Caroline and I were talking in bed.  She remarked that the long calm  was itself probably the surest predictor that his personality would heave by June.  “This is what kids do,” she said.  “They fall apart and come back together.”

We’ve noticed with both Jay and Wally that their development tends to be punctuated. They’ll go long stretches without changing in obvious ways and then all of a sudden it’s like a biological alarm goes off: Time to grow again.

Caroline has a theory that this alarm sounds every nine months.  She notes, for example: Jay and Wally started to come alive as people when they were nine-months-old; Jay’s talking took off when he was 18-months-old; we potty-trained him around 27-months; and now, at 36-months, his personality is on fire.

The nine-month theory isn’t science, of course, but I think the concept makes sense: Kids undergo a period of rapid change and then spend time retrenching as it were—incorporating their new skills among the ones they’ve already mastered.  There’s a period of equilibrium but it’s brief: When you still can’t tie your shoes it doesn’t pay to stay in one place for long.

It’s an exhilarating process to watch, but it’s sometimes bittersweet to be a part of.  Since February, maybe, Jay and I have had this bedtime routine.  He’ll be lying in his crib and I’ll be standing over him.  We’ll look into each other’s eyes and smile a bit because we both know what’s coming.  Every night, word for word, the exchange goes like this:

ME: Are you going to have dreams tonight?

JAY: Maybe.

ME: What are they going to be about?

JAY: You don’t know until you have them.  What are your dreams going to be about?

(Pause)

ME: Don’t know until I have ‘em.

It’s my favorite part of the day.  I love the play on Jay’s face and the bright conspiratorial glow in his eyes.  If I could have him remember just one thing that we shared together when he was very young, it might be this.

So it was with enthusiasm that last Saturday night I stood over Jay in his crib and launched into our routine.  After a day of doing battle I was eager to share at least one quiet moment together.  “Are you going to have dreams tonight?” I began.

But instead of replying in turn, Jay just stared up at me.  “I don’t want to do that,” he said, in a tone of voice I hadn’t expected to hear from him for another decade, at least.  “Oh,” I thought to myself.  “That’s how it is.”

As I walked downstairs I realized that from Jay’s perspective, it’s hard for him to reconstitute himself without reconstituting his relationship with his parents at the same time.  To Caroline and me his defiance often seems arbitrary but when you’re growing as fast as he is, it’s probably necessary to take a slash-and-burn approach: Knock it all down and see what grows back.

A long way from Bali

That’s a photo of Ubud, Bali. It was taken by a friend and emailed to me this morning. “View from the cafe I’m at right now,” he wrote. “Writing in my journal while drinking a frosty brew and watching the rice grow. The chillest moment of my life.”

He was joking (a little) about that being the chillest moment of his life, but still, there was no doubt that his Balinese evening had a little more Zen to it than our Ann Arbor morning.  Caroline has a cold and was up half the night.  A little before midnight I decamped from our bedroom to escape the sniffling and landed on a mattress on the floor in the playroom.  When we all gathered around the breakfast table at 8am the mood was decidedly grim.

The picture from Bali stirred a gurgle of longing in my stomach.  It also reminded me of an evening on the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos eight years ago.  That’s me there, in front of the big beer.  Caroline was on the other side of the camera.When I find myself longing for a lifestyle that makes a perch on a river in Southeast Asia easier to come by, I remind myself that the expression on my face in that picture was hardly one of blissed out contentment.  That evening, in May 2006, was at the end of a long trip.  I was listless and bored and wanted nothing more than to come home and put down roots.  Today I’ve swung a little far in the other direction; I wouldn’t mind a little more Bali in my life.  But I also know that life with really young kids is its own temporary kind of thing and not something I want to rush past.

Over the last week I’ve been reading David Maraniss‘ new biography of Barack Obama.  It covers the early years- birth to age 26.  At first I was disappointed that there would be no accounting of Obama’s political rise, but now, having finished the book, I think Maraniss made the right decision: Obama’s growth as a person, from a little kid running the alleys of Jakarta to a kind-of-stoner at a Honolulu prep school to a lost 20-something in New York City to the uncommonly poised and talented man we know today is a thing to behold- and certainly way more interesting than the story of how he got elected to the Senate.

(What stuns me most is that for the first 25 or so years of his life basically no one who knew Obama would have said he had any extraordinary degree of talent, let alone that he was destined for greatness.  During those first decades of his life he was figuring out who he was and what he wanted to accomplish in the world.  Once he got his personal house in order, he took off like a rocket.)

I bring up the biography because Obama’s gravitation towards religion in his 20s fits with how I’d explain my gravitation towards family during that same time in my life.  Maraniss quotes from Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father, where the future president explained why he decided to join a church:

I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in a way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.

