How to Build a Life Worth Remembering

I puttered around the kitchen while my son sat at the dining room table with his laptop flipped open and his head in his hands. The cursor blinked while he grasped both hands behind his head and groaned.

His English teacher had assigned each student the task of writing a slam poem, to be performed in front of the class—a poem based on an important, life-shaping event.

At fifteen, he couldn’t think of anything in his life worthy of poetry.

This is the child who was born on the bedroom floor of a London brownstone, who lived in three countries by the time he was twelve, who learned to snowboard in the Alps, and spent his tenth birthday snorkeling in a sea of violet luminescent jelly fish in Egypt.

This child could not think of a single, life-shaping event to share.

I made a few small suggestions, before I reminded him of The Big One—our move to Zurich, Switzerland the day before he turned eight years old. We celebrated that birthday in our new home--a tiny gray house sparsely furnished with rental furniture, and foreign to us in every way.

We had no friends to join us in celebration and no idea where to buy a birthday cake. We found a small convenience store and purchased a pack of vanilla ice cream cones for the five of us to share. We sang happy birthday around a table we didn’t own, in a stranger’s house, without a single soul in Zurich knowing we’d just embarked on a wild adventure.

He said no immediately when I mentioned it. The emotional upheaval of the move was lost on this eight-year old kid, apparently. “It really wasn’t that big of a deal.” He said. And while I took umbrage with this fact, he went on to say that kids adjust to whatever comes their way.

What he remembers most about his eighth birthday is the vanilla cone with the two blue candles shoved deep into melting cream. He remembers our little family of five gathered around a table and our Happy Birthday serenade.

He doesn’t remember the Alps scraping the sky just beyond our glass doors, or the new school waiting to receive him the next day, or the general lack of hoopla—an utterly non-Pinterest-worthy celebration.

He remembers a blown candle, a whisper of smoke, a chocolate treat, a family singing off-key.

To a kid, the poetry of life lies in its simplicity. It doesn’t matter which side of the ocean lulls you to sleep.

Years ago, Oprah interviewed a young girl who lost her mother to cancer at an early age. Her mother had left behind a series of short video clips for her daughter to watch after her death.

In one video, she taught her girl how to apply eye makeup, in another she talked about the qualities to look for in a husband, and in yet another she taught her daughter how to sort a load of laundry.

When Oprah asked the girl to share her favorite memory of her mom, I held my breath for a moment, thinking surely this would be a special, important, emotional event.

What she said next made me cry with its simplicity.

Her favorite memory of her mother was the night she and her mom shared bowls of cereal in the kitchen in the wee hours after midnight and chatted about nothing in particular. That’s it.

A sleepy hour, a soggy bowl of cereal, and the presence of her mama.

This is poetry.

I’ve thought about this interview countless times in my eighteen years as a mom. I’ve wanted so badly to take it to heart, while at the same time my head was busy plotting to give my children more—more experiences, more travel, more art, more celebration, more capital-L Life.

But this is life.

The homework at the crumb-strewn table. The bowls of cereal swelling in milk. The ordinary conversation. The ice cream dripping down t-shirts while four people sing.

The new, old, easy, hard, simple, complex experiences of the commonplace.

This is rhyme and verse. This is spoken word slamming. This is the life-altering event in sing-song poetry.

This is how we build a life worth remembering.


Kimberly Coyle is a freelance writer, educator, and mother of three living in a perpetual state of wanderlust in New Jersey. She writes at KimberlyAnnCoyle.com where she encourages souls to grow deep.

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22 Comments

  1. Kay

    Beautiful post. I think I was always trying to give my children more because I had so little, it would be interesting to know what they remember now that they are adults. I was talking with my 18 year old about some family holidays recently and he doesn’t even have the slightest memory of them at all. At least I know he enjoyed them at the time.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      It’s amazing what they do and don’t remember from their childhood. I’m always surprised at my kids’ responses when I ask them!

      Reply
  2. Carolyn

    Thank you for this, it’s so true! With all of the memories we thought we made with our children, the one my older two remember best and cherish is the time I mowed our backyard into a baseball diamond, lowering the blade to make the base paths and raising it for the infield, making a diamond pattern there and in the tiny bit left for the outfield. We spent the next week playing baseball every night after dinner. Had I known, I would have done more little things and saved the money on the big things!

