Today is my son’s birthday, a child’s birthday always being a good moment for reflection. Yet as I look at his smiles, I see the shape of his face melt. In the span of a few moments he becomes his brother at the same age. A little bit more time passes and he becomes one of his nieces, then another, and then he becomes his 13-year-old cousin as an infant. Before too long, he is one of my baby sisters. Everyone melts backward into youth like Miss Foley in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
As the parade of baby faces streams continuously through my memory, I struggle to remember which is whom or even the baby’s gender. So many of their qualities are the same. Lizzie liked to be ticked under her neck but so did Bug. I sang “Stille Nacht” to Freddie to calm her at night but I did that with Robbie, too. They all look like me in a way, all bearing a strong family resemblance that makes baby memory identification difficult. In a way, they’re all ‘mine’: My sister, my son, my niece, my nephew.
I wonder if this is what senility is like, the erosion of memories’ sharper edges so that they are indistinct. The easiest way for me to place a memory about a baby is not to think too hard about the child him/herself but the surroundings. Were there cactus or pine trees? Were the diapers cloth or plastic? Was the music playing Prince or Backstreet Boys or The All-American Rejects? Was the motif southwestern or craftsman?
I remember the last night I nursed this son. I know it was this son because I remember another child sleeping in my lap and that child had to have been his brother.
As I nursed Buddy for what I knew would be the last time, I carefully scrutinized details, hoarding them for a future day: his feathery reddish-gold hair, his long eyelashes, the circumference of his wrist (one index finger curled to my thumb joint), the smell of his milk breath, and the weight of his body. “This,” I thought, “I must remember because it’ll be the last time for him. The last time for me.”
I’ve gone through that ritual so many times with children and, as far as I can tell, few of those memories have stuck. Why it did that one time, I do not know.
But it makes it all the more