I want to remember everything about reaching the summit of 50. All year I was gripping 49, hanging on to every moment as if a decade could act as a life raft. Alas, all my clinging did nothing to slow the tides of time. I’m officially over the hill.
Nevertheless, I want to remember the celebrations with family and friends. I want to remember how it felt to blow all those candles out. I want to remember what I wished for.
Even more than those things, I want to remember my kids, how they are right now.
I want to remember my oldest at 21, a rising college senior, competent and independent after navigating Europe for a semester, yet still tenderly boyish from time to time, sending me sweet text messages.
I want to remember my daughter at 19, just completing her first year in college, a smart young woman. How funny she is. How she still needs me a little, especially to help pack up her dorm room, settle her summer affairs.
I want to remember my youngest son at 17, still ours, the only fledgling left in the nest. How joyful he is with his siblings. How he’s navigating the rites of junior year. His flare and his appetite, still growing, still becoming.
But chances are, I won’t remember all these perfect moments. Chances are, many of the details will sip away, until they escape me altogether. I know this because I can’t remember my kids exactly how they were when I turned 40, or even 45.
Memory is such a fickle thief. But it is fascinating.
What do we remember, and why? What details stay with us about certain experiences, and which ones fade away? Why are some memories encased in photographic perfection, with chronological precision, while others fade out like the end of an old movie? Why are some people’s memories so much more reliable than others’?
In the world of memory, I am definitely an impressionist. Don’t ask me a year. Don’t ask me an age. When did your children walk, talk, read? Give me a minute, I’ll have to consult their baby books.
And yet, certain experiences I remember in vivid, startling detail, especially if they are prompted by something — a scent, a dream, a song. Sometimes a memory will hit me like a rogue wave out of nowhere, knocking the wind out of me and sending me spinning.
This busy spring, as I wear a path between the kitchen and the laundry room and back again, I listen to music. The other day, a song brought me back to a long ago trip to Brittany. It enabled me to spend a few minutes with my kids at 6, 4, and 2.
My husband, gathering Polly Pockets off the floor of the plane. The five of us tossing baguette crumbs to pigeons in a train station. Climbing Montmartre. Laughing at a lion in a palace zoo. Eating fish grilled on an open fire in a harbor cafe. Listening to the wind buffet the house high on a hill overlooking the ocean.
The song ended and I landed with an almost audible thunk back in front of the sink. 50. 21, 19, 17.
What could my children possibly remember from that trip? What were we thinking going so far abroad when they were so young? It was an opportunity at that time that we just couldn’t turn down. That trip is a memory that I’ve been able to keep — one of the places I can still visit, a place where I can still be a mother of little ones.
There have been many adventures and celebrations with the five of us. We’ve been fortunate. What memories have stuck in my kids’ brains over the years? I can’t know. We’ve shared common experiences, but we’ve remembered different parts of them, and from different perspectives.
My son made me a playlist for my birthday. The song that transported me to Brittany is on it. One of many that unites us, even though we might not be able to identify exactly why.
As I think about beginning the second half-century of my life, I want to continue to make memories with my family. I realize that our expeditions as a family of five may be fewer and farther between, and I understand that I can’t freeze time or even memory.
But, in the meantime, I hope I’ve at least managed to give my kids the kinds of experiences that, when the right song is played, their memory sends them rushing back to a place and time where we were all together, the five of us. It’s almost as good as a life raft.