There are times when life is simply too hectic and overwhelming to notice anything that goes on around you; then there are those sunny lazy autumn days, when sensory memory takes over, distant moments flashing through your mind….
“You know, I don’t remember much from back when I was her age… strange…”
The woman in front of me was going on and on about her 14 year old daughter and how she hoped the girl’s adolescence wouldn’t be too wild or troubled.
“Really? I remember everything like it was yesterday,” the words escaped my lips before I knew it.
I didn’t really want to share much, she was such a gossip. Some things become stereotypes for a reason, and she was indeed the prototype of the chatty beauty salon employee, who knows all the spicy details about all her clients and will keep nothing to herself. But as she was regaling me with some of her sister’s childhood exploits (she’s been the good daughter and her sis, the wild one) and her glance seemed lost somewhere in the past, I had trouble believing she didn’t remember; it seemed more like a choice.
I look in the grass for conkers, just like back then. September used to mean a new school year… and conkers. My school was on a street lined with old horse chestnut trees (or conker trees) and I remember that pavement covered with conkers every autumn. Even the older kids couldn’t help picking up a few and stuffing them in their pockets, only to completely forget they had them. The youngest of us collected as many as we could, much to our parents’ despair, and there was always a shrivelled mouldy conker or two to be found in the oddest of places in our homes, months later.
My mind was elsewhere as I was waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Most of the trees showed no sign that autumn was here, but the leaves of the horse chestnut trees lining the road ahead were starting to turn brown. Suddenly all I wanted was to go to the park, pick some conkers, put them in my pocket and not think of anything else. I didn’t, not right then at least. But a few days later I’m walking on dead leaves in my high heels and I’m looking for conkers in the dry wiry grass. I’m a bit late, I realize, most of the conkers are gone. Nevertheless I still enjoy the walk, I take a few photos and I manage to empty my mind. Then I come back home with two freshly shelled conkers in my “grownup” bag, refreshed by the memory of childish giddiness. I think I’ll keep them for a while… the conkers and the memories.
One of my greatest fears as a child was forgetting and becoming like “them”. Most of the time, I felt “they” didn’t understand me (I know, unbelievable, right?) and, filled with frustration, I kept trying to figure out why. One thing all adults seemed to have in common was that strange ability to forget… to forget what it used to feel like, how important certain aspects could be. I was terrified it might happen to me too. After all, I knew for a fact that my mother used to go through similar experiences with her mother, yet there was no understanding to be found when it came to my issues or mistakes. So why would I be exempt? Every generation appeared to believe they held the universal truth and the only acceptable values. Those who came after them had no idea what they were doing and the proverbial generation gap was becoming almost palpable as I was getting older.
So it was also fear that pushed me to start journaling as a child. I would grow up, that was unavoidable; but I wouldn’t forget, that was something I could control. My plan was to write everything down, all those emotions and thoughts, every relevant experience and all the painful moments, so when I grew up, I would remember. I would remember and I wouldn’t make the same mistakes; I wouldn’t hurt anybody the same way I was hurt, thinking “They’re just a child, they’ll get over it.” I would remember to listen and accept that I’m not the only one who’s right; other people’s truth is also valid and valuable, even if they’re different or merely younger. I would remember and wouldn’t instantly crucify people for what might appear to me as wild behaviour; instead I would try to understand, and if I couldn’t, I would just live and let live.
I wasn’t the only one going through that. We used to talk about it, the children that we were, and we used to promise to be understanding parents, nicer aunts and uncles, better adults altogether. These days however, when I talk to many of those my age (no matter if they have children of their own or not), I can’t help sadly wondering, “When have we become ‘them’?”… Decades later, I still have those old journals and I’m happy I made an effort to keep them. I made an effort to hold on to those memories, and that’s also proving useful, even if in different ways than I would have expected.
Earlier this year, when sorting some old photos and books, I came across a tattered notebook from middle school. We all used to have those memory notebooks, where our friends and classmates answered different questions and in the end they were supposed to leave us some sort of memento. I flipped through pages of favourite bands and actors, of “What is love?” and “What is jealousy?”, of first kisses and first boyfriends/girlfriends, secret crushes and revealed secrets, of cheesy drawings and poems. They all revolved around a need to be remembered and the promise to remember each other and our crazy antics. We had our differences, we weren’t all great friends, but when it came to usurping authority or generally getting into trouble, we were thick as thieves. I smiled. What really struck me, though, were the words of a boy who was my classmate for eight years:
“Many years from now, when you find this notebook among dusty old books, you’re going to remember some crazy kids from 7th grade, on whose school days you left a mark. You’ll smile and think of your childhood and its joys, and the girl who used to scare all the boys with her long nails. I don’t think a poem, a drawing or best wishes are that important; what matters is your heart.”
He probably had no idea how right he was…
Unfortunately, profound thinking was not expected from us at that age; and if anything like that transpired from our behaviour, it was considered a mistake or shallow imitation of something we might have seen on TV or read about in books. After all, depth of thought was the appanage of our parents’ generation.
So once in a while I’ll collect some conkers. I’ll choose to remember, because that’s my way of trying to avoid past mistakes, mine or others’. I’ll dive into a memory, pleasant or otherwise, because I often resurface with a new perspective, or at least refreshed. I will remember, if not for others, at least out of respect for the child I used to be, the child who is still a part of me.