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 and my younger brother was only two, our parents separated. And in an unusual situation for those days, my father gained custody of us. To help him look after two young boys, the three of us moved in with his parents, my Nan and Pop.
Fifty-plus years on, I still recall the day Dad drove into my grandparent's driveway without Mum. My brother and I were staying with Nan and Pop while our parents packed up our old home and their lives together — we boys thought it was a holiday.
Dad parked the car and sat us down for a "father-and-sons talk". As a two-year-old toddler, my brother had no idea what Dad was telling us. But I did. I recall my 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.
I have another memory from around this time, but when our parents were still together. We went away for a holiday for a few days (perhaps to Nan and Pop's to prepare for Mum and Dad's separation?). And the old lady who lived next door looked after my pet guinea pig for me.
But when we got home, the guinea pig was dead. I recall the old lady looking over the fence and saying sorry. And how I burst into tears and blamed her for killing my guinea pig while my younger brother laughed at his big brother crying.
These two unrelated events have stayed with me as linked memories. Sad news, me crying and my brother laughing. And the sense of loss and a longing for things to be "normal" again.
I was forty when my son (my only child) was born. And when he was five, the same age as me in those childhood memories, and I was in my mid-forties, I broached them with my mother.
"No, you're wrong," she told 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?
Some memories are not imagination. My parents separated. And my brother and I lived at Nan and Pop's place with our father for six years before he met another woman, who became his second wife and our stepmother.
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The Benefit of Hindsight
With the benefit of hindsight, I see mine wasn't an "unusual situation". There were many broken homes back then. Some kids lived with their mothers, some with fathers or grandparents, and others with foster families. But it was a situation no one talked about in those days.
And this 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 Brussels sprouts.
And I finished with a hot tip:
Save up your pocket money and buy Apple shares.
My middle-aged memory informs me I've never bought Apple shares. So the best I can hope for financially is to follow John Banville's lead and imagine it!
As for the #5YearOldSelfie's memory of my guinea pig, I don't think it was my imagination.
© 2019 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another of my memoir pieces on Tall And True, New Year Memories, thirty-two New Years from my diaries.
I wrote Memories and Imagination in August 2019, inspired by the hashtag #5YearOldSelfie challenge on social media. And the "Memory is imagination, and imagination is memory" quote by Irish author John Banville, whose 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, I'd just read.
As I admitted in the piece, I invoked a writer's licence for the challenge. For a start, I didn't "tag three friends to help spread the love" on social media. And in the photo posted, I was closer to four than five. But unlike my son and his generation, born and raised in the digital age, I don't have hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of photos of the younger me.
The three things I told the child in the photo, however, were from the heart:
- Don't cry, you're not the only one in the world whose parents have separated.
- Tomatoes and peas aren't that yucky, but you're right about Brussels sprouts.
- And save up your pocket money and buy Apple shares.
And sorry, Mum, I didn't imagine the guinea pig. I remember having one when I was five.
You can also listen to Memories and Imagination on the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast.
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 storytelling 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. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides 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.