As his marriage breaks apart, Robert Duffer tries to capture his kids’ childhood.
As a parent I’ve used “making memories” so many times it’s become a punchline to a bad joke. When my buddy had to cancel his return flight home from Florida and drive back to Chicago because his infant had an ear infection and pink eye and his toddler, like any human, wanted out of an endless car ride, I said “making memories, huh buddy?”
I’ve said it when tantrums escalate into full out meltdowns, where meticulously-planned outings and expensive adventures are met with “can we go yet?”, when in fact it can and does get worse. Sarcasm only works because of all those beautiful moments that oppose it.
I’m having trouble conjuring those up right now.
This summer has not been about making memories. Working three jobs when four months ago I was a work-at-home dad, figuring out when I’ll see my kids in the midst of a divorce—this summer has been about figuring out the next day.
I don’t know how to talk about divorce so I just drop a line here or up there, a steel toe on the ice to see if it cracks. It’s so exhausting and all-consuming that I barely discuss it personally: The specter of doing it publicly haunts me. I doubt these paragraphs will survive the edit. Yet I’m so tired of talking about the particulars of it, of hiding it and succumbing to the guilt and shame of failing my family that I haven’t talked about what it actually means.
I think of this dad who had random people take a picture of he and his daughter every year for fifteen years at the same time at the same intersection with the same pose. He holds her, as a one year old and a fifteen year old. It was a great idea but all I could wonder was how much longer can he hold onto her?
It makes me think of the preserving force of ritual. The vitality of it.
The memories I have of my family childhood are a montage of rituals.
Apple picking in the fall at an orchard that no longer exists, picking bags so full I couldn’t carry them, then getting an apple cinnamon doughnut and a cup of cider in the country store.
Cheetos and hot chocolate every time I went ice skating with my mom.
Waiting in the foyer on Christmas Eve to take the guests’ coats to the bedroom.
The Sunday meal.
Arriving to church ten minutes late and leaving right after communion.
The list goes on; those are the random ones popping up right now.
I can’t discern if it was one crystalline moment or a stream of memories reflected back in one pool. What I do know is the power these memories hold in my personal mythology, the life story that is my foundation.
Ritual creates a stream of memories that smooth out the jagged rocks of divorce and illness and death; it connects the heights of the waterfall to the turbulence of the rapids, the inertia of the past forever pushing you onward.
The only memory source more powerful than the ritualistic is the traumatic. Why is the ecstatic so fleeting?
We try to hold on. We try to capture permanence. We take pictures that evoke the stories that connect the stream that is unique to one family. We are condemned and blessed to live with the fleeting nature of life: We make memories so the story continues. Experiencing your kid’s childhood is the most wonderful and terrible evocation of our mortality.
Since the kids’ birth we’ve kept a book, not a baby book, but a journal where we jot something down they said, something they did, some every day remarkable bit of awesomeness because, gracefully and gratefully, we’ve been gifted the power to forget.
I’ve had a keychain collection since college and now my daughter does: each of these talismans is a story.
But I can’t remember, nothing is rising up. The pool can’t be empty. Maybe it’s covered. Or maybe I’m so deep in it I can’t see anything else. I wrack my brain for the rituals we created because I need to know that the kids can hold on to the earliest chapter of their life; I need to know that when I’m dead they will still have a clear passageway to me. I’m wringing my heart to identify the same preserving force for myself.
To get through all the emotional bullshit and actually see the forest through the trees, or to stick with the metaphor, to see the stream through the forest, to see that whole long ribbon of water that traverses the temporal landscapes and connects generations even as I’m stuck in this one particular moment, a tidal pool of self-pity beating the shit out of me, I must force myself to remember.
The low-hanging fruit:
Christmases were erratic. With family all over the country and holiday travel plans influenced by fares more than dates, the kids sometimes had three or four Christmases over one month. If there were a ritual, it was their mother, who loves Christmas as much as the kids, making sticky buns for breakfast and copious lasagna for the rest of the week, a tradition carried on from her mom and her mom’s mom.
There must be more. Where is it? Can’t I emerge long enough from the tidal pool to see behind me?
The kids have been selling their artwork. My cubicle at work is covered with their comics, their battle scenes of robots and aliens and monsters, some really colorful cool stuff. The most impressive ones are not my favorite. My favorite one is a stick figure drawing of one taller stick holding twig arms with a smaller stick; the smaller stick has hair, the taller one does not. There’s a tree behind them. Above the tree it says “Dad and Me.”
It’s a picture of a memory from last year. On the walk home from dropping off my son, my daughter began catching leaves falling from the trees. At first I tried to hurry her to get back to work. Then I tried it. Then we were stuffing our shirts and bringing home a leaf pile that she would sort by color and size. She welcomed me into her world of wonder and it was magical to see the excitement and challenge evoked by a single leaf falling from a tree. We did it every day until the trees were bare. It became ritual. Her picture captures the ritual.
Walking them to school was a ritual. Walking home and hearing about their days, how freely they would talk, how the act of walking opened up their minds to reflect—this was a ritual and one that I absolutely cherish. They’ll be in 2nd grade and kindergarten; after 2.5 years of preschool, my daughter is more than ready. This year I won’t be dropping them off so we won’t have time to catch leaves. Until after school.
Rituals are made by regular application. They don’t exist until we create them. Here’s a ritual that wasn’t a ritual until this declaration: I’m taking off work to walk them to their first day of school. As a stay at home parent, this had been part of the everyday. Now it’s a privilege, a ritual, a rite.