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      What a fantastic idea! I wish I was this creative and inspired:)

      Reply
  3. Ann

    Great post! Our society tends to focus on the big things, but it is the little things that matter most.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      I need constant reminding that smallness is where we find the hidden treasures of life.

      Reply
  4. Theresa Boedeker

    We long to give our children great and beautiful and memorable things, and they remember the simple. The ordinary. This is so true. When I ask my two kids what some of their most memorable moments of childhood are, they often say me reading aloud to them. Your post reminds me that we each see the same experience differently and would tell the same story of the event differently. Your son would talk about the ice cream with 2 blue candles, and you tell about being in a new country and alone.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      It’s all a matter of perspective isn’t it?

      Reply
  5. Rika

    This is a great post! I’m very often amazed at what my kids take away from our adventures. They are still little but already I can see that their understanding of the world and our family are completely different from mine. Your post was a great reminder for that. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      Thanks, Rika! I wish I had realized this sooner myself. Hindsight and all that:)

      Reply
  6. Mary W

    Wisdom imparted eloquently! You could write a book on this story but your are talented enough to say it completely in the last two lines. A preacher once told me never to preach a sermon longer than a person can sit still. When the urge to wiggle your hindside gets stronger than urge to listen, it’s past time to remember anything that is being said. I think a poem is harder to write than a novel for that reason. I will subscribe after reading this article and before my hindside overcomes my brain.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      I couldn’t agree more:) Brevity is a necessary skill for storytellers!

      Reply
  7. KimS

    It is the simple times. Not about money or things. It is the times that we don’t try to control or manipulate. It is what we give of ourselves, mainly our time and our attention. We also reap our favorite memories, the ones we cherish and think about as we look back on moments in time. Those moments you wouldn’t trade for anything!!

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      Yes! I have a lifetime of memories too!

      Reply
  8. trina c

    So true that it’s the little things! As my children turn 8, I take them on a mom-kid trip cross-country for 6 days. They have their first plane ride, we see museums, long distance family members, a big international conference for our church, and all kinds of stuff. Two years later, my now-10-year-old remembers mainly that I gave her a new box of markers and a fresh sketchbook on the plane.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      What a wonderful tradition! The markers and sketchbook memory made me smile–how very ten years old:)

      Reply
  9. Crunchycake

    My in-laws were raised in India and my MIL in particular always feels the need to make a big event for even the smallest of events. She also feels the need to shower the kids with too many, too often, and too expensive gifts. I have talked to her about what’s most important to my husband and I as parents and also what we’ve noticed about our kids. Their favorite “things” aren’t things at all. They’re activities like watering the lawn or picking fruit or making flower arrangements or cooking WITH their grandparents. I think for my MIL it comes from feeling like she wasn’t able to give her kids everything she wanted and not getting everything she wanted as a child herself. My fear is that the more commercial stuff we shower upon our kids, the more they’ll want and the less satisfaction and gratitude they’ll feel. Children are simple. They really just want some time and some love from their parents. It comes out in crazy ways that makes it seem like the previous sentence isn’t true but I think it really is.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      Managing family expectations can be so difficult–especially when it comes to celebrations.

      Reply
  10. Preeti

    Thanks you for this brilliantly post! For a mama trying to keep her head up with a newly minted kindergartner, a 2yo who’s testing the bounds of his newfound independence and a full time job, this resonates so well. Thanks for the reminder to find grace and be grateful for the everyday moments.

    Reply
    • Kimberly

      Grace and gratitude–it’s everything!

      Reply
  11. kelsey h

    I often ask my three year old daughter about her favorite part of each day. I (still) expect her to say something about the art project we did or the adventure I planned. She usually tells me about something completely ordinary like playing with the neighbor or having a good snack. Your post reminded me of this- not to stop planning adventures, but just to pay closer attention and to be present in the ordinary moments, too.

    Reply
  12. Sian Williams

    Beautiful post! Wonderfully written and so so true. Thank you for the reminder!

    Reply

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