On things you’d think I would know by now

Jessica is opening her Christmas presents. Some of them are things she picked out for herself that I’ve wrapped and put under the tree.

She pulls the paper back from a book and asks, perplexed, “Am I supposed to be surprised by this?”

She can’t remember what she has picked out and what she hasn’t.

“Yes,” I say. “I picked that out for you.”

“Then I am surprised, and also you did a good job of picking.”

She strokes her hand down the cover of the book. It’s a Princess Jasmine book, her favorite kind, and I say, “Well, I know you like dolls and anything with Princess Jasmine on it, so that’s easy.”

“It is for the things that are not dolls and Jasmine that you ask my opinion.”

“Exactly,” I say. She has very decided but somewhat impenetrable rules about clothing and other things.

Our friend Randy has gotten her a Harry Potter sticker book, and later on the phone Randy asks, “Did she actually use it or did she put it on the shelf?”

The shelf is our private joke. Jessica hardly ever uses anything you give her. She collects it.

Later, Jessica and I are in her bedroom, getting rid of some old toys to make room for the new gifts, a process that sometimes seems physically painful for her. It’s not that I don’t get attached to things. It’s just that if I have a sticker book, I use it, and then I’m done with it. When a thing no longer serves its purpose, I have no trouble getting rid of it, even if I really liked it at one time. I hate clutter and we live in a small space, so pruning is a natural thing to me.

“How about this?” I ask, showing her a princess sticker book. “You haven’t used it.”

She visibly flinches, and mumbles, “I want to keep that,” and I don’t understand. The things I don’t understand about my daughter are legion.

“But why? You never use these things. You just keep them on the shelves.”

“I look at them.”

“You keep them on the shelves and look at them,” I say in exasperation. “Why do people bother getting you things you never use?”

I have visions of my grandmother carefully putting away the good handkerchiefs and the good perfume and the good stationery, always thinking someday she would have occasion to use it, never using any of it at all. It all got thrown away in the end. Why?

Jessica has dolls and stuffed animals and sticker books and action figures and any number of things that she might use to amuse herself, but she never actually plays with any of it. I don’t understand.

I tell her about my grandmother, and how she never got to enjoy anything, and how I don’t want Jessica to be like that.

“You gave that to me,” she says about the princess sticker book.

“Sure, and I give you permission to use it, or to toss it.”

“And Randy gave me that,” she says, pointing to a lapel pin in the shape of a red rose.

“Yes,” I say. She wouldn’t let me fasten it to her coat. I stop myself from reminding her of that, and of telling her that Randy also gives her permission to use things or throw them away.

I come sit next to Jessica on the bed. “And?” I ask.

“I do not remember why,” she says. Then, stubbornly, “But Randy gave it to me.”

And I get a glimmer, finally, of a thing she cannot articulate. Her memory is not like yours and mine; she cannot remember most things, events, even if you remind her or talk about them. They happen, and they affect her, and then they are lost.

“For your birthday,” I say. “Last year, when we were in New York.”

She nods in comprehension. She remembers New York because I have told her that we went there, but she doesn’t know it in the way of someone recalling an experience. She remembers it in the way of someone reciting a fact from history class, like the name of the sixteenth president. She can memorize things in a way she cannot remember them. They are two different acts.

She has the rose pin in her hand, gripping it, and I realize that this is the experience for her, that somehow the objects are the repository of the memory, an imperfect storage device but the only one she has, and I think of the things that belong to her which I have thrown away, and I am appalled.

I gasp the knowledge in and I say, “Oh my beautiful girl. I am so sorry.”

She leans into me, the tension leaving her body, no longer flinching. I have finally understood, and she no longer has to be afraid that I will steal her memories.


My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

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