Ireland is made up of 32 counties, ranging from the northern Ireland’s Antrim, to county Cork in the southwestern tip of the country. Somewhere nestled between Limerick and Galway is county Clare, a swatch of land that includes some of the most stunning landscapes and attractions in all of Ireland. The Burren, a strange geologic anomaly, is a lunar landscape of rock and windswept plants, and the Cliffs of Moher, which rise dramatically above the sea in a crown of salt spray, attract tourists from all over the world. It is not a surprise that this part of the country is so seductive to travelers. In a single drive you can tour a lush valley dripping with plants and sprung with trees, and then turn a few hairpins down a road and drive along a plain that looks scoured with lye, the ash grey rocks pocked with holes hiding alpine plants and rare miniature orchids. This contrast makes for a thrilling diversion from the sometimes ubiquitous fields of green.
So this month we got to take our child Clare to county Clare and I couldn’t have been more amused to watch her hop over crevasses in rocks as she approached the ancient shaft grave of the Pulnabroune Dolmen. I feel almost like she is a refection of this landscape, rounding the curve from adolescence with her infectious sense of humor and wry wit intact, and at times revealing the maturity and tranquility of a much older woman. As she rides these last few weeks out of 13 and into 14, I’m watching her change much as the landscape flips between contrasts in county Clare. I really like who she is and who she is becoming, and after watching almost a year of her struggling to get through the early teens without blowing a gasket with all the emotional changes, I’m watching her settle out. It’s thrilling.
One thing that as a parent I always think about is memory. It’s normal to want your child to have happy memories of their childhood, and yet part of me thinks that’s not all entirely possible. We are hardwired to learn from things that startle or scare us, the adrenaline making track marks in our brain so we don’t go back down that dark forest path. I used to teach my students this lesson, not really knowing how it would apply to my own daughter until now. And of course the happy times are harder to hold on to. Oxytocin is the ultimate forgetting drug. When good things happen and we are bathed in that rosy glow of contentment, oxy runs its fingers over the jagged parts and dulls the memory to a hazy bliss. So many of my childhood moments are filled with wariness and watching. I was running on adrenaline so often I feel like I fried out at a certain point in my mid teens. I literally couldn’t remember anything from my youth other than a few points in the darkness. As the years went on and I regained a sense of self and balance some memories were recovered, but most of my early moments still only live in photos.
Photos are important to me because as I take an image I challenge myself to capture a scene with the exact lighting and angle and exposure that will hopefully evoke a future memory for me. Being classically trained in photography forces me to get it right. I can look at a scene, judge its photo worthiness with the squint of one eye to flatten the plane, see the angle of the light, and shoot or not shoot, all with a half-second’s assessment. What I cannot do, however, is understand how memory works for other people. My older sister either chooses to or is able to dull out the darkness and only remember the rose-tinged scenes. God bless her. A recent conversation I had with my friend Kerry underscored how differently siblings can remember the same childhood, or the same scene. Her brother and sister remember the angles of light differently, and something that was a lovely moment for Kerry was an empty shell for her sister, who is only 14 months older. By extension, I wonder how Clare will remember her childhood without a close sibling to bounce off the usual: Do you remember when Mom did this… or Dad did that? I did not really have a choice to have more children, and I count on her close cousins to fill in the blanks that having a similarly aged sibling can leave. Clare’s older sister Jessica shares the experience of having the same father, but the synchronicity of time is off. Hopefully they will be able to have similar memories of him later, and rib each other with: Do you remember the time that Dad lit fireworks in the backyard and danced around like a crazy person? And then they will shake their heads, smile, and sigh, and love him and his memory like daughters do.
Already, Clare has lived in so many places, and I wonder about her memories of them. There was Italy when she was two, where she charmed restaurateur and policeman alike; Ireland when she was four, where she picked wild blackberries in the lane with her grandmother and myself; Italy again when she was nine, where she played complex word and drawing games with my study abroad students; and now at nearly fourteen, she is in her own home in county Cork, Ireland, where she has adopted a neighbor’s dog and rolled down a grassy slope for the first time in her life. She sits in her room, perched in the top corner of our lovely yellow house overlooking Rosscarbery bay and she draws mythical creatures in bright colors all day long. She reads her books with her long long body splayed sideways on the little snuggler couch, and she pushes her glasses up on the right side with one delicate finger. She is kind with her words and compliments my cooking, and she helps her father with little projects around the house.
Will she remember the breeze and the silver light on the water and the silence, or will she remember my poor health at the moment and her father’s tumble down the hillside that left him scraped and wrenched his back? Will she remember the crazy walks down the berm road and the thrill and worry of challenging a bull as we sidled by, or will she remember the bugs and the spiders that are a part of country life? Sometimes I need to remind myself not to take a photo and to just drink the scene in, imprinting it for my own memory databanks.
I am doubly aware now that I take photos not just for my own memories but for hers as well. I’ve been taught to capture scenes, so I may as well use that superpower for good. At the end of the trip I will assemble one of my massive tomes of travel photos that I spend months editing and laying out and writing text for and proofreading. Clare doesn’t fight me as much about taking her photo anymore, and she laughingly said the other day: You’re going to do it anyway, so why complain? True story, kid. True story. So I will take photos of you in all your stages in all your activities in all of your messy and beautiful and unaware moments. With this gift I get the chance to shape your future memories, gently. Gently. I will start with a photo of you in county Clare on the cover, caught mid-jump from stone to stone, your back to me and your front facing your future.