Out driving with my teenage son, we pass a coffee shop in a familiar neighborhood. For some reason, on this day the sight of the coffee shop releases a flood of memories. When he was younger, he and I would come here every week for a hot chocolate after dropping his sister off at her music lesson. While waiting for her lesson to finish, I would read aloud to him. We read at least two books there in that coffee shop in weekly installments. How many chapters! How many cups of hot chocolate!
“Do you remember that coffee shop?” I ask him now. In his gruff, new man-voice he grunts “no.”
It happened to each of my children. As they neared adolescence, they seemed to take pains to distance themselves from their childhood, disavowing beloved toys, books, or interests. It was as if they needed to create a chasm between their more grown-up self and their sweet child self. Like Cortez, they needed to burn the boats in the harbor so that there could be no return to childhood’s magic shores. In Greek mythology, Lethe was the river of forgetfulness that flowed through Hades. The shades of the dead were required to drink from its waters to forget their earthly life. In passing through the veil of adolescence, it was as if my children had drunk from a similar river, consigning many of childhood’s details to necessary oblivion.
Do you remember the time we measured out a Viking warship with a piece of string in the backyard? Do you remember what grandma was like before she got sick? Do you remember how we used to make popovers together? Do you remember listening to Junie B. Jones on all of our car rides? Do you remember how excited you were the first time you saw the whale at the American Museum of Natural History? These and thousands of other tiny details that made up the fabric of our lives together for years did not make it across the threshold to adolescence. All of them gone – victims of Lethe’s void.
For the past decade or so, my father has been caring for my mother who has been suffering from dementia. Of all the many heart-breaking things my father has had to endure, losing his shared history with my mother has been one of the most poignant. For most of their lives together, they had shared memories – the burger place they used to go to while dating; their first house together; their moves across the country. Friends, challenges, career ups and downs, two decades of raising children – all of these they shared. What a quietly powerful thing it must be to rest in the company of another who has shared so much with you! As my mother’s memory began to slip away, my father was the only one left with these memories. They no longer had any silent, shared resonance.
Now I find myself in something of an analogous position with my children and their dissipating recollections of the time we spent together – time that I will cherish as some of the sweetest hours of my life. I am the sole guardian of these memories now. My children will go off into adulthood shedding these memories like so many outgrown outfits.
And yet, I know that all that time spent with my children didn’t just vanish. The attention I gave them has hopefully left behind a valuable legacy – a solid relational foundation with which to meet adulthood. Psychoanalytic theorists speak of the way that children “introject” their primary attachment figures. This term refers to the way that children internalize parental attitudes and behaviors so that they build up an internal sense of “mother” or “father” that can be a resource to them in the future.
The Grimm’s version of the famous story of “Cinderella” gives us a beautiful image of how such a parental internalization can operate. In this less well-known version, Cinderella does not have a fairy godmother. Instead, she seeks solace at her mother’s grave. She plants a hazel twig at the burial site and waters it with her tears. It grew and became a beautiful tree. When Cinderella would visit the tree to weep and pray, a white bird would alight in its branches, and bring her whatever she wished.
CG Jung taught us that we all come into the world with the possibility of having contact with a universal source of nurture and support through the archetype of the positive mother. The quality of our experience with our personal mother will in part determine how easily we can helpfully access the archetypal Great Mother. The image of the tree is a universal symbol often connected with the mother and frequently associated with the goddess. The tree’s slender trunk grows heavenward, and her branches nurture all sorts of life. This poignant image from the tale shows us that Cinderella has internalized enough of her own mother to be able to access the loving, nurturing energy of the archetypal good mother even in the midst of strife.
Hopefully, my children will have also internalized my love and attention to them. The walks in the woods, the homemade pancakes, the board games, and car ride talks, the snuggles on the couch – all of these will have been metabolized as nourishment and care, to be called on at a future date when I either can’t or shouldn’t be physically present. My children may not consciously remember the things we did, but with any luck, those times have become part of them. In this way, my love for them is inside them now and will remain there as long as they live. The memories may be gone, but the love I showed them isn’t. As the poet Phillip Larkin writes, “what will survive of us is love.”