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.