I live in the past. I am a keeper of mementos, a one woman storage facility of memories. I often tease my siblings that should I die, they would have no recollection at all of our childhood. Like a parlor trick, upon request I can recall the most mundane snatches of memory. I’ve had friends call to ask the name of an old boyfriend or the name of a song we loved in college.
But as much as I Iike to boast about my sharp memory, it is a double-edged sword. I am a highlight reel of every holiday tradition, car trip, and secret, but I also never forget the smallest slight or unkind word.
A good memory is what writers rely on, but writers for children have to reach even further back in their memory banks to retrieve childhood moments. The dreams, emotions and motivations of childhood are what we seek in order to write authentic voices for children. Childhood is often fondly referred to as the most idyllic period of our lives, yet I remember how often I was scared, or felt vulnerable and powerless in face of adults. How insecurity plagued me throughout middle school and my hopes and dreams seemed infinitely, impossibly far away.
How easy it is to forget who we once were. This month I will gather for my annual getaway with my childhood girlfriends. And though the four of us live distinctly different lives, miles apart, reunited we are once again exactly who we were in middle school. In these women, I see a reflection of who I was all those years ago before I went off to college, moved away, married, became a mother. In some ways I’m much the same—loud, opinionated, a storyteller. But they remind me that I was also once carefree, fun-loving and spontaneous.
I often share with my children that once upon a time I made some bad decisions, was impulsive, and indecisive. But for the most part, they continue to see me as a rule follower, a straight arrow, structured and disciplined. Recently when visiting the trendy Forever 21 store with my teenager, I pulled out a patent leather mini skirt and wistfully remarked, “I love this.”
My daughter, looked at me shocked. “Who are you?” she asked, confused.
But in my teenage years, that patent leather miniskirt was me, complete with boots, fishnets and a turtleneck, it was my look. Last time I checked, they weren’t selling them at Banana Republic. The years, or more specifically, the responsibilities of adulthood, have a way of erasing our former selves until all that’s left is a misty, watercolored memory.
Often when I write scenes with young characters and their parents, I reference my own. And in doing so, remember how holding my mother’s hand could erase many of my fears. The surge of guilt I felt every time I lied or disappointed them. The rage I felt when I was grounded. The pride of showing a good report card and how I looked to the stands to see my mother’s face after I ran and won my 200 meter heats. When I write about the powerful moments between parents and children, I remember the cool baths my mother ran for me on warm summer days and the hot cereal my father cooked on cold winter mornings. When I write about setting, I remember the winters of my past, and my mother smearing Vaseline on my face before I walked to school to protect against biting wind and cold and listening on the radio with my brother and sister for word of a snow day and how I wished we lived in the town of Arlington or Belmont, so we wouldn’t have to wait quite as long to hear the name Malden, when they listed the school closings alphabetically.
Memories evoke powerful emotions. And emotions evoke powerful memories. I am grateful for memory and for the characters who demand that I remember the young girl I once was.