Friday, May 14, 2010

Bon Temps de Vieux, or The Good Old Days

I tell myself that I won't forget this. And this, and this, and then, oh, also this. I won't forget the way Abigail's hair smells when she crushes in for a hug. I won't forget the shine of Grace's face as she was driving the boat, fishtailing back and forth through the Gorge de Verdun.

I won't forget the way that millions of wild poppies have just started to bloom all along the roadsides, on top of stone walls, and interspersed with the grasses of the fields. They grow at random, apparently unplanted, so astonishing in their color and in the fragility of their papery petals.

By writing a moment, or taking its photograph then posting it here, I somehow reassure myself that I have preserved it for some imaginary someday. For some Launa yet to be, somewhere else. So aware of the fact that we are leaving, Bill and I have been sorting through our belongings and scraps of paper, looking for what to save and what to cull. Which old ticket, or to-do list, or tiny shell from the beach will help us to remember how we have lived here, what we did, how we felt?

What could possibly remind us just how sweet the air smells?

I won't hang on to everything, of course, because those who live too powerfully in memory can't truly live in the present. If everything becomes a souvenir the moment we experience it, we merely curate our lives, rather than living them.

And, more importantly, the biggest memories, the ones that endure, are rarely the ones we stow away so consciously. Who knows, from day to day, which chance encounter or bold move will grow into our defining legend, shaping all the living we have yet to do?

As Bill and I have been packing, we also have been absorbed in the mystery of what our girls will remember from this deeply different year we've lived together. What will they tell their friends about this experience -- so separate and so distinct from their tiny pasts and their vast futures? What smells will they remember? What tastes will they crave? What will become their Proustian madeliene and bring their France spilling back?

We parents are in the Memory Business, but we have no idea which ones will stick. We provide the stage for our children's experiences, we tell them their own stories, and then have to spend the rest of our lives living down our inevitable mistakes. But although we live in the same houses, share the same days with one another, our children's memories are only their own, vastly more unpredictable than the ones we stash away for ourselves.

To totally oversimplify their reactions, I can say that Grace has loved this year, and Abigail has resisted it every step of the way, even as its challenges and sensations have seeped in to become a part of her. (Now, when she plays with her American Girl dolls, she is likely to be speaking to them entirely in French, as long as she thinks we're not listening.)

When I asked them today at breakfast what they would remember from the year, that was pretty much how they called it. "This is the year I became amazing," Grace told me. "This is the year to which I will never return," countered Abigail. But I'm not so sure that those are the stories that will endure.

I say this because memory is tricky. For example, Grace and I totally hated Disneyworld when we went there a year and a half ago. There were meltdowns, and we both got totally overwhelmed by the crowds. Abigail, who thrived on all that (godawful) sensory stimulation, still slowly fell into a horrible mood over the course of our few days there. She greedily took it all in, but by the end of it, she was so down and numb that she wasn't even sure whether she was hungry or full.

But then, just a few months later, they were both maintaining, to our shock and surprise, that it was the best vacation of their lives. They narrate stories about the fireworks and the Flume Ride and even the expensive, nearly inedible chicken dinner at our hotel as though they had visited Valhalla itself, wearing mouse ears instead of Viking Helmets, little warriors armed with a deathless supply of Fast Passes.

Even as I am here, partly still living our adventure, partly packing it away in its boxes, and into this blog, I am also realizing that we are here, in large part, because of at least two generations of family memories. We dreamed up this trip in part to echo trips taken years and years ago, trips I can only remember through other people's stories.

As we drive up and down the A8, I think of my Dad, in a VW beetle, on his legendary post-college trip fifty years ago with three (yes, three!) girls. I think of Uncle Kim and Aunt Maria, Experimenters in International Living, who met fifty junes ago on a ship bound for Europe, and then told one another that if they were meant to be, they would meet on September 3 under the Arc de Triomphe. They later lived in France with their young children for two and a half years that became the stuff of family legend.

Bill's parents lived overseas as well, and he started telling me about his memories of his own family's overseas sabbatical almost as soon as we met. In fact, one of the reasons I fell so deeply in love with him was the way he loved to tell me stories about his happiest of childhoods. Back in college, we would lie together on the (filthy) futon in his dorm room and he would unspool his life for me, story by story. I heard all about Vermont, and his sister and his cousins. About his parents, his Grandma Mil, and Inky the dog. But a lot of the time I heard about his family's year in England when he was in the second grade.

You could say that our entire family was born out of those early hours of storytelling. When he told me those stories, I felt safe and warm and loved. I heard the echo of my own happy childhood. Those stories convinced me that Bill was a man with whom I could build a life.

Years later, when we decided to get married, I promised him that someday we would get a dog, and that we would take our kids to live overseas. It was a decade before we made good on those promises, but the dog we found looks a lot like Inky, and the trip we planned was built on the model of the stories he remembered. This is the kind of adventure I would never dream up all on my own; it has had Bill scrawled all over it from the start.

But now I'm the one who has written it down. And the girls are the ones who have lived it, and will decide -- either consciously or by chance -- what to make of it all.

Now at the end of this year of being so deeply enmeshed within this little family of mine, I realize our memories are interwoven. I have my own distinct universe of memory, for sure, but now so many of the memories that shape my life in the present are shared.

Some memories are all our own. We keep them deep inside, all to ourselves. They form the deepest core of who we are; each individual's web of memories is no more and no less than her soul.

But other memories travel along the lines of generations -- through parents to children, then on to the children who may become parents themselves. It's just that we can never truly predict the paths that those memories will take, as they snake themselves forward in time.


