What do you remember from your childhood?

I finally got round last night to reading Saturday’s Guardian magazine. One of my favourite columns is Oliver Burkeman’s ‘This column will change your life’, as it invariable gets me thinking about the way I live and work.

This week he was talking about memories, and the tendency to remember only certain aspects of events, namely how they felt at their emotional peak, and how they felt at the end. So, if you’re remembering a week-long holiday, your memory of it will very likely be a product of one single very happy/stressful moment, and how you felt as you were leaving. The implication of this is that it is better to focus on short moments of intense fun than to holiday for as long as possible, and that half an hour of quality time with the kids counts much more than being around them all day, every day. Phew.

It got me thinking about the memories we create for our children, and the highs and lows I remember from my own childhood. I’ve always thought of myself as a person with a fairly poor long-term memory, but one exercise we did on my recent Arvon course made me realise that there are actually a lot of interesting sounds, sights and smells buried in the murky depths of my brain, if only I can dig around enough and find them under the layers of daily life.

The exercise was based on an extract of a book called I Remember by Joe Brainard. We were asked to close our eyes and imagine being ten. We then wrote down everything we could remember about how being ten tasted, how it smelt, how it sounded and how it felt. It was amazing how easily one memory triggered another, and before long we were all reciting the most amazingly evocative childhood memories. You should give it a go, see what you come up with.

Following on from the exercise, I spent some time on my own version of  Brainard’s I Remember, and I’ve included an extract below. It’s funny the things you remember isn’t it? We spend so much money taking our families on holidays, going on outings, buying gifts, and when you look back it is the simplest things that stick in your mind. What are the most powerful memories from your childhood? I bet they are the things no one was really paying much attention to at the time.

I remember

I remember Mr Middleton, with his giant black beard, the most popular teacher in school. He was my Dad.

I remember the soft, spiky feel of Scott Wilson’s hair after he’d had it shaved so short and we all wanted to touch it.

I remember kissing Richard, the son of a local shopkeeper, in the hollow hedge at the edge of the field.

I remember another Richard proposing to me on the back of a white, plastic ruler. I asked him which secondary school he was going to. He told me Stanchester. I turned down his proposal – I was going to Huish Episcopi and it would never have worked.

I remember a family holiday to Cornwall, with my Gran in the café at Goon Hilly, drinking milkshakes with real ice cream in.

I remember scratching on the back of posh Catherine’s wax Barbour jacket with a stick.

I remember arriving in Bridgwater for the first time, the smell of rotten eggs from the Cellophane factory, its tall chimneys visible over the roofs of the houses in Windsor Road.

I remember the lumpy earth of our unfinished garden – a small, irregular patch of churned up building site, peppered with broken bricks and twigs, hastily enclosed with tall wooden fence panels.

I remember becoming the unpopular child at a new school, never chosen to collect the exercise books.

I remember my sister and I betting Rachel Kelly that she couldn’t fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times, and Rachel and her mum sticking 24 pieces of A4 together on the kitchen floor, trying to prove us wrong.

I remember stealing the keys from the door of an empty, almost finished house across the road.

I remember arguing with my teacher, Mrs Bryant, when she tried to make us believe that ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ was a question about location.

I remember the double layered hem of Mrs Bryant’s ankle length skirt and the way her hair fell so smugly just above her shoulders.

I remember the inter-school book quiz, getting every question wrong about ‘Woof!’, because Mrs Bryant mistakenly made us read ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’. I have hated Mrs Bryant for 22 years.

I remember the waft of Chanel No5 that would escape from my Gran’s black leather handbag as she reached inside for her Anadin.

I remember the noise of the metal cap twisting on the gin bottle, and the fizz of the tonic, as she made herself a drink.

I remember getting a new cabin bed, with a desk and drawers underneath. The spaces behind it, either side of the ladder, were big enough for my sister and me to squeeze into. We could see each other from opposite sides across the gap, but no one could see us.

I remember the excitement of my dad bringing the video player home from school in the holidays and my sister and I crying all the way through a pirate copy of ET, lent to us by Kylie’s dad across the road, who always wore jeans and a white vest.

I remember noticing that all the roads around my school were named after trees; Birch Close, Elm Avenue, Chestnut Drive.

I remember feeling like everything interesting happened after I’d gone to bed.

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19 Comments

  1. 14 July, 2010 / 1:35 pm

    Wow, so many of your memories made me think of my memories… off to have a think some more!

    • 14 July, 2010 / 1:37 pm

      It’s a really lovely exercise – you just find yourself churning out pages and pages of sentences beginning ‘I Remember’ and there’s a story behind every one.

  2. 14 July, 2010 / 1:52 pm

    My biggest memory is hiding under the bed playing dolls with my friend Lisa and eating peanut butter on toast with @babybudgeting after school most days

    • 15 July, 2010 / 12:47 pm

      Yum :-)

      Me and my sister made these great tunnels under our beds when we were little – we had twin beds on opposite sides of the room and even had a connecting tunnel!

