Speak, memory

Each of us has foundational moments in his or her childhood that were both traumatic and instructional. We return to these moments again and again, both consciously and unconsciously, in our dream lives and while waking. We gnaw on them like an ever-present bolus, trying to glean just one more scrap of meaning, one more bit of self-understanding.

We often feel that if we can describe these events in just the right way, we might perfectly explain ourselves to ourselves and others. We might be cured of the trauma, even, or at least come to find these moments more usefully instructional than they ever were harmful, beating the swords of trauma into the ploughshares of understanding. Many posts on this site are of this nature: attempts to come to peace with episodes from childhood.

In explaining some events like these in his life, William Wordsworth, an English poet of the late-18th and 19th centuries, developed a theory claiming that in every life there are traumatic and yet joyful moments at which we glimpse the divine spirit that inhabits the world. These “spots of time,” as he called them, can be “recollected in tranquility” (another phrase of his, describing the process of writing poetry) and provide us with spiritual fortitude in times of woe.


The divine, however, has generally fallen out of favor as an explanation that encompasses what we experience as the everyday, our individual lived experience. Sometimes we hear or make statements claiming that some larger spirit guides us, but it’s hardly ever of the Wordsworthian sort, e.g., “God led me to take a hike that day and look at those clouds.” It’s more likely that we hear these statements describing a grand scale intervention, e.g., “God saved our plane from going down.”

Instead of the divine, I hazard to guess that most 21st-century Americans would ascribe many of these events to the random nature of our lived experience. How we have digested them (or not) is what has become important to us. Even though he’s well fallen from favor in most mental health professional circles, Freud still dominates the way many people process experience and memory to understand themselves. (E.g., “My mother caught the flu when I was six months old and had to stop breast-feeding me, so I have intimacy issues.”)

Without further ado, here is a pair of my childhood traumas. Put them together and gather from them what you will.

When I was born, my family lived in married student housing at UCLA. Many young families with small children all lived in close quarters, so very often the mothers would share baby-sitting duties with each other. The apartments were laid out around courtyards that served as our playgrounds, and the mothers could sit on their front stoops and easily keep an eye on many kids at once. (That’s not me in the photo. Believe it or not, I randomly found this picture of one of these long-razed courtyards, taken mere months before I was born, a kid I don’t remember and his grandfather in the foreground.)


Around the time I was three, my mother would baby-sit a girl named Shannon. Shannon’s supreme pleasure in life was to torment me, and she found my softest of spots — my attachment to my mother. At the time, my father spent most of his hours sequestered in the library writing his dissertation, so my primary everyday contact was with my mother. Shannon needled me endlessly by playing a game she called “My Mommy,” which consisted of throwing her arms around my mother’s leg, turning to me, and saying, “My mommy!”

This always made me instantaneously furious and feel utterly helpless. I would crumble to the ground, my fists clenching and unclenching powerlessly, shouting ineffectually, as if in a bad dream, “No! She’s *my* mommy!” Shannon would grin deviously and just say it again, quietly, slowly, confidently, “My mommy.”

At this point I would turn to my mother for verification and validation. She would try her best, through slightly-controlled laughter and smiles, “Of course I’m your mother, Timothy.” It was never convincing, though. I needed her to foreswear and disavow this . . . this impostor, who was trying to displace me. Shannon was never deterred, either, and would continue until I was a wreck and my mother made her stop.

A couple years later, when I was about five years old, I went to a department store with my mother. In fact, it was this very store, in the small city in upstate New York in which we then lived, having moved there when my father found an academic job.


Sort of depressing, right? Anyway, because I always got bored while she shopped, my mother would park me in front of the bank of television sets in the electronics department, safe in the knowledge that I would be fine until she finished and came back to collect me. (It was the early 70s, people: there wasn’t the widespread fear of child-snatching that there is today.) Usually, I could sit in front of those TV’s for a long, long time, ignoring everything and everyone around me, transfixed by the magic of multiples of the same image, moving in tandem.

For some reason, on this day I got restless a little early. I started looking around at all the strangers and became unsettled. Soon, not seeing a familiar face in the crowd, I began to worry. I started to consider that my mother had left me behind, forgotten me. My heart raced. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Soon, I was in all-out hysterics, racing down the escalator, out of the store, and down the street crying and screaming in the certainty that I had been left behind.

