The first one million five hundred seventy-six thousand eight hundred minutes of my daughter’s life will be lost to childhood amnesia.
It’s seven thirty-two on a Thursday morning.
The engine rattles as we wind our way along the mountain side, traffic slowing to a crawl as the city awakens. I catch a glimpse of my daughter in the rear view mirror; she’s buckled into the car seat, her school uniform buttoned all the way to the top (she insists on this), her hair tied up into a messy ponytail.
“Hey, sleepy head,” I say. “You okay?”
She’s quiet, head nestled against the lip of the car seat, brows furrowed. It has been almost two weeks since schools have reopened, and every morning she is overwhelmed with anxiety. In twenty minutes, at the entrance of her pre-nursery, there will be screaming and tears and “No, Baba, no—” She will cling desperately to my leg, her wailing a mix of panic, betrayal, and anger.
She’s three — at the threshold where childhood amnesia gives way to lifelong memories — and I wonder if she’ll remember this day when she’s my age.
I try to recall my earliest memory. It doesn’t come naturally or willingly; unlike in the movies, old memories don’t persist on a reel or a timeline that can be rewound and navigated at will. They flit unpredictably like butterflies hidden in the mist, so I cast my net deep.
The memory that appears isn’t a when, but a where.
I’m in the back seat as the old Peugeot station wagon coasts along Salisbury Road, the neon skyline of Hong Kong Island on one side, the harbor front buildings of Tsim Sha Tsui on the other. Dad’s driving, mom’s in the passenger seat.
It’s Christmas Eve, mid Eighties. Skyscrapers along the harbor are draped in Christmas lights. In the distance, a thirty story Santa flashes red and yellow on a glass facade.
A familiar song playing on the tape deck—
Ooh, it’s a holiday, such a holiday
Ooh, it’s a holiday, such a holiday
Growing up, dad was a card-carrying Beatlehead, but mom had always preferred Bee Gees, and “Holiday” was one of her favorites. But holidays were supposed to be happy, and here was a song in that deep minor key and that strange falsetto that felt so foreign, so melancholic, so lonely.
It’s something I think’s worthwhile
If the puppet makes you smile
If not then you’re throwing stones
Throwing stones, throwing stones
As the station wagon drives past the thirty story Santa, mom slides open the sun roof.
“Look at all the pretty lights, son—” she says.
In that brief moment, the song reminds me of a night not long before when I’d realized that mom and dad were not going to live forever. I’d curled up into a ball under the blankets, paralyzed, too terrified to move, too distraught even to cry.
And under the twinkle of Christmas lights, I burst into tears.
I learn, some three decades later, that children begin to grasp the concept of irreversibility at age three to four, and perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that childhood amnesia begins to fade around the same time; the knowledge of irreversibility, of things that can never be undone, like a kind of loss of innocence that irreversibly changes their brains.
“What’s that song—” I ask over my shoulders, “the one about the Muffin Man?”
She doesn’t answer.
“You know—the one that goes: Do you know the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?”
I adjust the rear view mirror so that I can see her better. She looks at me as if she’s hearing me for the first time since we got into the car.
“No, Baba, stop—” she pauses. “It’s: Do you know the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?”
“Yes, I know the Muffin Man—”
“—who lives on Muffin Lane!” The furrowed brows have melted away into a smile. “Let’s do another one, Baba,” she says. “Cupcake Man.”
We pass the playground full of retirees swinging their arms by the monkey bars; we take the long way around, through the park with the banyans and the dangling vines that she can almost reach if she jumps; but as we near the school’s entrance, her hand tightens around mine.
I take a step forward hoping that this time she will follow me inside, but she stops.
I kneel beside her.
“Hey,” I say, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, “we have to be brave—”
“No, Baba—” she says, her brows as furrowed as they’ve ever been, but it’s determination and not anxiety that I see. “I can do it.” She says it like she’s tired of being afraid, as if she’s telling herself that, yes, she can be one of the big kids. “I’m gonna go in by my-self.”
For a moment, all I can do is pull her into a hug.
“You got this,” I say.
“I can do it,” she says again, pursing her little mouth as she walks towards the door, first with small tentative steps, then, like her singing, they become bolder, more confident, her pony tail swinging behind her.
And as she opens the door and disappears into the hallway, it dawns on me that memories of these early years are not for the children, but for those of us who bear witness as they begin their journeys.
I don’t know if she’ll remember the minute we shared in front of her school. But if, one fine morning, thirty years from now, she were to hear the faint flutter of wings in the mist and catch a glimpse of us together, that would be enough.