  3. 14 July, 2010 / 2:13 pm

    I did a bit of that on my post for my dad’s birthday.
    http://www.newdaynewlesson.com/?p=3143

    After I finished I remembered a bit more, like when I was in labor and him showing up at hospital because he “happened to be in the neighborhood”

    and can u fold a paper more than 8 times? off to try.

  4. 14 July, 2010 / 2:13 pm

    Drat, the paper thing can’t be done.

  5. 14 July, 2010 / 5:00 pm

    I remember 5th grade, the first time I held Teri’s hand, while skateboarding and thinking she was the best thing ever.

    I remember math wars, when Mark, Doug, Paul, Marty and I would race to get our worksheets done. I usually won.

    I remember the hockey practice, where after a tough loss, we spent the entire 90 minutes skating back and forth between the boards. Half the team puked. I did not.

    I remember the first photo graph I processed in the darkroom. My teacher was less than impressed. I found it abysmal and laughed at my stunning failure.

    I remember a point early in junior high, when I realized that my friends from my first six years of school, were now other peoples friends, and it would never be the same again.

    I remember being picked, as a twelve year old, over all the goalies in the 13 and 14 year old division, to play in the next high school soccer game. We won. I got to play a little towards the end.

    I remember the song ‘Sister Christian’, by Night Rider, because it was Stacy’s favorite song. I thought she was the greatest ever. She thought Brad was the greatest ever. I didn’t like Brad.

    I remember the Christmas when I got 3 huge boxes of Lego blocks, and all my friends only got one. I was embarrassed and have hated Christmas ever since.

    I remember sitting in the crowd at hockey camp. It was the last day, and they were presenting the awards. I had already picked up my trophy for winning the ping pong tournament and the last award was for sportsmanship. I had been working really hard to campaign for my team mate John Russo to win. I was so excited, I was sure he had it in the bag. They announced the winner of the Masterton Award. Despite my best efforts to convince people that John was deserving, they had not voted for him. They had voted for me.

    This is a great exercise. I hope I can remember to do it more often.

    • 15 July, 2010 / 12:49 pm

      Well done! I award you the prize for effort there… It is amazing what starts to come to the surface once you start isn’t it? Loads of stuff you can’t believe you ever forgot.

  6. 15 July, 2010 / 12:44 pm

    All these from when you were ten? Wow, you were busy!

    Together they work beautifully as a short portrait of your childhood. Grandmas in particular are rich memory-makers. I remember the chink-chink of my paternal grandmother’s gold bangles as she washed up the lunch dishes, the smears left on the glasses in the draining rack after she’d finished and the falsetto melody she would blithely hum to drown out any unpleasantness in the atmosphere. A great one for denial, she was, and even as she died she held steadfastly to that optimism that better things were to come.

    Thanks for passing on the idea. I’ll use it in my next class.

    • 15 July, 2010 / 12:54 pm

      It WAS a busy year! We had quite a significant house mve during that year – new house, new school – which is why I think I remember more.

      You’re right, grandparents are great for memories. The smells particularly, as my Grandad smoked a lot of embassy number one! The smell of their larder where my gran kept cans and packets and multi-coloured plastic tumblers, plus a big cardboard box in the bottom of potatoes that she made mountains of crinkle cut chips out of. It all becomes very vivid when you start remembering with all your senses.

  7. 19 July, 2010 / 12:43 pm

    You are so right with the tiny bits being the ones that stay! My OH can remember great big swathes of his childhood but you’ve made me happy for my tiny but vibrant bits!

  8. 22 July, 2010 / 5:32 am

    I llove this post, it resonates so much with me. I frequently wonder about memory and just what makes mine so bad (there’s a post in there somewhere, it really is that bad), but also, why i remember certain seemingly random events. (like the ones you describe). I am a firm believer that smells, sounds and feelings are the most powerful evokers of memories, rather than visible elements. I regularly get flashbacks now at my child’s preschool when i smell a particular type of kiddy friendly glue or hear a particular song. Often i have “feeling memories” that have no picture to go with them. They can be a really odd and a bit frustrating!

    http://marketingtomilk.wordpress.com

    • 25 July, 2010 / 10:28 am

      Absolutely agree about the smells/sounds thing.

      I worry too about my memory – I hardly remember a thing about the girls being little, which seems an awful thing to admit as a parent, so it was nice to be able to dredge up some memories that I’d forgotten I had!

  9. 22 July, 2010 / 11:57 am

    What a fab post. I’m off to try to try this for Josie’s workshop.

    • 25 July, 2010 / 10:32 am

      Glad you enjoyed it! I found it a really lovely exercise.

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