Starting a family has a lot in common with joining a religion:  Both involve committing to something outside yourself, and it takes a leap of faith both to believe in God and to let love for a child serve as the organizing principle of your days.  And when I think about why I wanted to give up the freedom I had in my 20s in order to become a father, I think about it in much the same terms that Obama used to describe his turn towards religion: Without an unequivocal commitment to something, or someone, outside of myself, I felt like I didn’t have any way to make sense of and live out my beliefs.

A few months ago I told Caroline, who is kind when I navel gaze over dinner, that I imagine the realm of my concerns changing throughout my life like this: My 20s were about me; my 30s and 40s will be about family; and life after that will be about engagement with the wider world.

This progression is obviously silly on one level.  At the same time, I think that it makes sense that personal growth prepares one for family and that family prepares one for politics: Without self-knowledge it’s hard to know what kinds of values to instill in your kids; and building a family culture is a first baby step towards thinking about the bigger question of how we should all live together.

I often think about parenthood as a pause between periods of freedom: Bali. Kids. Bali.  But receiving that picture from my friend and reading about Obama made me realize something maybe I already knew: That what I long for most these days is not  more personal freedom; it’s more engagement with the thrum and swag of American life.

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Life in the trees

At the park, a sense of the future

On Friday afternoon—our last of three days without Caroline, who was in San Francisco for the big annual demography conference—Jay, Wally, and I walked up the hill from our house to expansive Buhr Park.

Our first stop was the soccer field, where we knew we’d find our eight-year-old neighbor Joe at practice with his rec team.  The three of us trudged through an open field of wispy white dandelions and arrived behind the goal just as the young squad was completing its warm-up sprints.  I felt proud, by association, to see that Joe was the fastest kid on the team.

We watched the soccer team go through passing and dribbling drills.  Jay wasn’t all that interested—he preferred to concentrate on the thick cake of mud the wheels of his tricycle had picked up on the way over.  He picked at the mud, tossed it, and rolled it into little snakes.  Wally stood beside him, rocking the trike back and forth.  The surrounding dandelions came up past his belly button.

But I was intent on the practice.  The kids were doing a drill where they had to dribble out 10 yards, stop, turn around, dribble back, and pass to a waiting partner.  It was entertaining—and enlightening—to see the wide range of skill levels even at this early age.  Some kids dribbled as if the ball were on a string.  Several others were utterly clumsy.  I watched one pudgy eight-year-old trip over the ball as he attempted to pass it back to his teammate.

After watching the soccer practice we walked over the playground, which was crowded with kids from an after-school camp.  It was a muggy day and unpleasantly warm in the sun.  Wally and I found a patch of shade.  Jay walked over to the base of a tree where three nine-year-old boys were digging with sticks, trying futilely to unearth a root.

Beside us in the shade two girls, also maybe nine-years-old, were practicing a hip-hop dance routine.  One girl was tall and skinny, ungainly with her long-limbs.  Her movements were jerky, imprecise, and out of rhythm.  The other girl was shorter, a little thicker, and a much better dancer—so much so, in fact, that I felt a little uncomfortable watching her.  But even so, it was interesting to watch these two girls side-by-side:  The shorter girl just knew how to move her body; the taller girl just did not.

We had two more experiences at the playground that caught my attention.  The first was with a girl who had a little dirt on her cheeks and slightly unkempt blond hair.  She came over and sat down on our tricycle.  Wally was playing with it at the time, pushing it through the grass.  I told the girl she could sit on it as long as she didn’t pedal away.  When she did start to pedal I stopped the trike and asked her to get off.  She wouldn’t and eventually a camp counselor came to retrieve her.  This same basic scene played itself out twice more in the remaining half-hour we were at the park.

The second experience involved Jay.  For ten minutes he watched the three boys digging at the tree root.  Then one of the boys pointed at Jay and said to his friend: “Pour the water on him.” The second boy was holding a bottle of muddy water that they’d been using to soften up the dirt around the root.  He told the first boy that he didn’t want to.

Then the first boy turned to Jay.  “Do you know how to talk?” he said in an aggressive voice.

“Yes I do,” Jay answered.   I wanted to remove Jay from the scene but I was also interested to see how it was going to play out.

“How old are you,” the boy asked, in the same aggressive tone.  “Three? Four? Five?  I’ll bet you’re three.”  Jay, maybe sensing that this was the kind of situation where it paid to front as older than he was, told the boy that indeed he was three.

