Today’s guest post comes from Steve Grooms
My artistic friend Sue has no difficulty describing the earliest memory of her life. Sue remembers looking through the bars of her crib at flowers on the bedroom wall. The wallpaper flowers were “funny,” she recalls–lumpy things with ugly colors. Such deformed flowers could only be somebody’s idea of a joke, and Sue laughed out loud. She had seen real flowers, so elegantly formed and suffused with vivid color, while these ugly blobs were nothing like that. By working with old photos and family lore, Sue has dated that memory to a time she was two or three years old.
Some folks simply cannot retrieve early memories. A friend once told me he has no memory—no memory whatsoever—of anything before his last years of high school. I find that spooky. Most people remember events from when they were four or five. One of my friends insists she has a clear memory from when she was two. I’m skeptical, and yet I don’t rule it out. Scientists tell us that children have memories from their earliest years, but as they age children lose those first memories, replacing them with later ones.
When my daughter Molly was a toddler, her daycare mom, Julie, talked with her about a woman who lived nearby. Julie once took her daycare class to visit that neighbor, and she mentioned this when Molly was about three. “I know,” said tiny Molly. “Her dog is Samson.” Julie was gobsmacked. When Julie took Molly to the neighbor’s, Molly was an infant, so young she hadn’t begun talking, and yet she remembered Samson. Molly no longer has that memory.
My earliest memory was set in the upper half of an old duplex in Manchester, Iowa,where my mother, my sister and I lived during WW II. I was two or three years old at the time, most likely three. My mother was using a metal key to wind the strange little cuckoo clock in our living room. The clock had a pendulum and a fat painted bluebird that wagged left and right.
“He’s at The War, Stevie. Daddy is a soldier and he is at The War.”
“Why doesn’t he come home?”
“He has to be a soldier now.”
“I miss my Daddy.”
“He’ll be home after The War.”
That memory surely predates my recollection of catching my first fish. My father is part of this memory, so he must have been on leave or (more likely) this happened in 1945, shortly after he came home from Japan. Our family was enjoying a summer day in Tirrill Park in Manchester. The park is bordered on the west side by the Maquoqueta River. My father set me up with a fishing rod, baiting my hook with a worm. Against his repeated instructions, I walked up and down the bank rather than sticking to one spot. Then I caught a fish, a white crappie. Several years ago I returned to Tirrill Park while researching the book I was writing about my parents. With no effort I walked to the spot where I caught the crappie.
It is harder to describe the time my grandfather bought me a “drumstick” (one of those ice cream novelties). I was four at the time. I had eaten a drumstick before, but only one. Drumsticks, like most nice things in life, seemed to my child’s mind like magical and random events. When my grandfather bought that drumstick I suddenly realized that drumsticks were a normal part of the world; you could have one at almost any time if you had money. Life was more orderly and predictable than I had understood. Joy was repeatable, at least potentially.
My only clear memory of kindergarten took place on the first day of school. I was five. Toward the middle of the day Miss Carlson ordered the kids to take a nap. I rolled out my rug next to the rug on which Susie Stoever was trying to sleep. Perhaps I should mention that Susie was a blond cutie with a pug nose. I stretched out on my rug, my head near Susie’s face. Disgusted, Susie swapped ends so her feet were at my head. I switched so we were again head-to-head. We repeated that sequence several times before Miss Carlson dragged me off to the cloak room, that gloomy overgrown closet where we stored our coats and galoshes. And there I napped alone. On my first day of school I was busted for sexual harassment!
Some of my early memories have ideas or discoveries attached to them. When I was in first grade, a kid in my class named Andy Williams (same name, but not the singer) stood before the class to deliver a report. Up on the wall above Andy was a picture of our president: Harry S. Truman. Sitting in my seat (on the far right hand side of the class, three rows from the front) I suddenly realized that that was Andy up there talking, not me. “Hey, that’s Andy! That is not me! He is Andy and I am Steve. HE has to give a report and I do not!” It was my discovery of how each human being has a separate consciousness and a separate experience of life. I leaned back with a smile as Andy quavered his way through his report.
This last memory is my favorite, and it too is hitched to an epiphany. On a rainy spring night, I was in my crib in the little bedroom that my sister and I shared in the years right after the war. I was four or five. As cars moved north along Carroll Street, their headlights shone through our cottage’s picture window and made a spot on my bedroom walls. While the cars were distant that spot would move slowly, but as the cars passed us the light would suddenly whip around the bedroom walls with startling speed. Similarly, the tires of the passing cars hissed as they rolled along the rainy street. That hissing became louder as the cars got near us and then reached a crescendo of Doppler Effect just as the autos went by us and the light spot was zipping around. I clutched the bars of my crib and gloried in this show of light and sibilant sound. “This is beautiful!” I thought. And then I thought, “There is such a thing as beauty.”
Do you have any favorite memories from early in your life?