Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Memory Book

Every Christmas, I make a gift for my son. I do this for a couple of reasons – first, because I feel nothing says love like taking time to make something that is special, unique, one-of-a-kind. And second, because it would be hard for me to encourage him to make gifts for others if I was not demonstrating the true value by making gifts for others as well. Every year, this is a fun process for us. This year, we made gingerbread cookies for our neighbors, ornaments and cards for friends and family, and all-natural body scrubs, which were a huge hit. And, in keeping with the tradition I started several years ago, I made my son a gift as well.

But I also gave him something more than the traditional knitted item…

this year, I gave him...

 ...the memory book. Or rather, the memory books, as what was meant to be one became three.

The day after Christmas finds me cleaning up, honoring Boxing Day, a tradition I began to observe while living in Michigan, close to the border of Canada, a country where that holiday is important enough to be featured on calendars. I like the idea, however, of something being over when it’s over. Christmas has ended for us. There are no more family coming, no other presents to expect, no more dinners to prepare or attend. There is, to me, no logical reason beyond sentiment to keep decorations on the mantels; to keep the tree up; or to keep the Christmas d├ęcor in my yard on display. When a thing is over, it’s over. Letting go has never been an easy thing for me, and sentiment makes it harder. So I shrug it off, pull out the Rubbermaid storage tubs, and get it done. By noon on the 26th, my house looks like Christmas never happened.

But it did. That’s the thing about life…what happens did happen, regardless of whether any evidence that it ever took place remains. Whether we stop and think about it, or remember it, or have mementos strewn around to remind us of it…it did happen. This is what inspired the memory book, this and the fact that life can go on for years in pretty much the same way…and then suddenly, like a magic wand was waved, everything changes at once.

And of course, the picture...

I came across the picture by accident. It shows my cousin Robby and me, on the porch of the house I grew up in, the house where my parents still live. We’re blowing bubbles. I’m five years older than Robby, so in the photo, we’re likely about 10 and 5. Or maybe 9 and 4. It’s hard to tell, and the photo isn’t dated. But I cannot recall the last time I actually looked at a photo of myself as a child. "It’s too confrontational," a friend once said to me, when I asked if she had any old photos of her childhood self. And I understood that completely. Still, this spilled out from a file while I was searching for something else, and I couldn’t help but stop and look.

I’ve not seen Robby for a long, long time, even though growing up we spent nearly every weekend together at either his home or mine. My other cousins, well, I could count the times I’ve seen them over the last 5 years on one hand. Aunts and uncles I see by chance, often out shopping or dining, or at funerals. And yet, they used to be as familiar to me as my own parents, an extentsion of them, somehow.

What happened? It’s hard to say, because it happened over time, not all at once. Divorces, remarriages, people moved, I moved, new family dynamics swooped in and took place of the old. Alltogether, it has culminated in today’s an adult, I rarely see my extended family, and I hate it. My son barely knows them at all. This isn’t ideal, and it sure as hell isn’t my ideal. I want for my son what I had growing up, a circle of family, a foundation of people who I knew were 'mine.' I was proud of my people, and loved introducing them to friends and boyfriends. They reflected who I was, where I came from. Now, it’s just easier not to think about the past, or why the seemingly never-ending party of family faces, food, and fun I grew up enjoying every weekend and holiday are not part of my son’s childhood as well.

Which begs the question…what is?

At my parents’ house, a few weeks ago, I took my son and nephew on a walk through the backyard in the same manner I had combed it in childhood. Many landmarks are the same, although the old school bell I used to sneak and ring in a neighboring yard is gone. The sawgrass patch where I foolishly tried to hide from my sister once, only to end up with the equivalent of a gazillion paper cuts, is still there, as is Mrs. Hagan's swing, where I sat and drew and wrote and dreamed as the preteen years came on. She never minded my presence there, but the new neighbors step outside and ask, "Can we help you with something?" The place where I held imaginary meetings with animal friends in my ‘Forest Club’ is overgrown, but can be found if one knows where to look. The place where beloved pets were buried has been lost to memory and foilage, but remnants of the old chicken coop remain, as well as the green 'dungeon door' on the side of the house, a door of childhood fear and mystery due to the fact that it was always locked, and my dad always had a tall tale to tell as to why.

Inside my parents’ home, I notice things that I’ve spent years not paying attention to. The Home Sweet Home sign that my father made the year my mother gave him a wood-burning set still hangs above the heater, where it has been for over 30 years. The bookshelf he made by hand and assembled in the bedroom still hovers like a mammoth, too big to be moved, bearing books I perused voraciously as a child. Encyclopedias from the 1970s that opened my eyes to the greater wonders of the world still remain, informationally useless in 2012, but visually as interesting to me now as they were then. The section on Native Americans is dog-eared, and there are pencil-written notes on the pages that describe the Navajo Nation. I close the book quickly. My friend is right; revisiting childhood is confrontational. Still, I’m left wondering what my son’s favorite childhood memories will be.

