Letter from the sukkah
How to Build a Time Machine

What we remember


My maternal grandmother; her two daughters; three of their daughters, including me.

Sometimes I wonder: what stories will our son tell about his growing-up, in years to come? How will he remember his childhood? What memories will he seize onto and hold fast amid the swirl of all the other memories which wash away? Sometimes I can't believe that he won't remember much of these early years. How can it be that he won't remember last night's potluck dinner in the synagogue sukkah, sitting at the kids' table, singing along with the Shabbat blessings, and then whooping and laughing while playing tag with the other kids in the deepening dark outside the sukkah which gleamed with strings of little lights?

And yet I don't remember much about being five, much less the years which came before it. My fifth birthday party was a dress-up party at a fancy restaurant called the University Club, at the top of one of the few tall buildings near our neighborhood. I remember dressing up in one of Mom's blue dresses -- made of crinkled chiffon, I think, or something like it -- and wearing a big strand of her pearls and a floppy sun hat. I remember that she asked if I wanted to pierce my ears to surprise my father, but I wasn't ready to do that, so we got me clip-ons instead. I remember the scratchy gold ribbon which held the high heeled shoes on my feet. Do I remember this because there is a Polaroid picture of it and I've had that photograph to remind me in the interim? Am I remembering a memory of a memory?

I must have been attending the Judson Montessori school then, in the old church building just around the corner from the Pontiac dealership. I remember painting at an easel, doing math with sticks which represented tens and hundreds, looking at a timeline made out of felt which depicted the earth's history. (Most of it was black, denoting the time when the earth formed and cooled. Then there was green for the time when plants arose, and yellow for the dinosaurs, and human history was represented by a tiny nubbin of red felt at one end.) I remember eating meals there while listening to Ravel's "Bolero." I remember coming home and throwing tea parties with my miniature set of rose-printed china, filling the tea cups with Bosco-flavored chocolate milk.

A basically happy childhood blurs together in memory. We remember the unusual moments against the backrop of undifferentiated normalcy. (Take the winter of 1985: I remember the "San Antonio blizzard of '85" which dropped thirteen inches of snow on my hometown, and I remember my middle brother's wedding the week of that blizzard, but the rest of the season is lost to me now.) As we age, it seems, our more recent memories are stacked on top of the pile and the oldest memories compress like flakes of soft snow packed over centuries into glacial ice. What would it take to find those memories again?

Tastes can open up memory. There was a day recently when I had salami and eggs for breakfast and was bowled-over by two distinct sense-memories: one of eating my mother's salami and eggs in the breakfast room of my childhood home, the other of eating my grandfather's salami and eggs at their round breakfast table. (My grandfather cut the salami differently, and cooked the eggs harder.) Music can open up memory. I heard a snatch of George Winston's "Autumn" the other day and it transported me. I had forgotten how much my mother loved that tape (because I'm pretty sure it was a tape, back when we used to play it), and how often those notes used to roll through our living room.

There are a handful of memories which rise up for me repeatedly. It's as though I left a path open to these rooms of memory, and because I've traveled that path so many times, the path remains easy to find. One is a memory of going with my mother to the Olmos Beauty Salon which was a few blocks away from our house. She would get her hair done and I would play with the rainbow-colored foam curlers, from the biggest ones (red) to the smallest ones (purple), making them into chains or dragons. I think of our visits to Olmos Beauty Salon every single time I go for a haircut. As I tip my head back into the shampoo sink, I remember watching my mother do the same.

Another is a memory of the particular marble tile in her dressing area where I used to crouch to watch her put on makeup. As a child I could perch for hours in a kind of tailor's squat. (Adults used to marvel at that, and I used to think: what do you mean, this isn't comfortable for you?) I can still hear the particular rattle of her makeup drawers pulling open, can still smell the spritz of Bal รก Versailles perfume. And while she put on makeup or did her hair we would talk about things. There was nothing unusual about hanging out and watching Mom put on makeup. Maybe the memory has stayed with me because I did it so often. But why that memory, and not the memories of a hundred other things we did routinely?

I can remember the wallpapered ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the slight dip in the bed from where Mom sat beside me. I can still recite the litany of family names I used to ask God to bless every night -- even though some of those names belong to family members who are now long gone. I do this with my son now, exactly the way Mom used to do with me, and I sing the shema using the same melody she used with me. And as I tuck him in, I sing "I Love You (A Bushel and a Peck)," which I have taught to him as my mother taught it to me. Surely he will remember that... though he'll remember the aggregate of a thousand bedtimes, not any particular night.

The photograph at the top of this post was recently unearthed. Looking at it, I get glimpses. I remember each of us looking like that, though the children in the photo are grown women and the matriarch in the photo is long gone. I remember childhood trips to New Ulm to see my Minnesota cousins. The photo paper has faint red lettering on the back which reads "Fox Photo / This paper manufactured by Kodak. Oct 81." But we didn't write anything else on the photograph, and if it once inhabited an album, that album is long gone. Who knows anything else about the moment when this photo was taken? What had we just been doing? What was for dinner that day? The details have faded away.

I'm grateful for the gift of a childhood in which the only events which stand out are the happy ones -- recurring ones like Rosh Hashanah lunch at my grandparents' house or Chanukah decorations in our dining room, individual ones like my sister's wedding in the front yard of my childhood home. This is one of the great mysteries of parenthood, I think: that a million individual acts of kindness and caring dissolve into the smudged backdrop of remembered childhood. My parents may remember details of pacing with me when I had croup, or shopping with me for school supplies year after year, but those memories are lost to me. In Jewish tradition we speak of caring for the dead as the mitzvah which can't be repaid, but there's a way in which caring for a young child is that kind of mitzvah, too. It can only be paid forward.