  1. So beautiful, what an amazing tribute to this wonderful thing you do. I have no doubt of the impact it will imprint on all of your lives, but I was particularly struck by this:

    "I won't hang on to everything, of course, because those who live too powerfully in memory can't truly live in the present."

    A lesson well learned.

  2. Launa, the lessons you and your family have learned this year have not been yours alone. I too have worried and wondered and drooled and shivered and been outraged and excited on your behalf and on behalf of your family. I have told others of your adventure and will continue to do the same in the days and weeks to come.

    The members of your family are not the only people who have grown and been changed somehow by your year abroad. Not even close.

  3. I'm quite certain that this will be a year that they will never forget...over time their intepretation of invents and their signifance may change, but I know that they will forever be grateful that you gave them this experience.

  4. What an amazing thing to have experienced, and an amazing memory for your family to share. It will be interesting to see how it's remembered in years to come for sure! You surely will all remember different things--or the same things differently--but it will be sort of like a collage of memories, giving you a beautiful picture of the whole event from all of your different perspectives.

  5. Memory is a very tricky, and sometimes unforgiving, thing indeed. Wonderfully shared.

  6. "This is the year I became amazing." Love it!
    What an amazing experience you've given your family. I'm sure they will treasure it forever.

  7. "If everything becomes a souvenir the moment we experience it, we merely curate our lives, rather than living them." The profundity of the statement resonates with me like a bell waking me from the end of a sleepy shavasna in yoga class.

    We must BE in our lives not just making memories...yet as you say, without the memories someone made, you may never have taken this trip.

    Ah, I love a good paradox to live by.

    What a wonderful find to see you here, and those poppies... simply stunning.

  8. Rebecca -- is that you? Bluesox Rebecca? If so, yes, what a great find!

    The poppies are incredible. The memories moreso (even the lousy ones, of which there have been plenty!)

  9. "I won't hang on to everything, of course, because those who live too powerfully in memory can't truly live in the present. If everything becomes a souvenir the moment we experience it, we merely curate our lives, rather than living them."

    Powerful paragraph. Powerful lesson. There is a quiet grace in how you tell it.

    Thank You.

  10. Thought-provoking post! Memory is fickle sometimes, changing with time, it's true. Not only do memories fade, but as we change, our perspective on past events change. Great point!

  11. I agree with Rudri - that is such a great paragraph and well-written all around.

  12. Gorgeous, flawless writing. A gem of an experience. How can you possibly remember it all. And to fight the urge to "curate"--I know that urge. I have written about memories a little bit, about how we don't know what our children will remember. I can't imagine, though, having such a MEMORY as this trip of yours. Every second, and wanting to preserve it, weighing on you somehow. How amazing and how challenging. You have said it all much more eloquently than I, and I enjoyed every word.

  13. Aw, shucks! Thanks you guys! It's so much fun having you all over for this great big blog party.

    Jen, you are right. There are days when I have told myself, "I should write this. I must write it. If I don't, I'll forget it."

    But as Sue Campbell's post today tells us, you have to be able to forget in order for your memories to matter. Check her out at

  14. I, too, love Grace's expression of what this year has meant to her. You really did choose the perfect year to take her away, I think--just in time.

  15. beautiful post... so glad I found you through Momalom. Looking forward to going back in time and revisiting your amazing adventure!

  16. So many amazing and profound lines here. The one that moved me most was simply: "What could possibly remind us just how sweet the air smells?"

    How do we? Because that's the struggle, right? How do we truly commit to paper and memory the essence of our truths?

  17. Like so many of the previous commenters, I felt the truth of this line in my gut: "If everything becomes a souvenir the moment we experience it, we merely curate our lives, rather than living them."

    As the parent of two young boys, I fight the urge to curate over and over: too many photos, too many notes scribbled in their journals, too many saved pieces of artwork. As much as I would rather that they have a life of Too Many rather than Not Enough, I'm still conscious of your warning about missing living life because I'm too busy recording it.

    Thank you for sharing this gorgeous piece, Launa.

  18. I love that, how we our memory of a place or time changes with time - such a great observation! Such a wistful post.

    I'm over here from momalom.

  19. This is so romantic, transporting and layered. If Dorthea Lange said that photography teaches us to see without a camera, perhaps traveling teaches us how to live without going anywhere.

    Here's to lives fully and richly lived, wherever they unfurl. Thanks for sharing these treasures with us.

  20. What a beautiful post, layered with so many beautiful reflections. Memory -keeping is such a tricky endeavor. Once made and kept, memories become such a powerful influence over our lives, and yet, I think the act of keeping memories and of bringing them out of the depths of our mind to the forefront, that has an influence over us, too - a different one, but equally strong and important.

  21. Sigh. Well said, and thank you for hitting the nail right on the head. Bon courage pour les valises, le voyage, le retour. See you for reunion, I hope? oxox d+m

  22. There is so much in this that I loved. I always wonder what memories my kids are forming, and am always surprised with what my oldest does and doesn't remember.

    We moved to Argentina from Canada when he was two and a half. He is now four, and his life is a before and after, with memories from Canada of snow, streetcars and daycare naps, but not wading pools, special friends or subways.

    As you suggest, it is the meanings that are constructed out of these memories over time that make us and our histories what they are. Like the image of your husband "unspooling" the memories of his childhood for you. So beautiful!

  23. It is a beautiful stage which you have set for your children to act out their lives. I am always amazed by the details of things which my children remember. Always so different from my own and I love that the sharing of those details expands my own memories the same way that my stories expand theirs.
    What a beautiful legacy your writing will become for your daughters!