“I remember walking along what seemed like a huge expanse of road. I was very young and very scared. But I had to do it. I think you told me to do it.”
“Walking along a road? I wouldn’t have let you walk by yourself anywhere at 2 years old,” says my mother.
“It is my first memory,” I repeat. But she’s right. She would never have put me in any danger. “Well, maybe it’s like Piaget’s memory about being kidnapped when he was 2. That was a made-up memory.”
When she looks puzzled, I say: “Piaget, the child-development psychologist who talked about memory….” I see I have to explain. “When he was a baby, Jean Piaget was in his stroller on a walk with his babysitter when a man tried to kidnap him. The babysitter kept that from happening even though she got kinda scratched up. Throughout his childhood, Piaget could literally see those scratches in his memory. He could see the policeman who showed up with a white baton, the man running away–the whole scene. But when he was 15, he found out that the babysitter had made the entire story up to try and get a reward. So much for memory. Piaget called this sort of thing reconstructed memory.”
“Well, if you aren’t reconstructing a memory, if you actually were walking along a road by yourself at age 2,” Mama says, “that would have been in Florida. Hmm.” She’s figuring it out.
“It’s odd,” I say, “because I also remember being in a car, and I couldn’t have been walking on a street and riding in a car at the same time. Gramma was on my right in the car. I don’t remember her, but I do remember her dress, or at least I remember that the dress I remember is like the dresses she wore.“
“The two of us and you in a car,” Mama says.
I picture Mama mentally going through one of her old photo albums, past all those pictures she took of me in diapers, then in gingham rompers. There it is: a car. That car was undoubtedly my father’s choice, so it would have been an Oldsmobile. “I think I was standing on the front seat of a car looking out the windshield,” I say. “I think you were driving.”
“Well, that would have been the case through ’46. Your father was still overseas, so I did the driving. Did I ever tell you? He had the best job in the military by that time: processing paperwork for soldiers coming back home.”
She’s told me this a number of times. She’s getting to the age at which one repeats oneself. Two-self. Three-self. And so four-th. Each repetition, a memory that exists no longer, now only a memory remembered.
“Florida,” I say. Now that we’re through with Piaget, I’ll be the one to keep us on track. “You and Grandma in the car, you behind the wheel, Grandma in one of her flowered rayon dresses. Oh,” I say, suddenly remembering something else that may be real, “I seem to be waving something in the air.”
“Oh, that brings to mind something I haven’t thought of in years.” Mama shares with me what otherwise might have passed on by and not be what I write about when I write about my first memory:
(Wait. You have to understand, as I’m writing this, that I’m older than my mother was when we were having this conversation you’ve just read about. I’m having to remember my own memory of the conversation. Give me a minute to do this,… Grandma…: I called her Gramma; what did Mama call her? I have to wait till it comes to me. When memories are no longer remembered, somehow they are remade when you wait for them…. Pearl! Mama called my Gramma “Pearl.” Now I’m chuckling. I feel so good being able to bring my Gramma’s name back from bygones. I give myself a satisfactory nod and continue writing about what I can remember of my mother’s remembrances of my first memory.)
“Pearl and I, and you, were coming back from grocery shopping. We always bought a newspaper at the store. News in my younger days was terribly important. The war was over, but the aftermath was huge. First, soldiers were coming home, then they weren’t, at least not as many and not as soon. Then the government changed what passed for its mind again, and lots more came home all at once. People in other countries who had collaborated with the Nazis were being executed. National borders were being shifted around. There were even funny stories. Probably the funniest was when the emperor of Japan announced to the world that he was not actually the son of a sun goddess and was not a living god. Can you imagine, in my day and age, people thinking their ruler was a god?”
“You always bought a newspaper,” I say, hoping to get us back on track again.
“Yes. You wanted to carry it to the car while Pearl and I carried the groceries. You climbed into the car with it, and that was OK, but then about halfway home you were waving it around in front of my face while I was trying to drive. I told you not to. You did it again, anyway. I told you not to. You did it a third time, this time in big circles over your head, looking right at me to see what I’d do about it. You found out, too, because just at that moment you lost your grip on it, and it sailed out the car window onto the road. So, I stopped the car, got out, and told you to get out and walk back and get it–while I stood there ready to bolt back and grab you if a another car came along.”
“So, it really did happen,” I conclude.
Now, 70 years later, I’m writing my memoirs and thinking about first memories. I conclude that this one is not only real, it’s a good memory. Because mixed up with the scared part of that long, long walk to where the newspaper landed on the side of the road is the proud part: coming back with the newspaper clutched in my fists, knowing that my Mama and my Gramma were waiting for me, that we would all go home and have cookies. and that I would never again wave a newspaper around over my head in the car.
My first memory has remade itself, and I’m happy to have it with me now.