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.