It's gratifying when your children remember something you planned for them to remember. You know, those special moments that you work so hard to create—will they remember them the same way you do? Sometimes it doesn't work. My mother relates the countless hours she spent schlepping us to museums when we were young, and none of my sisters or I can recall them, at least not in the same heart-warming way she intended. Sorry, Mom…"best laid plans" and all that. We remember other good stuff, honest!
On the other hand, recently I came across a friend at a local bookstore, and spied a book that was a huge favorite with our kids, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I took it off the shelf and read it to her granddaughter myself; the rhythm and cadence of the book came back to me, and I heard my children's voices in my head. Sure enough, when I got home, I posted the first line of the book, and in minutes, my daughters posted back the second and third lines. They remembered! All those hours of reading to them, hoping it would sink in, and it worked, just as I'd planned.
We plan to make memories, but we can't control the ones that actually get created. Joseph, in parashat Miketz, was a big advocate of planning. He sold his rationing idea to Pharaoh after interpreting his dreams as predictors of feast and famine. (Remember the seven fat cows and the seven scrawny cows, and the seven plump ears of corn and the seven ears that looked like what we had in the Midwest this season?)
Quite logically, Joseph suggested saving a bit of each good year's harvest, so that it would sustain the people in the lean years. It seemed to have worked, because even from as far away as Canaan, Joseph's estranged brothers and father had heard there was food in Egypt. Joseph's plans worked, in that sense; the people had food throughout the bad years, and he was remembered for the success.
Joseph's story is also full of people remembering long-ago, unhappy family incidents. Serious sibling rivalry, violence within the family and to outsiders, lies, loss and leaving. Coming to get food in Egypt, the brothers ran smack into their own childhood memories, and they were probably quite unwelcome. The questions from the Egyptian Prime Minister (little brother Joseph) reminded them how they had taken their half-brother, roughed him up, threw him in a pit, and sold him away as a slave. They remembered how they lied to their father, telling him his favorite son was dead, causing Jacob unspeakable sorrow.
Perhaps each brother remembered the incident differently; that happens in families. How were those memories kept? Had they talked about it in the intervening years, between themselves? Had they kept it to themselves, carrying terrible guilt y secrets all this time? We can only imagine, but suddenly, standing in front of a supposed stranger, the whole series of events came flooding back. The brothers had to confront those memories, and eventually (in the next parasha—Torah portion) confront the man they finally realized was their long-lost brother. Neither Joseph nor the brothers could have predicted that reawakening of family memories.
As parents, we never know which plans we make with our children will be the fat and plump, and which will be thin and scrawny. Each experience goes into a memory box, and whether they're seen as lush or lean is up to our kids, when they go through the box years later. All we can do is be intentional about the kinds of memories we try to create. Planning the future ensures memories of the past.
So, go ahead and plan the perfect Chanukah with luscious latkes, the candles, and the songs. That's probably better than stressing over buying gifts, getting the wrapping done, or squeezing in another store. Just don't be surprised years from now if what they really remember is the smoke alarm going off that year the last night was on Shabbat, or the potato peel that flies into someone's hair, or the dog's first attempt to eat sufganiyot . If the memories produce smiles, they will sustain us through the good and difficult years, and produce great stories, too.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.