“Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.” — Virginia Woolf
Is that why so many people write memoirs—to hang on to the illusions of childhood? Oh so wonderful, lost childhood! Despite my father’s death when I was 3, I think my childhood was just about perfect. And I fiercely hold on to memories that delight me, make me feel loved and secure. But now and again that time in my life must rise inside me or tug me backwards or make things fly out of my mouth. Like when I remind people that I did not have a father. Why do I do that? Am I still in some pain? So I am asking you—do we ever really leave the nest?
Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer struggle with this question. A female character must be revealing his experience when she says: When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder. Everything moved me… A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did… I spent my life learning to feel less. Every day I felt less. Is that growing old? Or is it something worse? You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.
These are eternal questions that we all ask, though every person’s childhood is unique to them—some having incredible struggles, some having very few.
If my little world became confusing and distorted because one day my father was there, and then the next he was not—I blocked it out. I have little to no memory of him. Oddly, what I do remember was clinging to the world of my house—the nest.
At three, I started straightening throw rugs. Before I hit ten, I had insulted the cleaning woman by telling her that after dusting, she didn’t put stuff back right. The paperwork my mother did to support us drove me crazy, as it often littered our dining room. In college, I even cleaned up after my roommate. And whenever possible to this day the first thing I do on arising is make the bed I’ve slept in, even in hotels. And over the years I have gotten in trouble with various family members by tidying up and putting away something that then becomes undiscoverable.
All of this is part of the 3-year-old child that still lives inside me—a shy person who got over her shyness and became a teacher and a nurse, a person who loves to travel, but also really likes being home. A person who still wants order in her world and who firmly believes in monitoring and gradually exposing children to the harsh aspects of living.
J.D. Salinger thinks the same way. Here is Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye—I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘fuck you’ on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them— all cockeyed naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.
Holden has a real concern. Some children are exposed to awful things at a very young age—right in their home environment. Do they remember? Do those events contribute to the development of the child later on? Did my father’s death make me crave order? Did I block it out because it was so horrible or because I was only 3 and I had childhood amnesia?
The latter is explained in a few ways: Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed childhood amnesia was a response to sexual repression, but another theory points to our lack of language skills before the age of three. It may be that our memories need to be stored conceptually and associated with the kinds of words and meanings that we don’t really get to grips with until we’re about three-years-old. Perhaps all of your childhood memories are still intact but in a form you can’t access anymore. Yet another view is that young childrens’ brains simply don’t have the tools to store memory properly. Babies are born with billions of brain cells but relatively few connections between them and so the areas of the brain responsible for processing memories are immature. In our brains, connections are everything and brain imaging studies on babies and toddlers suggest that between 8-24 months is when their brains are most active at growing more connections.
Okay, so there is no definitive answer, but in my case, and maybe in yours, things that occurred in my childhood have definitely formed me. And I feel that most of them are positive. Gary Zukav, author of The Seat of the Soul, would probably tell me that I am not “in pain” when I bring up my father. He would say that certainly there are dynamics and experiences in my life that will make me remember the loss, but that I have the power to control my response, to not feel hurt or pain when thinking of my loss. He is saying it is my choice.
Zukav writes: This is good news. Each time the dynamic is activated, for example, anger, abandonment, humiliation, you will have another opportunity to look inside. You will again feel the magnetic attraction of fear, the powerful pull of judgment, the need to prove that another person is causing your pain. But you can choose to experience the interior source of your pain—instead of blaming it on others. (Or as in my case blaming it on a circumstance beyond my control).
So I believe we finally do leave the nest and grow up, but I think we bring a lot of its remnants with us. If we are fortunate to have experienced good parenting, the remnants we bring can help us deal with the twists and turns of living. But sometimes not. Then we might block the memories or as Zukav warns, we might do more damage to ourselves by allowing them to hurt us again and again throughout our lives. “Only you can do damage to yourself,” he writes. Do you agree? It certainly means coming to grips with the past that has a way of entwining itself with the present. Better to not be angry and want to kill someone like Holden Caulfield. Better to accept the bad stuff and focus really really hard on the good. Please share your thoughts.
P.S. Since publishing this post I found another great article by Kristin Ohlson who also did her research on childhood amnesia. Studies were done with young children to verify the belief that most of what happens to us between the ages of 1 and 3 is lost. Read the piece here.
I walked over to the hill where we used to go and sled. There were a lot of little kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps and having races. And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t. — Stephen Chbosky
Thanks to Thought Catalogue Thanks to Google Images
And to end on a humorous note: maybe this is why I loved Snow White as a kid. She really knew how to clean up a mess!!!!