12+ The writer John Banville observed, "Memory is imagination, and imagination is memory. I don't think we remember the past, we imagine it." I have vivid memories of my early childhood (I believe they're memories, not imagination), which is why the #5YearOldSelfie challenge on social media caught my eye.
Launched on Facebook and Twitter by YoungMinds, a UK-based charity and lobby group for young people's mental health, the rules of the challenge were simple:
- Find a photo of your younger self
- Write three things you'd tell that child
- Use #5YearOldSelfie in your post or tweet
- Tag three friends to help spread the love
I'm not one to tag friends and pass on things on social media. But the writer in me — and the middle-aged man full of young boy memories (or imagination) — took up the challenge.
A Five-Year-Old Boy
When I was five-years-old, and my younger brother was only two, our parents separated. In an unusual situation for those times, my father gained custody of us. And to help him look after two young boys, the three of us lived with his parents, my Nan and Pop.
Fifty-plus years on, I still recall the day my father drove into Nan and Pop's driveway without Mum. My brother and I had been sent to stay with our grandparents while our parents packed up our old home and their lives together — we boys thought it was a holiday.
My father parked the car and sat us down for a "talk". As a two-year-old toddler, my brother had no idea what Dad was saying, but I did. I remember bursting into tears when Dad said we weren't going home, and Mum wasn't joining us at Nan and Pop's house. And I remember my brother laughing at the sight of his big brother crying.
There's another memory, from an earlier time when our parents were together, and we lived next door to an old lady who looked after my pet guinea pig while we were away on holidays. (Perhaps to Nan and Pop's place, preparing for our parents' separation?)
When we got home, the guinea pig was dead. I recall the old lady looking over the fence and saying she was sorry. And how I burst into tears and blamed her for killing my guinea pig. And how my younger brother laughed at his big brother crying.
These two events have stayed with me as linked memories. Sad news, me crying, and my brother laughing. The sense of loss and a longing for things to be "normal" again.
I was forty-years-old when my son (my only child) was born. When I was in my mid-forties, and he was the same age as me in those memories, I broached them with my mother.
"No, you're wrong," she said to me. "We never had a guinea pig. You've imagined it."
It was a long time ago. Memories are subjective, and so is imagination. Did I, as Banville suggests, imagine the death of a pet guinea pig and pair it with my parents' separation? Did I imagine crying and my brother laughing? Did I imagine feeling sad?
One memory is not imagination — my parents separated. And my brother and I lived with our father at Nan and Pop's for six years, before Dad met another woman, who became his wife and our step-mother.
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The Benefit of Hindsight
With the benefit of hindsight, I see now it wasn't an "unusual situation". Many kids had broken homes. Some lived with their mothers, some with fathers or grandparents, and some with foster families. It was a situation no one talked about in those days.
Which is why the first thing I told my younger self in the #5YearOldSelfie tweet was:
Don't cry, you're not the only one in the world whose parents have separated.
Then I cut the young boy some slack:
Tomatoes and peas aren't that yucky, but you're right about Brussel sprouts.
And I finished with a hot tip:
Save up your pocket money and buy Apple shares.
Trawling my middle-aged memory, I've never bought Apple shares. So the best I can hope for financially is to follow Banville's lead and imagine it!
© 2019 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read more of my memories and writing on Tall And True, like this Biography & Memoir piece, New Year Memories, 32 New Years from my diaries.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Furious Fiction writing competition.
Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.