Without warning, a hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. A woman was stooped over me, saying something, seeming to ask me what the problem was, but I couldn’t understand her or really see her through my blubbering and tears.


“I can’t find my mother!” I screeched. Turning away in a blind panic, I kept running and stumbling. A moment later the same hand stopped me and turned me around again. “Timothy! I *am* your mother!” this same woman cried.

Every time I relate this second anecdote, I tear up, not really at the memory of feeling abandoned, but at the thought of having not recognized my own mother, my flesh and blood, who gave birth to me. The first one, however, truly bothers me, much more than the second, even though it’s comical. Something about that sensation of helplessness I felt makes me just wither inside.

When I put these stories together in my mind, they fit a little too well. Both are about (mis)recognition, identity, assurance, inclusion, fear of rejection, and the ineluctable bond between a mother and son. Sometimes, though, I think I’ve turned them over so many times that I’ve worn off the rough edges and forced them into relation with one another. Just think of all the other incidents that occurred to me around this same time, some equally as traumatic I’m sure. Why did I pick these two to remember so vividly? Why do I make them into a centerpiece of my childhood?

15 responses to “Speak, memory”

  1. LP says:

    Timo, I think I can help you here. That woman was not your mother; she was in fact an alien. SHANNON was your mother.

    But seriously: These are interesting childhood trauma stories, but what’s really interesting is how much they still seem to affect you. You write that even now, you tear up “at the thought of having not recognized my own mother, my flesh and blood, who gave birth to me.” Why the guilt? You were FIVE. You didn’t do this on purpose. Or, if it’s not guilt you’re expressing, is it disappointment in your failure to recognize her? Again, why? She left you alone in a store – for all you knew, you’d never see her again. Give your little 5-year-old Timmy self a break.

    Re: Shannon. I think what’s called for here is some serious trauma therapy. Next time I see you and J-Man, I’m going to throw my arms around her leg and say, “MY J-Man.” Then you can clock me and voila! Childhood trauma vanishes.

  2. J-Man says:

    What I read between the lines in this story is that your mom was a bit standoffish in these situations. Rather than sweeping you up in her arms to reassure you that you were safe, she was very pragmatic and logical at a time when you needed emotional and physical reassurance. Don’t get me wrong – that quality is something I really like about her – but I would imagine at that age that cuddling would’ve worked a little better.

    Often when I would go to the supermarket with my mother, she’d be the one to wander away. I still remember the feeling of having been abandoned, and the annoying thing was that she would do this quite often. I used to get really mad at her and insist that she tell me before she just walked off, and although I’m sure she was just trying to get her shopping done, it felt extremely serious and hurtful at the time. I think that small children are hyper-sensitive to abandonment fears, and for good reason, I suppose.

  3. LP says:

    2: Yes, I had the same impression you did, but refrained from commenting as I don’t know Tim’s mom. It does seem she could have dealt with both these situations in a more comforting way for little Timo. I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t she say to Shannon, ‘No, I’m not your mom. I’m Tim’s mom.'”?

  4. Dave says:

    I enjoyed this post but will leave the analysis to LP and J-Man.

  5. LP says:

    Dave, I feel abandoned by you and I am now going to run out of this coffee shop crying.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Why the guilt? You were FIVE. You didn’t do this on purpose.

    I never really think of my tears as coming from guilt, but from what my mother must have felt at that moment, not being recognized by her own son. I dunno, maybe that is guilt.

    Also, I never really meant for this post to imply in any way that my mother wasn’t affectionate with me. She was and is. My point is that the most random things can shape our sense of self. What if my mother baby-sat somebody else who played a different game? Would something similar, which had the same function in my life, have happened? Or something entirely different? What if there had been a show on those TV’s that I really liked, so I didn’t get bored and leave? These are random events, but to kids they become linchpins in their personal histories.

    Get back into that coffee shop, Parrish! The publishing industry is depending on you to save it. No blubbering, either, or you won’t get a cookie after lunch.

  7. LP is at the top of her game here; let her invoke as much laughter as possible. She is very funny.

  8. Dave says:

    LP never felt abandoned by her mother. What does she know about abandonment?

  9. Jeremy says:

    As someone who has written (too) extensively on these very issues, I certainly related to this post. And was thoroughly engrossed by it as well. Maybe, in part, because it’s kind of fun to imagine Tim as a toddler.

