At least once a month my daughter asks me to tell her a story from when she was a toddler. I rotate between three stories that my memory has kept as the funniest and most vivid.
There’s the one where she locked herself in the bathroom and cut off all the hair on the top of her head; the one where she ran practically naked up the street to the corner when she heard her brother’s school bus; and the one where she changed in and out of princess frocks a dozen times in one day.
I have photos of none of this, but she has her own mental snapshots, moments she’s constructed from my stories, which add color and texture with each telling. Her earliest memories don’t go back that far, and so she has knitted my recollections into the fabric of an early childhood. She concludes, only partially correctly, that she was headstrong, lively, and a bit of a pill.
I’m thinking of this because of a message I received on Facebook this week. A woman, whose name I didn’t recognize, reached out to say hello. Cindy wrote that she had been our babysitter when my sisters and I were very young. That I don’t remember her maiden name suggests all those days have been plowed under with time.
“Your dad was my music teacher and I lived on Johnson Street,” she wrote.
That still didn’t ring a bell, but her reaching out was a small gift; it was a chance to get a new picture of part of my life too early to remember. Maybe Cindy would have a memory of three little girls that is unencumbered by familial love. My grandmother always told us we were “well behaved” and “good” little children. I wondered what a teenager hired to wrangle the three of us would have to say about that.
“Were we bad?” I typed into the message space.
“Yep!” Cindy wrote back, “But so sweet.”
Now, no member of my family had ever used that word, “bad.” Nor “sweet,” for that matter. But there it was. How could three girls so close in age and different in personality not be bad in the way that any such trio would be bad – or at least a handful?
What a gift it would have been had Cindy offered some stories – anecdotes from the time before my own memory started working. My earliest memories are of my mother playing records of symphony music, and my diving under the sofa cushions when the loud parts came on. I was probably 4. My son says he can remember moments from when he was 3, or even 2 – little snippets from afternoons on our front porch. My daughter says most of what she knows from being a toddler at home came from my telling. Someday she may get a more objective version from a babysitter.
Cindy didn’t offer specific stories, but she remembered.
“You were normal little girls testing your boundaries,” she said. Something about that felt harsh. For all this time, parents and grandparents had told us only the “good girl” version of my very early childhood. You mean I pushed back at authority?
Somehow that assessment doesn’t match up with what I’ve always believed. I don’t remember testing any boundaries. But then again, I don’t remember anything at all.
“Tell me the one about cutting off my hair,” my daughter will ask, often.
“You had a bald spot on the top,” I said. “We had to give you a very short ‘boy’ cut to even it out.”
She’ll say she remembers that part, but is it her own memory or my version? I don’t think it matters.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at email@example.com.