The whole time the aggressive boy was holding a muddy stick.  He was aware of my presence and knew, probably, that he’d get in trouble if he did anything too mean to Jay.  I watched as he twirled the muddy stick nonchalantly through the air.  It had the desired effect:  Drops of mud splattered across Jay’s face, arms, and the front of his shirt.  He gave the boy a quizzical look.  He didn’t really understand what was happening.

Over the weekend I thought a lot about our afternoon at the park.  What struck me most was how much more defined those kids were than Jay and Wally in terms of their personalities and their skills.  I could write volumes about Jay and Wally’s personalities, and I feel like I have some sense of the types of things they’re going to be good at.  But there would still be a lot of guesswork involved at this point.

But with the eight- and nine-year-olds we saw at the playground, many things were quite plain.  I could tell immediately who was fast and who was slow.  Who was coordinated with a soccer ball and who was not.  Who could dance.  Who was behaviorally troubled (the blond girl).  Who had a mean streak.

It’s exciting and heartbreaking all at once to think that in just a few short years Caroline and I are going to gain this same kind of knowledge about Jay and Wally—and that they’re going to gain it about themselves.

Memory Update: Keeping Track of What Jay Forgets

Last October I wrote a post called “Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?”  It was about Jay’s memories of Philadelphia and particularly his daycare in the city.  At the time I wrote the post, Jay was bringing up his daycare from time to time, in random ways, like recognizing the lid of the plastic container we used to use to bring his lunch to school.  I was curious to see how long it would be until Jay had forgotten daycare completely.

Well, earlier this week Caroline conducted a follow-up experiment and it seems that those memories are gone.  While I was out running she showed Jay pictures of him with his daycare teachers.  Blank. Nothing. He couldn’t produce their names and he gave no hint that he even recognized them.  She did the same with pictures of our friends from the city.  Same result.

Of course, pictures aren’t the same as seeing a person in the flesh, in context.  We’re visiting Philadelphia later this month and Caroline plans to bring Jay by his old school.  We’ll see if that jogs anything in his tiny hippocampus.

Here’s another example of the rate at which Jay’s memories slip away.  From April 2011-August 2011 I read Jay the children’s book Caps for Sale just about every single night before bed.  It got to the point where I could pause anywhere in the book and Jay could fill in the next word.  And not just major nouns like “lunch” and “tree.”  Even little tiny words like “and,” and “on.”

One night a couple weeks ago Jay and I were picking out his bedtime books. I pulled out Caps for Sale.  It had been at least six months since we’d read it.

The easiest single line to remember from Caps for Sale is the jingle the peddler shouts as he walks through town, “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.”  I prompted Jay with it on the first page.  He just looked at me.  Then we came to the first turning point in the story, where the napping peddler has his caps stolen.  I asked Jay who’d taken them.  When he answered, “I don’t know,” I thought maybe he was playing with me.  A minute later I couldn’t believe I had to tell him that it was the monkeys.

Slate recently ran an interesting summary of research on childhood memory called “I Remember Mama and Dada.”  The article, by Nicholas Day, says that babies form memories at much earlier ages than conventional wisdom would have it.  They don’t carry those memories with them into adulthood, but they do carry them for a while.

Day writes, “Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.”

The article further notes that while two-year-olds can recall memories of events that happened a year earlier, most people’s earliest permanent memories don’t set until about age three-and-a-half.

The article also cites research which argues that there may not be a strict biological limit on how early in life we’re capable of forming permanent memories.  Parents play a big role in this.  Day writes that parents who spend a lot of time retelling stories from a child’s past can help a child form permanent memories of those stories.  “Conversational style matters, because when children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event.”

Of course, this raises the obvious questions that attend all early life memories—Do we remember the event itself or do we remember the photographs of the event and the stories we tell about it? And where is the line between buttressing a memory and creating a new one?  They are fun riddles to entertain, even if it seems clear that all memories, even my memory of what I had for lunch yesterday, are refracted through the process of remembering them.

Returning to Jay, halfway through writing this piece I went downstairs to make tea.  While I was at the stove Jay, Wally, and, Nicole, their nanny, came back from library story time.  I wanted to confirm that Jay didn’t really know Caps for Sale anymore so I asked him a few questions:

“Caps for sale…” I began.

“…fifty cents a cap,” Jay finished.

“Who steals the peddler’s caps,” I asked Jay.

“The monkeys,” Jay answered.

“And how does the peddler get his caps back?”

“He stomps his feet and jumps up and down,” Jay replied, as if it were the most commonplace knowledge in the world.

I was stunned.  We’d only read the book once recently and that was more than two weeks ago. How did Jay reacquire this knowledge all of a sudden?

Then Nicole came into the kitchen.  “Do you know that book, too?” she asked.  “Because they read it at story time today.”