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Making memories

Last Sunday, after spending most of the afternoon at Pike Place Market, we stopped at Marymoor Park on the way home. Pike Place Market is nifty for taller people, but not so exciting when you’re strapped into a stroller. Kiddo had been very patient though, and he deserved some fun time for himself.

The park was the emptiest I’ve ever seen it. The playground itself was deserted. Granted, it was a holiday weekend, it was close to dinner time, and there were ominous-looking rain clouds not far away. But none of that mattered to our boy. He was thrilled that he could play on all the slides and ride on the little rocking tractor to his heart’s content, without needing to take turns or watch out for bigger kids. He’d pause at the top of a slide and sign “More?” and we would tell him, of course you can slide some more! We let him lead, and just followed him from slide to rocker to bigger slide to swing, letting him choose what he wanted to do next.

When it was time to leave we borrowed a trick and pointed to the small berm surrounding the concert stage, about halfway between the playground and the parking lot.  “Look at that hill! Want to run up the hill?” I asked Kiddo, and of course he did.  Off he ran, glee bubbling out of him, with all the speed his little not-quite-two-year-old legs could produce.

As we followed, I asked my husband, “Do you remember anything from when you were two?”

“No,” he said.

“Neither do I,” I replied.

After some thought, he was able to remember a big event that happened shortly before his brother was born, which would have been a couple months before my husband’s second birthday. And I remember the house my family lived in, and meeting another child who turned out to be one of my longest friends. But neither of us could remember much beyond that of those early years. I’m certain that we had afternoons like this one, where there was so much joy in getting to do whatever he wanted, for a little while. We must have had those moments of awe, discovering the secrets of the world that would become everyday facts just a few years later. I’m sure we had many, many moments of delight in learning and repeating new words and phrases, or tasting fresh raspberries for the first time. But memories laid down at this age often don’t stick around into adulthood; it’s not until children develop the ability to put events in chronological order that long-term memories start forming, and most children don’t develop that ability until around age 3 or 4.

In a way, it makes sense. A toddler’s brain is still developing, soaking up all kinds of details and bits of trivia. Mom’s shoes go in the closet; Dad’s glasses go on his face. But the part of their brain that controls emotions (and emotional outbursts) is still very immature. Or to put it more simply: it’s hard being a toddler! Frustrations abound because you don’t understand why you can’t do something, because your limited language skills make it hard to explain what you want, or simply because you’re overwhelmed and stressed dealing with the influx of new data, and you don’t have the mental maturity to cope with it. Who would want to carry the memories of those chaotic times around for the rest of their life? Perhaps the delay in developing long-term memory is a blessing in disguise.

But as the memories of the difficult times fade, they take with them most of the memories of the joyful times too. I saw Kiddo beaming with delight that afternoon and got a lump in my throat thinking that he probably won’t remember these moments. Pictures and video capture the physical activities and the words that were spoken, but his feelings and emotions can only be reconstructed, not retained.

I didn’t take pictures on Sunday afternoon. I wanted to take in the full experience of the fun we were having, of him playing and us watching him play. The little boy grown big may not remember this one afternoon out of so many others–but his father and I will.