The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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What I used to call my first memory was the time my sister and I (ages five and two) walked up the road to a gas station and bought a bottle of pop. I know it was a real memory, instead of something someone told me, because it had an inner dimension: I pretended the pop was beer and I was a man. Now I remember only the memory of that day.
So maybe my earliest memory was when we burned down the outhouse, a three-holer, while my mom, dad, and I were sitting there in a row, taking our last outdoor shit right inside the flames. But even though we did have a three-seater when we first moved to the farm, and though we did burn it down when my dad put in the indoor plumbing, I think I dreamed the incident before I was old enough to distinguish reality from vivid dreams.
So my earliest actual memory — not a dream, or a memory of a memory — is of my first day of school. We’d just moved to that school district. I didn’t know anybody; I was desperately afraid to go to school. When my mom left me there that day, I got confused about what was happening, and I ran after her. We talked for a while by the swings, and she said I had to stay. When I started out after her a second time, the teacher grabbed my arm to give my mom time to get away. I can still feel how tightly she held my arm; I don’t think I’d ever been gripped that tightly before. It so frightened me that it made me very strong, for I was able to wrench myself free from the woman’s grasp. I chased my mom down in the parking lot. When I got in the car, she spanked me and took me home.
Seven years later, when she was very sick and maybe dying, she asked me to forgive her for that day. She was a wee, skinny thing, weighing maybe eighty pounds. Of course I said I forgave her. But I don’t know if I really did until right this moment.
Petersburg, West Virginia
My first memory is of lying across a bed one summer afternoon, in front of an open window. A soft, cooling breeze billowed the flimsy white curtains. I felt completely blissful and at peace.
I’ve had similar experiences as an adult, but always with some gnawing worry, some irksome responsibility at the back of my mind. That first experience was the only time I completely abandoned myself to such rapture.
My earliest memory is of being carried by my father as he walked along the deck of a ship. I was two. We were on a steamer going up the inland passage to Alaska. I remember gazing up over my father’s shoulder at some kind of scaffolding.
He carried me so that I sat on his arm, resting up against his chest and shoulder. He was a big man, very tall and strong, with great confidence. I always felt safe when he held me that way.
My memory of scaffolding was a bit of a mystery. My family remembered the ship well but said there was no construction in process on board. A few years ago, I learned that the old steamship had become a floating restaurant, anchored in San Pedro Harbor.
I stopped by to see the ship and was surprised that it was so small — virtually a miniature of the enormous ship I remembered from forty years ago. I was now taller than my father had been. As I stood on the covered deck, the canopy seemed quite low. It no doubt provided shelter from the rains of the northwest, but it had an unattractive, industrial appearance — like construction scaffolding.
Recently, my father had a massive stroke. He lingered for a long time in a deep coma. When I went to see him, I instinctively put my hand on his chest, resting it where I used to lean when he held me. I wanted him to know someone loved him.
Santa Barbara, California
It was my second birthday. My parents and my older sister were making a fuss over me. They led me from the living room into the kitchen. The living room was lit up with its big yellow light but the kitchen was dark. There was a cake for me on the table, with candles. There was also, on the table, a little toy train set.
I don’t remember if I was the one who blew out the candles. Perhaps I tried. (“Blow, Marc, blow. Like this. Fffwwww. . . .”)
Then, back in the living room, there was a big Dennis the Menace doll for me. “Hennis to Pennis,” I said. “Hennis to Pennis!” agreed my grinning father. For years I believed that was Dennis’s real name.
I had to swallow some medicine that very evening, some gooey blue liquid. My dad fed it to me with a spoon, as we sat on the couch. I was so surprised that I didn’t even cry, and that in itself astonished me.
Someone had scribbled on the door, right underneath the knob. Though I wasn’t quite four years old at the time, the pattern of childish scribbling is still clear in my mind. As I was the oldest child, my father insisted no one else was capable of having done it. I insisted I was innocent. He cursed me and called me a liar. In a drunken rage, he beat me, to teach me “what happens to liars.” My mother pleaded, “Just tell him the truth and he’ll stop hitting you.” I swore to her I had not done it. “Well, tell him you did anyway,” she said, “just so he’ll stop.” I refused. He beat me more, but I never did confess to the crime I did not commit.
Thirty-five years later, I return to that first vivid memory to understand other events of my life. When I have remained quiet at times I should have voiced a truth, was the unconscious memory of that painful beating hindering me? When I have been a martyr, stoically accepting public humiliation for defending unpopular ideas and causes, was I exhibiting a stubbornness learned at the hands of an alcoholic father?
One thing I know can be attributed to the beatings I received from him. I do not drink.
Richwood, West Virginia
I am on the brick patio of my parents’ house in San Rafael, California. It is evening, but the sun is still up. I am two and a half.
My mother’s cousin, Jerry, is visiting us on leave from the Navy. He arrived on a motorcycle, the first I’ve seen. Dressed in his blue and white uniform, he is black-haired, tall and slim, and his ears stick out from the sides of his head. His eyes are lit with good humor and affection. He has been teasing me and I think he is the most wonderful person I have ever met.
The grownups settle into the redwood chairs with cocktails. I decide to impress Jerry by jumping into my doll’s baby carriage. I rock back and forth in it, screaming. Pitching forward, the toy carriage crashes down, and I bang my head on the bricks. I start to cry. My mother picks me up and soothes me. She shows me the knot on my forehead and tells me I have an egg on my head. I rub the egg; it’s hot and tender, like my embarrassment.
This is the first time I made a fool of myself for a man. It is certainly not the last.
