learning to look back

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Where was I? I ask myself that question often, trying to remember if I was in Humboldt or in San Francisco or some other place along the coast or maybe Sacramento, attempting to recall why I missed something, a birthday party, a band, good surf, a fundraiser. Remembering is hard; I don’t look back often. Memories not cemented around an event – that time I was in New York for the Fourth of July, that time I gave birth – exist in this hazy soup of the past. The present has always demanded full attention, the future forever looming in a series of deadlines, obligations and anticipation.

I think my lack of nostalgia has shortchanged my children. In always charging forward, I’ve failed to reminiscence enough. The family photo albums haven’t been updated in this century. This hit home recently when a friend showed me her son’s photo albums. He’s 18, and she’s made one for each year of his life. Another friend has a wall that serves as an evolving collage of photos. To sit in her kitchen is to share the space with decades of family and love above you. How will my kids know to think back to the times we hiked around Patrick’s Point, spent the day at Luffenholtz, all the horseback riding lessons, the years of Little League?

Worse, what if, by failing to color our home with reminders of all the love and fun, they only remember the bad moments? The teenage years were rough and long and then they launched into the world. Even before that, life’s challenges regularly outsized my ability to handle them. We had very little money, which meant we had an enormous amount of stress. I’ve always had to work so much, always had more to do than time in which to do it. There were the dark years of living with my mother-in-law. But this, this talking about how hard it was – this is what I do too much of, Bobby says.

Because to shake my head, shrug and say, “Yeah, it’s been rough,” dismisses all the lovely, loving moments, gives too much power to the bad memories, reinforces the doubts I have that I have been a decent mother (doubts common to most of the mothers I know – we see only the ways in which we wish we were better, forgetting to reward ourselves for all the times we regularly rise to the occasion), causes my children to echo my negativity.

So I need to go through the photos, the stacks of developed ones in the drawers and the files of digital ones on the computer, make some sense out of the piles and put the happy moments on display. I need to laugh with the kids about “BOBtime,” 8:08 a.m., when Bobby would get super silly for a whole minute – “It’s BOBtime!” – before they’d go off to catch the bus to school. He made them giggle every day with that. I need to rekindle my ability to think backward. I don’t do it well. My family splintered apart when I was a teenager; I have few photos and no examples of parental reminiscing when it comes to my own childhood. And Facebook’s “On This Day” feature is as likely to result in me deleting old posts that now seem dumb as it is to invoke nostalgia. I am kind, but rarely sentimental.

With the constant traveling and breadth of knowledge my new job demands, I struggle to remember where I was, when I was, why I missed a friend’s party. Which is fine – I love that my work keeps me so on the go, immersed in learning and growing. But I don’t want a lifetime of family memories to fade in the wake. I bemoaned yesterday that I have no trips planned for this year. But now I do: To visit my own past. Treasures await.

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2 thoughts on “learning to look back”

  1. ❤ this. You express this shared sensibility perfectly. Thank you.
    My biggest issue with curating my family's past isn't lack of desire as much as lack of time. I can't compete with a scrapbook for every year of a child's life, and it's only worse for everyone if I feel like a failure because of this. We do what we can. Looking back serves moving forward. But the present moment is where stuff happens that fuels the future. So if I am force to pick — due to the limits of time or even mental energy — I choose now. A text or phone call affirmation, always remembering to say the "love" part, that's so meaningful.

  2. Bingo, Deidre.
    And I wish you well, Jennifer, on this year’s vacation. You’ve risen to so many occasions, I know you have wings. While you’re up there, though, I hope you can see more behind you. It should be quite amazing.

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