Persistence of memory

Our kids have just as many bad moments as anyone else’s. They’ve been told off or punished or been shouted at by stressed-out parents more times than I would care to admit. On balance, though, I hope their abiding memories of childhood will be positive ones – moments of fun and laughter with parents who are immensely proud of them.

Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? It allows us to remember events from decades ago in pinpoint detail, and yet if Heather sends me to the shops to buy five things, you can guarantee I’ll forget two of them by the time I get there.

I like to think of memory as being like that Salvador Dali painting, The Persistence of Memory – floppy, a bit surreal and not entirely accurate, punctuated with moments of searing clarity and detail. In considering what my kids’ first memories might be, I’ve looked back on what mine are.

the-persistence-of-memory-1931When a child is born

Although it’s spotty in parts, I have a pretty good memory of the summer of 1976. I was nearly six then, a few months younger than Isaac is now.

It was that heatwave us oldsters refer to every year the moment the temperature tops 20°C. Ice cream afternoons. The petrol crisis. Dad buying my first cricket bat, teaching me how to apply linseed oil to it, and long Sunday batting sessions in the park. Music on the radio: Dancing Queen, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Jeans On. (Whatever happened to David Dundas?)

It was also the summer my brother was born.

My clearest memory of that period is sitting in a hospital waiting room with Dad. The Real Thing’s You To Me Are Everything is playing somewhere in the distance. A small, wall-mounted fan is oscillating back and forth, struggling to circulate the air on another sticky day.

The room’s full of hot, tired people, the pervading odour that of heavy perspiration. (It was the 70s – we hadn’t discovered the ‘Lynx effect’ yet.) I’m sitting there with Dad, my feet dangling in mid-air, not quite reaching the floor, quietly chatting away while we wait for what seems like forever.

The memory and its associated sensory elements are as strong nearly 40 years later as they were back then.

I will survive

Delving back a little further, there are fragments of memory from the flat in Wembley where we lived. A rainbow-coloured butterfly decal on the chest of drawers in my bedroom that terrified me. (I still can’t stand butterflies to this day.) Being bullied by bigger kids in my street because I couldn’t spell ‘Mississippi’.

Long, long ago, in a flat far, far away (Image: Google Street View)
Long, long ago, in a flat far, far away (Image: Google Street View)

Of course, there are good memories too. Opening our living room window on a Wembley match night and being able to hear the crowd’s cheers. The rattling sound the glass-paned front door made that meant Dad was home in the evening and Mum (who worked nights) in the morning. My first experiences with music: LP records and learning how to splice reel-to-reel tape. Dad reading endless bedtime stories to me from a Disney book.

Most of all, though, I can remember a discussion with my mother about death. Nothing particularly morbid, just the standard “Why do people die?” interrogation that every parent of a four or five-year-old will be familiar with.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table – I can still picture the 70s decor – while Mum’s at the sink washing up after dinner. I’m asking “Why? Why? Why?” in that way that kids do and then I remember declaring, with the unerring certainty of a five-year-old, “Well, I’m not going to die. I’m going to live forever.”

I can picture Mum’s half-smile even now – a combination of pride, accommodation, tolerance and a decision that now is not the time to burst my bubble.

I’ve had the same conversation since with both Isaac and Toby. Will they remember it the same way I do?

Set adrift on memory bliss

Further back still, my earliest memories are from when I was maybe three-and-a-half. Two in particular are etched into the deepest recesses of my mind.

In the first, I wake up in an unfamiliar place – large, dark, airy, lots of ominous shadows (perfect for a Doctor Who monster to step out of) – and with the sensation of being caged in by those raised bars you get on hospital beds.

A quiet, mostly empty children’s ward is a frightening place to be at night.

I’ve just awoken after an operation. I start crying for Mummy, then vomit due to the effects of the general anaesthetic. My mouth fills with that metallic tang you get when you throw up with an empty stomach.

I guess having night terrors like that tends to stick in your mind.

The second memory is even more vivid. Dad and I are walking to Wembley Park tube station. It’s early enough that it’s eerily quiet and our way is guided only by the warm tungsten glow of street lamps. And it’s cold too. Dad’s wearing his overcoat and his leather-and-fur hat, and our breath is condensing as soon as it hits the air outside.

I’m tired. It’s a long walk for a small child and Dad regularly scoops me up and carries me to speed us along. And it’s a familiar route too. We did it several times – I’m not sure how many – as he was dropping me off with our old neighbours for the day on his way in to work.

And although I can’t remember anything about that journey other than the walk to the station, I know exactly why we were doing it. But that’s a completely different set of memories, and a subject for another post.

I wonder what my children’s first memories will be. It’s said that the most durable memories tend to be linked to strong emotions. I hope we’ve created enough of a positive atmosphere for them to be good ones. They deserve happy memories. All children do.