I’ve parented now for almost a decade, and like most parents, the birth to five year scrapbook stopped receiving updates at about age 2. And I’m not a big picture-taker, either. I’m just not. I always appreciate when I go on a trip with someone, and they break out a camera. It’s a relief; I don’t have to do it. I failed to see the purpose in collecting multitudes of photos after I’d moved a few times, hauling fat photo albums I never looked at from one closet to another, back and forth across the country. I never looked at them, or felt compelled to. They were in boxes, forgotten. At a certain point, I just quit taking more.

When my child was born, I reconsidered the value of photographic momentos. And now, faced with a crossroads, I have a couple of choices to make…two forks in the road. The only choices I cannot make are to remain standing, indecisive, or to turn around and go back. Our time here, at the home we’ve loved for eight years, will most likely draw to a close in 2013. I’m as sure of it as I am that the Cedar Waxwings will pass through in a few months, and that the buds on the Bradford Pear trees will burst into life in 10 weeks time. I’ve been offered a deal on a house that’s too sweet to pass up. And there’s another option as well, one that seems like a fairy tale come true, but in my heart, part of me knows just…isn’t… least not right now.

Bugger, but it’s hard to ignore the heart, or make it feel something it just won’t feel. Or ignore the fact that it’s my son and I living in the new house that seems to be the most logical, sensible decision. And as much as I’d like to be flippant, free-spirited and dance through life unaware the way people think that I actually do, truth is I’m bloody logical and practical. It’s a side most people don’t see, but I began college as an accounting major. I planned on pursuing Criminal Justice studies as well, because of my love of detective stories, but ended up getting an engineering degree instead. Two decades later, I’m happily teaching art to elementary school children and enjoying crime dramas when I have the chance to watch television, but this would-be accountant hyperventilates when it’s time to balance the checkbook. How things change.

Change. Ugh. I talk about leaping, but fear change like anyone else. Moving and/or moving on signifies the end of a phase of life. Moving into this new house, if all goes as it could, ends the life my son and I have known here. It ends him running out the door to play with the neighborhood kids. It ends the ease of friendships that form when one can simply walk next door for conversation and coffee. It ends spontaneous walks in the woods, picnics by the creek, or bike rides on the trail. It begins a new phase, yes…but it ends the idyllic life we’ve know in this sweet, safe place. God, we’ve had it good here. Did I ever realize it until now?

Probably not; I don’t like to stop and think too much. But something about the picture of my cousin and I made me do just that. And so, in the weeks proceeding Christmas, I took my phone to Walgreens and, for the first time ever, proceeded to make prints from the 1351 photos stored on it. Almost 3 years worth of photos flashed before me there on that kiosk screen. I alternated between laughter and tears, then remembered I was in a public place and got my act together. In the end, hundreds of photos were printed. Hundreds. It was just too hard to pass on any of them, and the beautiful, handmade dolphin covered book I purchased for my son’s one memory book became three instead.

How young he looks in the early ones! How much he’s matured, and how much all the neighborhood kids have matured! There are friends he’s grown up with, friends we’ve not seen in a while, and friends we don’t see any more at all. Daytrips and play dates, making pottery and cookies and Christmas cards, all at the kitchen table, that force the family life seems to eternally whirl around. There are pets that are gone, and pets that are new to us, and pets we've had for the duration. There are parties and social activities, vacations and just images of daily life. Truth be known, I’d not seem many of these pictures for years, and many were taken simply to send via text or email to someone else. Now, they constitute our life here, in this place. I spend many an evening hour as my son sleeps arranging the images into the binders. When the task is 100% complete, I wrap the gift up. It's a total Christmas Eve hit.

My son loves pictures, and has always loved looking through other people’s photo albums. Why I never thought to give him his own, until now, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s another rule of parenting that I’ve violated; God knows there seem to be dozens. Still, what matters is I did it this year. Christmas 2012 will be remembered as the year of the memory book, possibly the beginning of a new tradition. As he turns each page, in rapt awe at all the life laid out before him in full color, I decide I will take more pictures, and make more books like this for him, because unlike me, he is sentimental, and I want to nurture that. Perhaps it wasn’t nurtured in me, or it was lost over the years as my extended family broke away and fell apart. I don’t know. Perhaps it can be rekindled. As my son grows older, I notice life is slowing down a bit more now, the blind haze of parenting an infant-toddler-young child alone is allowing more and more moments when I can  stop, take deep breaths, breathe, relax, and remember.

And what will he remember, when he is my age, and a photo falls to the floor while he's searching for something else?

I wish he'd had what I had growing up, the constant stream of family verses the unusual and difficult-to-understand-unless-you've-lived-it one-parent, one-child dynamic, which allows for a lot more intensity than people with spouses and/or other children can possibly understand. But what we have is what we have, and looking through the memory book/s, I feel a sense of love and pride...because while it is different than my own childhood in nearly every possibly way, it's still pretty doggone good. He’s looked at his books many times now, wanting me to tell what was happening in each photo, or tell him how old he was, or what happened to the toy he had in that picture, where are the people now who were with us in this picture? There is so much, within these books, to look at, talk about, and remember.

 “It goes by so fast,” he says, of Christmas, now that we’re boxing up all the decorations, and the hype has subsided to a dull roar, and he's eaten most of the gingerbread house that we made just yesterday morning.

“Remember that,” I tell him as I wrap another nutcracker doll in tissue paper. “Because it certainly does.”

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