When my children were babies, I started putting pictures of their lives into photo albums to help them remember their families who lived far away and who they didn’t see every day, but also to help them recognize faces of the friends they were making, even in their baby worlds.
Over the years, the kids have taken ownership of choosing which pictures to print out. They chose which memories were important to cherish, which moments and which people they wanted to have captured in their albums. Sometimes I would guide them a little but, for the most part, they chose. Later, they would flip through them, re-living and memorizing experiences.
And then the activity started to fade. They stopped printing out photos. They seemed to need it less…or so they thought.
Now each child is several years behind in their photo albums.
I have noticed my son, who has an excellent memory, has started to lose some of his baby memories as he has gotten older. It is clear that he has, over the years, been increasingly concerned when he forgets things from his past. Sometimes when the memories have evaporated, he argues with me that certain things never happened.
At camp this summer, my son encountered a “babyhood friend” who he used to see every day. We have dozens of photos of the two of them together. They looked so much alike at the time that people thought they were brother and sister. But the two of them are now nearly 8 and don’t remember each other at all. I showed my son pictures of the two of them from his albums. He remembered the other girl in the nanny share who had moved to California, but not this girl.
My son has now decided to work on updating his photo album again. We spent an afternoon going through photos on my computer and printed out over 100 new photos covering seven months, starting just after his 5th birthday. And, as he sees some of the photos, we discuss the events that we’re looking at. “Oh! That was when I made the city at school!” or, “Oh! That was when I made a puppet for Passover!” He also asked questions. “Where is this pond in the Botanic Gardens? I don’t remember it.” He told me there were some pictures he was choosing not to print out because he wasn’t in them. I took the opportunity to remind him that he wasn’t in them because he hadn’t wanted to be; perhaps he will think about it twice before he refuses next time.
The reality, of course, is that, as we get older, we have a higher likelihood of remembering the things that we continue to see images of and a lower likelihood of retaining those that we don’t. We are lucky that we live in a technological age where we can take hundreds or thousands of pictures and reproduce them easily. I can remember details about the first weeks of my children’s lives that might otherwise have been lost in the haze of early motherhood and I can share those details with them.
Both of my children actually have excellent memories. My son memorizes baseball statistics and can remember the score of a game we went to years ago. My 5-year-old daughter recently recalled an experience she had visiting the Ben Franklin Institute over two years ago. It was all shockingly accurate except for who was with her. But I have noticed that she is now starting to lose some of her baby memories, too.
If memories really make us who we are, do the photos albums help? They seem to, at least, for short periods of time. And what happens when we forget? When we lose the memory of that special friend we used to see every day? Do we lose the impact they had on us? Social media helps adults reignite some of those memories: that person we went to middle school with or that one we met at camp. And our memories get triggered: Oh, yes, she was the one who helped me get dressed for the dance. Oh, right, I forgot that we went on a date once. Just once. But with children who aren’t on social media, photo albums are like a memory patch.
As camp has progressed, my son and his babyhood friend seem to be re-connecting. She also was shown photos from the past. I can tell that my son is trying to hold onto his past, trying to recreate a friendship that clearly was important to him, even though he doesn’t remember it. Fortunately, it seems that the same things that brought them together in the first place seem to be at work again.
But I do wonder if he’s trying harder because he knows there is something to remember, because he has evidence of afternoons in the pool and lunches at the diner. And because he believes there is someone worth re-connecting to.