I had the opportunity to spend a day watching my nieces over the holiday break. Eve, Lola and I arrived ready to entertain two incredibly active four-year-olds for a few hours while their parents headed to the science center for the King Tut exhibit. I was excited to share my homemade play-dough recipe with them, adding essential oils and food coloring to make it even better. Since we don’t live near these lovely little fairies, I don’t often get to exercise my toddler-parenting chops and Eve and Lola have far outgrown needing me to design their entertainment.
We had a ball, breaking out all sorts of non-traditional tools like frosting tips and turkey timers and the girls loved playing with grapefruit and cinnamon-scented dough. They were little angels, sharing all of the colors and giggling at each others’ creations, and Eve and Lola were the sweetest big cousins, letting them experiment and stepping in to help whenever asked.
We took a break for cornbread with honey and then decided to go for a walk since the sun was shining for a short while. Lola designed a scavenger hunt list of things we needed to look for on our stroll and when the little ones got chilly we sneaked into a corner cafe for a cup of hot cocoa to warm up. Nobody got cranky or cried. Nobody spilled their cocoa or whined for more. It was idyllic.
When we got back to the house, one of the girls wanted to resume playing with the dough and the other one dragged Eve off to play hide and seek. I merely supervised until the girls wanted me to chase them. Each toddler had a “big girl” to protect her so that when I got close to catching one of them, they were swooped to safety by either Eve or Lola. We ran around the house for fifteen minutes or so and then Lola got distracted by the doorbell. Without her protector, one of the girls got truly frightened as I jogged after her and she dashed under the table, crying. I felt horrible, remembering how fully immersed children can get in imaginary games and assured her I wouldn’t “get” her. Fortunately, Lola returned to save her from the monster and all was well within minutes.
We played a board game together and took some silly photos, but I couldn’t shake the picture in my mind of the stark fear on my poor niece’s face. I wondered idly whether she would remember it vividly when she looked back on our day together.
There was no mention of the incident over the next few days (or upon her parents’ return), and I found myself hoping she erased it from her memory altogether. Reflecting on my own childhood memories, I wonder how many frightening things I filed away that may have been so inconsequential. I am reminded of the wholly subjective nature of memory often – all it takes is a conversation with my siblings to see that we each remember certain events in a radically different way. My memories of that day will be fond because I was afforded an opportunity to interact with my nieces in a way I don’t often get to and we did things together that were vastly different from the kinds of things they normally do. I also got to see Eve and Lola in a very different light than I normally do; as big-girl role models and caring cousins. But what if the fear my niece felt was powerful enough to imprint a stronger memory in her brain than the pleasure of the scavenger hunt and the play-dough? What if the cafe and the games don’t measure up to the raw emotion she felt as I chased her? I can’t argue with her memory or the way she felt any more than someone from my past could change what I believe happened on any particular day in my life. It is said that memories are influenced by emotion and I can attest to the fact that I am more prone to recall incidents I have imbued with negative emotions than those that simply left me feeling content or peaceful. Perhaps the trick is to place some sort of emphasis or exclamation point on the pleasant memories and, over time, they will come to weigh as much as the unhappy ones.
I also think it is helpful to exercise our attention to the positive in our lives. I know that when I started my daily gratitude practice, over time I was more likely to notice things in my daily life that I was grateful for. From the beginning of time, fear was a tool we used to keep us alive, but now that I no longer have to worry about being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger while I’m out for a walk, I can choose to notice the sunshine on my face and the pattern the ice crystals make in the puddle on the sidewalk and reflect on how at ease I feel. I can revel in the taking of a clear, deep breath after a week of coughing and sniffling or savor the way my tea tastes when it has steeped to just the right strength.
I don’t want to manipulate my nieces’ impressions of our day together, nor am I concerned that either of them was affected by the momentary fear during our game. I am simply grateful that I was given the chance to see them (and my daughters) through a different lens for a few hours and to have gotten the reminder that I can choose which memories to accent in my own mind.