I’ve learned, through the course of adolescence and adulthood, that we have three different kinds of memories. The first are direct memories of our own experiences that we can clearly recall. The second are memories of our own experiences, but are stories that have been told to us. Things like your 2nd christmas, or learning to walk. The last one are memories that you invented based on your own imagination, but after so long of repeating the same false story, it becomes fact to you.
I’ve always had this memory of my mother, stepfather, brother, and I all huddled together on a blanket at the lake. It’s the 4th of July, and we’re there watching the fireworks. Everyone is happy, staring up at the sky, and just enjoying each other’s company as a family. Tonight, as I sat on a blanket with my wife and two children, I thought of this story. I had my son in my lap, my daughter was hugging him and cuddling with me, and my wife was resting her head on my shoulder. It sounds cliché, and like something out of a bad movie, but that cliché could not be more perfect. It was happiness, pure and unchanging.
I realized during that moment though, that the story I remember from my childhood never happened. I realized this because in my memory my brother is between 18-20. I don’t have an exact age of him in my memory, and I’m closer to 13. We are only two years apart in age, but more importantly it alerted me to the fact that I had made up the story. When I really started to think back, and really struggled to recall the details of that night, I realized that the night had never happened. I invented that story as a happy moment I could look back on in my childhood. A family moment without deception, anger, vanity, or any of the other problems that accompany the majority of my other childhood memories.
On one hand, I do realize how pathetic this is. I invent stories for my childhood so it’s easier for me to accept it. On the other hand, I think that on some level I’m making up stories that I want to use to inspire traditions with my own children. Growing up, we never had any real traditions. People I know are always going camping like they did with their father, or are making some recipe that their mother made when they were young. Maybe they’re going up to the same old cabin their family has been going to for 40 years. I don’t have that. 2 of my grandparents were drunks and suffered severe brain damage, which reduced their memory to the last 20 minutes or so, when I was very young. My other grandfather was a traveling musician, and somewhat of a recluse on his farm in the middle of nowhere. Granted, the majority of my genetics came from his end of the pool, but we still never knew him. Hence there were few traditions to pass on. You’d expect quite a few from a family that’s primarily Irish, and Native American in ancestry, but sadly we diluted all of that by keeping no real relationship with any of our relatives.
In the end, it becomes a somewhat difficult fact to accept, when you have to invent all of your family’s “traditions” because none truly exist. Sometimes I think about the “family tree” project we had to do in school. I can still remember trying to explain to my teacher why my “tree” had a trunk and about 3 branches. That was it. My grandfather was adopted, my grandmother had forgotten most of her heritage, and I didn’t speak to my father. I wonder what it will be like for my kids in school. The only family tree they know, from my side anyway, is me. I’m it. We’re starting completely new. Maybe that’s why I’m so guarded about my family. Maybe that’s why I’m so hesitant to let anyone near them, or into my home. Maybe that’s why my dream is to live in the middle of nowhere, completely self-sufficient and dependent on no one.
Of course, it will never end that way. Even my grandfather, who managed to stay on his farm well into his eighties, died in a hospital. He’d lost his freedom, had no REAL family, just children he didn’t know, and more grand children than he was even aware of. He died, basically alone, on Christmas day. Am I going to turn out the same, just starting from the opposite end? Instead of dismissing my wife and children, I’m clinging to them like a life preserver. I’m blocking out everyone else. But in the end, my children will grow up and move away, and as nauseous as it makes me to think it, my wife will die. I selfishly sometimes hope that I go first. I know that I can’t function, even in the most basic sense of the word, without her. I think that she is stronger, and could at least survive without me there. Who knows? It’s something I try not to think about, but usually do.
I’m getting off track, as I always do. The whole point of this post is memories. I want my children to have REAL memories. I want them to look back at their childhood and pick out all of the great times that they had, and not remember growing up as a time of pain, uncertainty, and sadness. I believe that it won’t be any grand moment, or great gesture, that helps create this foundation. I think it’s all of the little things. I think it’s the sidewalk chalk drawings, or the songs that I write for them. The baseball helmet sundaes, and 4th of July fireworks. It’s the extra chapter at bed time, the backyard camp outs, and sleepovers on the living room floor. It’s being honest with them about everything no matter how difficult it is. When they ask a tough question, as my daughter has a knack for doing, ANSWER IT!!! It’s not always easy. It’s sometimes awkward, embarrassing, or even confusing for us as parents. If your child has asked you what happens when we die, then you know what I’m talking about.
Sidenote: my daughter’s theory on what happens when we die is this. We put your body in the ground, then “heaven bugs” come and eat you and you go to heaven. Then your bones are left behind so that everyone remembers you. Sounds as plausible as any other story I’ve heard.
So what’s my goal as a parent? What do I feel is the best way to raise my kids? With complete openness, honesty, and a focus on the little things. I have a few boxes of things that I saved from my childhood. Do you know what’s in these? Mostly knick knacks, old drawings, etc. But the most treasured are these: My stepfather’s dad’s pocket knife from the korean war. A baseball helmet bowl that I got at a white sox games when I was 10. An old .22 bullet from my grandfather’s house. And last, a rosary that my mother gave me. None of these things came at significant times, or even on particularly special days. What’s makes them so special is that each one reminds me of a day, when my family and I were a real family. The little things are what take us back.
I’ve failed at the majority of things I’ve done in my life. I’ve been mediocre at the rest. Somehow I feel like my life will have truly stood for something, if I can just be a good husband and father. If I can love these three people more than any other person or thing in this world, and be willing to sacrifice everything for them, then I will have done well. I won’t have wasted my life and will have justified whatever cosmic magic was summoned in order to create my soul. I’ve never truly thanked God, whomever that may be, for anything in my life. I’ve asked for things, out of greed, or out of fear. I’ve said thanks out of ritual or obligation, but I’ve never truly been thankful to God before. I am truly thankful for my wife and two kids though. I have no idea why I was given such amazing people to spend my life with. i don’t deserve it in any stretch of the imagination. But I am thankful, and I feel like to squander these gifts would be one of the worst things I’ve ever done.
Happy 4th of July everyone. I hope it was memorable.