I often write stories about things that happen in my children’s lives as a way of preserving their memories for them. There are fragile memories that I know they will someday forget, and it is my gift to them to wrap them in cotton and preserve them in a box in the attic for them to rediscover later on in life. But sometimes there are things that happen and I know they will never forget about them. And often I box these things up as well and place them on the shelf alongside all the other memories, simply so they can groan and quickly close the lid when they open it.
“Why did you save this?!” they will yell down the stairs.
And I will simply rock back and forth in my chair in the living room and laugh until something starts rattling in my throat. Then I will unwrap another cough drop from my special dish that my grandchildren lovingly keep full for me nearby.
I know what they are asking about. In this case, they will be asking about that one day at swim class.
Lydia was uncommonly quiet, staring out the window of the car as we wound up a mountain road on a sunny Alaskan evening. I glanced in the mirror several times in the course of a minute or two, and every time she was in the exact same position: wistful, distracted, heartsick. She sighed heavily, brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, and then rest her chin on her forearm leaning against the car door.
“Hey, Lydia?” I said cheerfully. “What’s up?”
She didn’t move and mumbled, “Nothing…”
“Nah. Something up. What are you thinking about?”
She didn’t answer. Finally, Gideon answered for her. “She is still sad about swimming class.”
This theory was proven correct by Lydia’s immediate and angry denial, which included threats that made Gideon recoil in his car seat as he held his hands up in submission. “Okay okay!” he said, “Sorry.”
The little girl grunted and slouched back into her seat.
“So,” I continued in my same cheerful tone, “How was swim class today?”
“It was fine,” she returned to staring out the window.
“Nothing cool happened then?”
“No. Just… well, no.”
Gideon jumped in again, “She told the teacher she was six.”
This time Lydia gave in and deflated her shoulders, “Okay, yeah. Swim class was okay, but I told the teacher I was six.”
“Wait, what? Like, you told her you were six-years-old?”
“But you’re not six-years-old.”
“Oh, I know that,” she breathed.
“Then… um… why did you tell her you were six-years-old.”
She blinked out the window at the trees which gave no assistance. “I don’t know. She was asking everyone how old they were. And there was a lot going on, and I was nervous, so when she asked me I just said ‘Six’.”
“And what did she say?”
“She just looked at me funny and said, ‘You seem older than six.’ and so I said, ‘Well, that’s how old I am.'”
“But it’s not, right?”
She sighed, “No. It’s not.”
“But that’s what you told her?”
“There was a lot going on,” was her only explanation.
We drove on in silence for a moment or two.
I cleared my throat. “You know, you are going to be eight next wee-.”
“Yes, I know.” She cut me off.
“So… Are you going to correct her? Tell her how old you really are?”
She watched the sun as it passed behind a hillside and then she scratched her head, “I think it has been too long now. I think I’m going to have to just keep pretending that I’m six.”
She turned and looked at her brother who was picking at some dried mustard on his overalls. He looked up and saw her studying him. “Don’t look at me,” he said defensively, “I don’t know how to act six!”
Life went on, winding it’s way up a mountain. A lazy evening making memories on top of memories. Somewhere deep inside of Lydia mind, she was placing one simple embarrassing moment on a mantle above the fireplace, where she would be sure to see it every day far into the future. I smiled and mentally polished off a few of my own embarrassing trophies, and then sighed as I glanced again at the little girl in my rear-view mirror.