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opinion | Joan Wickersham

There are some things parents never forget

JONATHAN BARLETT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The game was called “I Forgot I Had a Baby.” We invented it together, my older son and I, one afternoon when he was about eight months old. He was sitting in my lap, facing me. I let my eyes wander around the room, pretending to daydream — and then suddenly caught sight of him and said, with a gasp of happy astonishment, “Oh — I forgot I had a baby!” After a startled instant, he cracked up. It was one of those uncanny, thrilling moments of shared experience. Your child is new and relatively helpless; he has yet to acquire words; but no words are necessary. You both get the joke.

“I Forgot I Had a Baby” became a staple in our house. The wandering gaze, the hammy obliviousness, the dramatic moment when I discovered him sitting in my lap: repetition was part of the game. But it changed, too. Soon I could ask, “Do you want to play ‘I Forgot I Had a Baby’?” and he could answer— first simply by understanding the question and laughing, and then with words. Eventually we developed a variation, “I Forgot I Had a Mother,” where he got to call the shots: how long to let his gaze wander away from mine, how to dramatize the shock of finding that he did, indeed, have a mother, who was holding him in her lap.

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He outgrew the game, but when his brother was born, six years later, “I Forgot I Had a Baby” came back to me one afternoon, and it turned out that the second child also found it endlessly, inexplicably funny.

Now the second child, the youngest, is 18. Next week he will graduate from high school. When I look at him now, I see the adult he is becoming: strong and appealing, steady, kind, reserved, and stubbornly independent. But he was always that way. I remember how he learned to walk — not gradually, but over the course of a single determined afternoon, getting up and falling down and getting up and falling down and finally managing to connect a series of steps across the living room. I remember how as a toddler he would show up in the doorway of our bedroom at dawn to announce, “It’s the morning time!” Where did he get that phrase, with its happy quaint syntax? It sounded like something translated from another language. Maybe it was.

In P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins (a book whose bracing vinegar sharpness is nothing like the sappy Disney movie) babies are born knowing everything. They understand what the wind and the birds are saying. When they cry, it’s not because of the pain of teething, but because a jeering starling on the windowsill has told them that they will soon forget all the knowledge they were born with. “No, we won’t!” the babies scream — but they do: the next time the starling visits, they can’t understand a word he says.

Babies do grow up and forget their own babyhood. But the parents remember. Not all of it, but enough. Parents are the archivists of their children’s earliest experiences, a fact that adolescent and adult children find both annoying and comforting. My mother used to tell, with great pride and a kind of Mad Men-like obliviousness, that when I was two she asked me to fetch her cigarettes, and I came back with not only cigarettes but matches and an ashtray. “And that’s how I knew you were smart!” she would finish triumphantly. I always found this a weird story; now I’m glad I know it. Through my mother’s transmitted memory, a piece of my babyhood has stayed alive.

My 18-year-old is moving out into his life now in new and exciting ways. But next week, when I sit in the audience at his graduation, I’ll look around at the other parents and know that they are all remembering their own children as babies. And I’ll know, too, that even though they never played “I Forgot I Had a Baby,” they’d get why the game was so funny. Because there’s no way that any of us could ever forget we had a baby — either then, or now, or ever.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is joanwickersham.com.
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