    And because I completely relate to those abandonment issues. In fact, don’t get me started…

    Oh, too late…This post totally reminded me of the time, in 3rd grade, when I was in the car with my mom, driving along in our orange Volkswagen Bug. Apparently, she thought there was something wrong with the front tire, and she asked me, while we were driving along, to poke my head out the window to have a look-see. I wouldn’t do it. She asked, why not? I wouldn’t answer her at first. She persisted. I said that I was scared that I would fall out of the window. She asked, how would you fall out of the car window? I said, what if she pushed me, just a little bit, on accident or something? She was devastated, of course… and I clearly had some abandonment/rejection fears, of course.

  10. Scotty says:

    Hugs all around.

  11. Tim Wager says:

    Yay! Hugs!

  12. Natasha says:

    Tim, I loved the post. I find the topic of childhood absolutely fascinating. Mothers…they play the most important role in a child’s life, so vital, so powerful that each woman should probably get licensed after getting a PHD in Child Development before she can have children.

    When I don’t know how to deal with something (I did not want to raise my children the way I was raised), I go to books. Before Shannon (sorry to traumatize you with my daughter’s name:)) was born, I already studied all there was to know about psychological development. The issue of abandonment was one of the very important ones to me. What I learned in books and later applied to my children was that abandonment has nothing to do with just one incident, but unconditional trust in a parent, routines, and predictability. Raising children is the most difficult job there is, and often parents innocently trick the children to get them to do something, let the daily routines slide in favor of TV, and do things children do not expect. For example, a lot of parents think that when leaving a child at a day-care center or with a babysitter, it’s best to quickly escape, while a caregiver gets their child’s attention with a toy, to avoid tears. In reality, when the child realizes that Mom’s gone all of the sudden, he/she does not logically reason that it only happens during school separation, but thinks that it can happen anytime. When Ashton started pre-school, I just signed up for a class and got a B (with straight As through the semester) for being chronically tardy. What was I supposed to say to my teacher? I’m sorry, my son is learning the issues of separation and I stay with him until he agrees for me to leave (often 30-40 minutes)? When they were going through this stage, I didn’t allow anyone to joke (your nose will grow big, if you pick it). I told them what time I’ll be back and I was back at that exact time. I’d always tell them the exact plan of what we were doing that day then stick by the routine. If I were in the kitchen and needed to do laundry, I’d tell them that they could find me in the laundry room. I did it every time I moved around the house. They always knew where I was at any given moment, what I was doing, what we were doing that day, and were even allowed to be in control of some decision making. My children are now bigger and deal with other issues of development, but I managed to teach them unconditional trust in me. They are confident that I will do exactly as I say. It’s mentally exhausting to constantly filter and evaluate each word every minute of every day, along with the words and actions of other people towards them, but they grow up fast. To me, it is a short period of 20 years of my dedication, but to them, it’s a foundation, which will last a lifetime.

  13. Tim Wager says:

    Wow, Natasha! Your discipline and foresight are really amazing. I’m sure your kids have appreciated it over the years. Your suggestion that a PhD in Child Development be required for motherhood (I’d add fatherhood to that, while we’re at it) reminded me of this movie scene.

  14. Natasha says:

    Thanks, Tim. It’s really not as big of a deal as I made it sound. My children are only 5 and 7, so they are not in that analyzing age yet. Actually, I hope they’d never have to analyze anything.

    That was a cool clip. I haven’t seen the movie, but watched some of the other clips from it. It looks good. I’d like to watch it sometime.

  15. PB says:

    I really enjoyed reading and thinking about this post – I loved your stories, but especially the questions posed. What strikes me is why some memories stay and others fade utterly. I had a close friend remind me of trauma that I caused her once in 4th grade, I have no recollection. And yet when I told her of one of my traumas in the same classroom, she could not remember. I am always intriqued by this – why do some stick and others do not?? I read somewhere that the memories that keep bubbling up are those we still need to resolve, that we are literally stuck somehow amidst this “sticky” memory. But I am not sure – I wonder if it has to do with the emotion around the memory in the first place. Maybe emotional trauma coats the memory with “sticky” or files it away in bucket closer to the surface. I am getting my PHD in really technical neurological theory – can you tell?? I also love how our TGW community is so willing to help us with therapy. Thank god, it is why we are here.