a box of photos to convey memories

Last week there was a strange smell coming from my kids’ bathroom. This happens from time-to-time here in our house in Belgium. The plumbing is old and periodically we have to get a plumber to come in and clear the pipes. It was sulfur smell, thick and musty. A wafting brimstone out into the hall. Everyone in our family was talking about it. Except me. I couldn’t smell it.

I don’t have complete anosmia, but I used to. In 1997, while studying abroad in Spain, I was in a horrible horseback riding accident. I didn’t die, of course, and I wasn’t paralyzed. But, I did spend several days in the ICU. And, as a result of the head injuries I sustained, I lost my sense of smell. Fortunately, because I was young and healthy, much of my sense of smell has returned. In fact, it’s a bit of mystery what I’ll be able to smell and what I won’t. I worked in a café in college and babysat. I burned a lot of bagels and missed a lot of dirty diapers. That doesn’t happen anymore. Sulfur on the other hand? Shrug.

This is part of a somewhat humorous pattern in our family. We have gaps in our awareness. Our perspectives are not always the same. Our memories are sometimes stuck in only one person’s brain. My oldest son is colorblind and asks things like, “Are magpies black or red?” My husband wears hearing aids and his sound awareness is largely relegated to the space within our walls. If you talk about a bird that used to sing outside our window in Tana or the chanting coming from the temple down the street from our house in Tokyo, he won’t know that it was ever there.

Your Memories Are Not My Memories

When I think about it, I realize how much these gaps in memory and perspective are symbolic of the overall experience of living overseas or, in the case of my children, growing up overseas. In all aspects of life, we see things through our own unique lens. However, without the grounding sameness that exists in the lives of people who don’t move, there’s potential for a lot more to become lost to history. Our memories feel, sometimes, as if they’re isolated.

My brother and I remember a lot of aspects of our childhood differently. My parents too – they forget things that were important to me, or to him, or even moments that our best childhood friends remember in great detail. This is normal. However, what my brother and I do have is the shared memory that is reinforced by the reality of coming home to the same house year after year, or the fact that the hamburger shop in our town had a certain, specific type of ice in Styrofoam cups, or the fact that community celebrations had rituals that lasted decades.

In our globally mobile life, it always feels like there is a lot more that can be lost or become a figment of the memory of only one family member. Our oldest son remembers living in the Dominican Republic, my middle one does not. Our daughter wasn’t even born then. The boys both remember Madagascar, but for my daughter, her time there only exists in photos. Of course, they all remember Japan, but the highlights are colored by their ages and developmental stages.

Intentionality, Memories and Global Life

As the parent of third culture kids, I’m continually reminded that a lot more intention and forethought must go into how we consider the ways in which we create memories. Sometimes, I even have to remind myself that my childhood memories are not better than theirs. The grass wasn’t greener for me, just different. I think about this more and more as my children get older. Now 15, 13 and 9 – they continue to teach me their way of seeing and remind me that memory is both a shared and individualized experience.

In our 12 years overseas, I’ve come to realize that there really is no way to ensure we all have the exact same memories. However, I do now know that certain practices we’ve adopted help us highlight events, moments and places of significance. These practices and traditions make up a sort of moveable home, cultivating the metaphorical foundation, walls and roof that sustain our family story and make our global life feel like home.

While every family’s way of supporting both shared and individualized memories will differ – I believe there are some basic mindsets and perspectives that can help us in cultivating a positive system for creating memory. It’s not always easy to remember to do this. I certainly fail from time to time and many of the reminders I offer here are because I learned the hard way. Nonetheless, I think you’ll find these tips useful…

Acceptance

First, it’s okay to be surprised when a family member either doesn’t remember something that was important to you or remembers it differently. However, remembering to pause before exclaiming, “What! How can you not remember that?!” or saying, “That’s not what happened!” gives you an opportunity to honor their memory while also sharing how you recall the time or place. You might say instead, “Really? I remembered it this way…” or “I can see that now through your eyes as a four-year-old. I was, of course, there as your parent and this is what stood out to me.”

The Groundwork for Memories

Another key is to create opportunities for recall. You can do this by asking questions like, “What do you remember about our house in Country X?” or “What was your favorite thing we used to do in Country Z?” We actually really love this in our home and introduce these types of questions regularly in our dinner table conversation.

There is also something nice about laying the groundwork ahead of time for memories to take hold. Before a vacation we might discuss our plans for the trip, talk a bit about the history and the culture of the place we’ll be visiting, and even compare and contrast it to other places we’ve lived. We’ve found that doing this sets a positive scene for establishing memories that last.

Traditions and Rituals

And, finally, maintaining some family traditions and practices for big events like holidays, birthdays and transition, mean that every member of the family experiences the same thing year after year. For us, there are certain Christmas and birthday traditions that we stick too. The result is that no one ever feels left out of the memory – even if there are variations of place.

Moreover, we make every effort to do the same when we go back home to visit. In our hometown, we have favorite restaurants, outings, food and trips that make even a “holiday” a part of establishing our roots.

What about you?

I’m curious about what this is like for your family. How do you established shared memories and support each family member in connecting deeply to their own set of memories? Where have you found it challenging? What have been your biggest successes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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