The verdict is: “My Mom is nice. I like her.” This may seem like faint praise, but bear in mind that I wrote a whole book about my Mom in 1974, so I must have been pretty fond of her. I admit the book is only five pages long, but just look at the stick figure illustrations. They seem to have been constructed using a straight-edge and a sharp #2 pencil. Over the top of that, the artist known as Freddie-Age-Six slathered on the peach-tone Crayola. Also, note that he has taken special care to give long hair to the Mom figure, with a little flip at the bottom. Considering the scale of this drawing and the minimum detail, that bit of attention to the hair is remarkable.
I don’t know how your memory of childhood is, but mine is severely limited. When I rifle through my memories of the first half-dozen years of life, I find mostly trees and superheroes. Now that I’ve got kids ages four and six, I quiz them sometimes on what they remember from the things we did together about six months ago. It’s the oddest grab-bag of things, with clear recollections of tiny details, and everything else a bright blur. For one thing, it’s easy for grown-ups to forget how different the world looks from a vantage point just three feet off the ground.
All our parents had real lives going on while we were kids, but they were on a scale we couldn’t take in, and consisted of actions we couldn’t name or retain. So when we consult our mental images of what our parents were like, we find stored in our memory banks these peculiar parental simulacra who couldn’t have really existed. All we have to go on are mental notes jotted down by six year olds, and we know enough to know they can’t be quite right. We failed to notice the main things about our parents, and the details that stand out couldn’t possibly have been defining features that any of their contemporaries would have noted. For example:
Taken together with the low lights, the “Don’t Gobble” rule may indicate a certain domestic peacefulness about my Mom. But more likely, “Don’t gobble your dinner” says more about me at age six than it does about her. I remember we had two separate rules for table conduct: I wasn’t allowed to read at the table, and my sister wasn’t allowed to sing. Theoretically, I was allowed to sing at the table and my sister was allowed to read, but neither of those things was going to happen.
If kids remember so little of what we do with them in the first few years, what lasting benefit is there in any of this flurry of activity we engage in as parents, beyond stimulating their brain cells during the formative period? If all they’re going to remember is little things like the level of the lighting, why are we planning field trips and projects and themed birthday parties?
Kids are reading a different set of signals than we’re sending. We’re saying “family trip to Arizona with historic sight-seeing along the way,” and they’re thinking “good toy in the happy meal this time,” or “funny story at bedtime.” We’re thinking “they’ve never been to this town before,” and they’re thinking “we shared a Jamba Juice in the sunshine.” Sometimes we strike it lucky and land on the same page. But usually, we’re pitching content and they’re catching form.
Somewhere, C.S. Lewis quotes a line about “a whisper which memory will warehouse as a shout.” That’s how it is with childhood memories especially: the things you find on the shelves of recollection are not necessarily actual size. Moms in particular are in charge of the ten thousand daily details that are getting warehoused in juvenile memories as Big Deals. Mom was thinking casserole and cleanup, but I guess I was thinking low lights and don’t gobble. But I know I was thinking “My Mom is nice. I like her.”
In the early years, kids are forgetting the class material as fast as we can put it into their heads, and working on their own private curricula. But what they’re remembering from these early family years is what I remember: Love.