The Making Of Memories

Sheree Gleeson reflects on her desire for her children to have the idle hours that are so often at the heart of our most meaningful moments

The nature of screens screen them

Are my children making memories that count? That’s something I agonise over as I watch them staring with transfixed, lifeless eyes at the screens I’ve gradually and reluctantly allowed to eat away at the hours of their lives – the television screens, cinema screens, computer screens, PlayStation screens, Nintendo screens…

Does the time-trapping nature of screens screen them, literally, from the rivulets of time I found myself with as a child, robbing them of the space for delicious snippets of experience that have the potential to resonate throughout their lives, making them smile decades later as they stand in a supermarket queue, say, or reach for the laundry powder and stop for a moment, remembering.

I wonder if their Christmas holidays seem to stretch for years like mine did

I wonder if their Christmas holidays seem to stretch for years like mine did, meandering through swims in the creek with penny turtles floating past, and lazy afternoons under the jacaranda tree eating lemonade icy poles from deep in Nan and Pop’s tuckerbox freezer. I can’t tell, in my adult existence where time is compressed and flies away like a darting finch, if my children experience the perfect stillness that those languid, empty days gave me, and even if I could find the words to ask them, I don’t think they’d be able to answer.

The inability of words to capture the inexplicable was clear last week when Liam, my 13 year old, needed me to answer a question for an end-of-term school paper. “Ask a member of your family who is from a different generation to share a favourite childhood memory…” Ruefully, I thought of a quote I love that explains my inability to encapsulate everything from the way I felt when my babies were put into my arms, to the wonder of gazing, transfixed, at a procession of dust motes dancing along a line of light:

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” (Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.)

The times I remember are easy to describe – a sun-drenched holiday at the Gold Coast, a camping trip with my cousins, the day my netball team won the grand final – but those events have all lost the power to reverberate in my soul. The experiences that have shaped me – the sensory way that I experience the world, the intangible links I make, the feelings I have – are far less easy to describe; insubstantial enough, in fact, to seem ridiculous.

The earthy, washed-clean smell of the early hours of the morning, for example, takes me back to a four-day children’s camp my parents sent me to when I was seven. Grief, loss and homesickness combined to form a wall of sadness around me that softened my heart and made me aware, by some strange process I can barely recapture, of the intense, brooding beauty of the world, the people in it, and of feelings beyond the primitive, egocentricones I’d experienced up until that point. At seven, I was galaxies away from being able to articulate or even understand the awakening of my consciousness, but I left my cabin and looked at the stars at night with a clarity of observation I’d never felt before. I cried, and ached for my mother, and sang ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ to myself in a soft, wavering little voice (oh, the pathos!) and amid it all, from a blithe, sunny childhood world of self-absorption and instant gratification, I moved into an awareness of the human ability to long and love and yearn that was painful and beautiful and life-changing.

‘Where is the magic in their lives?’

I told Liam about the practicalities of my childhood, but was at a loss to describe the subtext, where I really lived. I wondered if he and his brothers and sisters were living similar internal lives, having powerful, difficult, enriching struggles and experiences that wouldn’t make sense to them for years to come, when life would add context and perspective; or if, in this different, fasterpaced world, the diminished time for contemplation meant that what I was seeing was basically as deep as it got for them.

That night, I searched the faces of my children, trying to guess ‘what lay beneath’ in the layers deeper than those traversed even by children who are open enough to ‘tell their parents everything’. My parents, I’m sure, had no idea of the rich, textured memories being captured and stored away as I went about my life. If I asked them today, I have no doubt they’d point to the flashy occasions as those that would be remembered years later, not the subtle, gossamer moments: a warm bread smell that melted away before I’d even fully registered it; a purple, sunlit hill I glimpsed for a second before we turned left at an intersection on the way to Grandma’s house; the shimmering, magical sensation I had when I was curled up on the lounge watching a midday movie as Pollyanna held up a crystal and made rainbows dance on the wall. Looking back, it’s clear it was the ‘empty’ times when memories were made, not the full ones.

Despite this, my fear that life-enriching moments are not being laid down for my children, that a vacuum will exist, despite all the activity they are immersed in, has me scuttling about trying to structure opportunities for special times to blossom. ‘Where is the magic in their lives?’ I fret, seeing, from the outside, the utilitarianism of all their frantic activity. I want them to feel the way I did when Nan’s soft, filmy curtains fluttered over the tip of my nose as I snuggled down in her lavender-scented lounge chair. I want them to hear crickets outside, chorusing long into the hot, sweaty summer nights when my sister and I couldn’t sleep and took turns lobbing ice chips at each other across the bedroom we shared.

“Why are they called crickets, do you think?”

“Why are they called crickets, do you think?” Melinda asked, and we fell deeply and easily into an alternative world where cicadas had zinc-smeared noses, dressed in cricket whites and carried tiny, bug-sized cricket bats.

The tapestry of  childhood

Those are the robust, tender memories of my childhood, and none of them was created, manufactured, or even enabled by an adult, yet my desire to ‘set the scene’ remains strong. Last night, I kissed my eight-year-old daughter, Rachel, goodnight and reached up to close her bedroom window. As I did, a wisp of nostalgia formed tendrils around my heart. I stopped, waiting for a memory to catch up with it, and realised that the warm, companionable drone of our neighbours sitting on their back porch waiting for the heat to break had married with a distant childhood night and evoked a cosiness that was comforting beyond anything I could have consciously induced.

“Rach, are you awake, sweetheart?” I whispered. Rachel mumbled something back and I straightened, leaving the window open. Maybe Mr and Mrs Wilson’s filtered comments and soft, easy laughter would float into her bedroom and into her precious ears, creating a feeling, a memory, a temporary world, that would be with her, still, in 30 years’ time as she was tucking her own daughter into bed.

“Thanks, Mum,” she whispered, turning a sleepy face towards the timber-framed rectangle of black sky and stars. “Daddy leaves my window open sometimes too, and I wait for the breeze to blow in…” I bit my bottom lip, hearing symphonies in my head, and knew that for Rachel, breezes breaking sweltering summer nights would forever be a part of the tapestry of her childhood.

Even more, I knew that despite the different place and pace of my children’s world, deep down in their developing psyches, in that place where experiences accumulate with all the contradiction, pain and beauty that being human entails, they are capturing their own ethereal moments, their own soft, filmy curtains.