When walking home on our quiet streets, everything merits further study. Every blade of grass is worth picking, every plant identified, every post-rain mushroom examined.
The child’s dialogue goes like this: ‘That’s a fire hydrant. That’s agave. That’s a crescent moon. That’s dog poop. That’s a mail truck. That’s a mailman. That’s a U-Haul. That’s a big truck. What’s that sound? That’s a fire engine. That’s a car. That’s a car coming this way. That’s a doggie. The dog says woof. That’s a bird. That’s a fountain. That’s a driveway. Where did mommy go? What’s that over there?’
The parent’s dialogue goes like this: ’Stay on the sidewalk, that’s dog poop, or is it a pine cone? No, it is a mushroom, but don’t touch it, and don’t eat it. Those look like blueberries, you can touch them, but don’t eat them, they are probably poisonous. What’s poisonous? It means don’t eat it. Yes, we sometimes eat mushrooms, but they are the right kind. Stay on the sidewalk. Hold my hand when we cross the street. That’s an alley, you have to hold my hand. If you wipe your hand along that dirty car, you hand will get greasy. Okay, I will wash it when we get home. Stay on the sidewalk. Stay close to me. Your hand is dirty, but we will clean it off when we get home. Mommy is waiting for us when we get home. Don’t walk in the neighbor’s plants. Stay on the sidewalk.’
For a child, I suppose, there is great comfort in hearing one’s father say ‘stay on the sidewalk.’ Why else would he make me repeat it often? Surely a child’s memory is not short. I know precisely the opposite to be the case: Like his vision and hearing, his memory is sharp and flawless. Tell him what kind of plant is an agave, and he always remembers. Point out a crescent moon, and he remembers. Tell him that is a telephone line repair truck, and he remembers. Skip a page In a book accidently, and he makes you go back. Tell him mommy is waiting for us when we get home, and he asks, ‘Where did mommy go?’ six or eight times during a 40-minute walk.
The puzzle is solved with this, I think: With a two-and-a-half year old, fact-memory is strong. He is amassing facts every moment, focusing on a mastery of things. He is building a catalogue to describe the outward workings of the world.
When it comes to emotional memory, however, the opposite is true. Emotional memory is slippery. It is porous. The answer to ‘Where did mommy go?’ always changes. It therefore merits endless asking. A mail truck is a mail truck. There is a fact to be absorbed and there is nothing to be worried about. Where mommy is merits further study, is worth worrying about, is worth refreshing your knowledge about, is worth hitting reset on until you see mommy and verify that she is indeed waiting for us at home.