Santa Monica, California
It is afternoon, almost four decades ago, in Detroit. I am nearly two years old, living in a run-down apartment house. My mother is doing our laundry in the basement. I see myself — as though outside my little body, floating near the ceiling — creeping carefully down the wooden stairs. I am barefoot, dressed in a diaper and T-shirt. I smell the soapy, steaming hot water, as my mother sorts clothes and loads a pile into the washer. In front of me, the metal-rimmed window reveals the ledge where we put walnuts for the squirrels. I am thinking I must be very, very careful not to fall.
I am three years old. It is morning. I come into the kitchen. I see my mother’s glass of orange juice on the table — untouched. Where is Mama? Why isn’t she in the kitchen? Something out of the ordinary is happening. I run through the house looking for her and come to the door of the study, usually open, now shut. Closed doors are new to me, and I feel an unfamiliar fear. I try the knob but Daddy stops me. He tells me Mama is in there, but she is with the doctor and I cannot see her now. I am struck with amazement and rage. I cry in fear and incomprehension. The next hours pass interminably.
Suddenly the silence is broken by a baby’s cry. I am led through the study door, open at last. I see my Mama smiling, lying on a bed. My life begins again as she hugs me, all too briefly. A stranger tells me my Mama is very tired and needs to rest. As I am let out the door, my eyes are drawn to a white bowl on the floor filled with something that looks like red noodles.
I never asked about the bowl. Its contents remained an unspoken mystery connected to what happened to Mama behind the closed door. Years later, after the birth of my first child, I realized the bowl had contained a bloody placenta. It is the sight of that bowl, not the baby sister who was born at home that afternoon, that is even now inextricably linked in my mind with the greater mysteries of birth.
I must have been barefoot more than I wore shoes the first few years of my life. But somewhere is a moment, frozen in time, crystal in its clarity, when I felt bare feet for the first time. I cannot remember events before or after, nor even my age. The sun, warm on my back and face, had heated the dirt under my feet until it was positively hot. I never see that kind of dirt — a fine, gray powder — without remembering vividly the experience of burrowing toes under the hot surface to the comforting, tolerable warmth below, and the joy of unfettered feet making patterns, raising dust, feeling free.
Michael and I were making a little pool for the water to lap into and fill, building up three thin walls of mud. John squatted nearby and watched us, his yo-yo clutched in one hand. All of a sudden he stood up — this is my first memory, the beginning of history — and flung the yo-yo into the lake. We stood together quietly and watched it float, irretrievable, on the glassy, undulating surface. I don’t remember if Michael or I shouted, or asked John why he did it, or risked going after it. I only know that someone had given each of us a yo-yo — red on one side and white on the other — and John had just thrown his in the water.
A few days later, Daddy took us out in a rowboat. He rowed us to a place where grasses grew up through the water. Suddenly, we saw John’s yo-yo. The sighting of it was a revelation. Hadn’t the yo-yo been lost forever? Hadn’t the yo-yo stopped being part of the world? Hadn’t the yo-yo, in disappearing, become something that never was?
Daddy made the boat glide precisely past the yo-yo and I reached into the water and picked it up.
My first memory is of a dream. There is a pastel blue background, and toys are gently raining down.
My mother tells me that I was three when it happened. I was very ill, burning with fever on a hot summer day. I could hear whispering from the other room. In retrospect, I think my parents were trying to determine whether they should take me to the hospital.
I remember sweat soaking my sheets. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to play. More disturbing still was the realization that my parents were unable to take the sickness away. My mother’s magical healing kisses had lost their power. In a primitive way, I realized I wasn’t safe.
There is an odd lapse in my recollection. My mother tells me that I had a convulsive seizure and my father carried me to the car.
I remember looking out the car window and seeing some men working on the television antenna on our roof. I saw their truck parked in the driveway and their ladder leaning against the house. I remember thinking this was funny.
My mother was driving and my father was holding me. I looked at my father and saw that he was crying. The seizure was over and his little boy was alive. He rocked me in his strong arms and cried.
A few years later, my father left. For a long time, my response was hurt and anger. But my hurt has been healed and my anger has been heard. In their place, my first memory reasserts itself: my father is crying because his little boy is alive.
Because my father died when I was four, I’ve always wanted to believe that my first memory was of him, as though that would somehow compensate for my having lost him so early.
I have heard so many stories about my father from my mother and other relatives that I wonder what I actually remember about him. What others have told me is a part of my memory now, but is my father?
I often have fleeting images of him in my mind: he is playing catch with me in our tiny backyard; we are walking downtown to his favorite restaurant for breakfast. I don’t know whether this man is my father — who has been gone for twenty-three years — or another person, an ideal person who lives on, loving me deeply no matter what I do, comforting me when I need to be comforted.
I remember standing in the bookstore at the 179th street bus station when I was twelve years old, deciding to buy Darwin’s Origin of Species. Later, my father made me take it back, saying, “You’ll never read this,” and I was broken-hearted.
I remember, before that, the day I got a nosebleed walking to school, and sneezed near the Hell Station (actually a “health station”). The teacher said, “You look like you’ve been attacked by a lion!”
But the first thing I remember was moving — at the age of four — to the Projects. Someone brought me to a playground while my folks carried in the boxes. It was a strange playground with a little tunnel, which, in my memory, moved in circles like the ones in funhouses. I really felt I was on Mars.
And that’s really my earliest memory — being on Mars. Which fits me, anyway — and this life. After all, when you’re four, how are you supposed to know which planet you’re on?
Brooklyn, New York