I read somewhere that your earliest memories communicate something about how you see yourself. I think the idea was that you choose the memories that reinforce what you think about yourself and your place in the world. Or maybe you don’t choose them, but they are the ones that stick with you because they confirm your understanding of the way the world works and how you fit in that world.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s an interesting theory. I have a handful of very strong memories from the same period of childhood- I was about 2 in all of them (possibly even younger in one, not older because they are all from when I was still an only child). This seems fairly early for having such strong vivid memories. But I don’t know the chronology for them- we were living in Texas, I was sleeping in a crib, my brother wasn’t born yet. I was 2 years and 9 months old when he was born, so before that.
Some of these memories are just silly- I have no idea why I remember watching my mother wiping up a spot of something on the carpet in her room while we chatted in a conversation that mentioned both mice and toilet training, but I do. I am not very clear on the significance of remembering drinking out of a tin cup at Granny’s house (Granny was a courtesy title, she was my babysitter), except that I loved doing it, nor do I know why I remember sitting in front of my house waving at an old man who walked down the sidewalk in front of us. I don’t know why it matters that Buddy, a little boy I played with all the time, once broke a big stick over his knee while we were playing in the sandbox together, but it impressed me immensely and was my first childish inkling of the power of fulcrums and leverage. I think it’s funny that I have a very powerful and strong memory of realizing I left my favorite block next door at the church building one morning, so without asking, I put on my shoes (which *might* have been boots, that part isn’t clear) and went next door by myself to get it. I felt very independent and had a strong sense of ‘I answer to nobody,’ although I couldn’t articulate that feeling. My block was green, btw, and I was reprimanded when I got back.
But are the two strongest memories I have from that toddler era:
Memory 1: I think my crib was in a sort of sleeping porch. It was just off my parents bedroom. And if I cried hard enough, my dad would come in and lay down on the floor next to the crib, put his hand in, and submit to my tearful request that he ‘tush mah har.’ Tush in this context rhymes with rush. I was born in Arkansas and then we moved to Texas and ‘har’ is how I said hair and this was not a childish mispronunciation. I had a thick southern accent . I have one particularly keen memory of an occasion where I made this demand and my father complied, and as he tushed mah har, I felt this deeply gratifying sense of power wash over my entire small self. I had made the biggest, most powerful person in the world do what I wanted him to do.
Memory 2: I’ve shared the above memories in many conversations where the topic veers to early memories.
While I’ve said I am not sure which memory is really the oldest, I kind of think it’s this one. That’s because whenever anybody asks, “What’s your earliest memory?” this is the one that always comes to mind immediately, although it’s almost never the one I share. It’s my strongest, and probably my earliest memory, and it merits a trigger warning. If you are triggered by stories of childhood abuse or the abuse of animals, you should skip this.
TRIGGER WARNING! PET AND CHILD ABUSE!
My strongest and earliest memory is being flung into a corner like a rag doll while the same person who sometimes laid on the floor and ‘tushed my har’ at night whipped my beloved little dog (a chihuahua, just so you understand the size) with a belt, and the dog yelped and howled in pain, and I howled and pleaded and wept in a completely different and infinitely worse sort of pain and begged that he stop hitting my dog and hit me instead. I screamed and pleaded and begged until I couldn’t cry any more. It felt like he whipped that little dog forever.
I was two. The dog was being punished because I had disobeyed instructions and left the yard (where I’d been playing unsupervised in a yard which was not remotely adequately fenced for a toddler). This was something I am told I did on a regular basis and my parents were constantly frustrated that I would not obey them and stay in the yard. I would leave the yard to go visit a flock of chickens that lived about half way around the block, taking my little dog with me.
Because I kept on doing this even though I had been told not to, and had been whipped with that belt on numerous occasions to no avail, that was the reason for punishment of the dog this time, which explains everything, I guess, if you’re a psychopath. I was told that the dog had to be punished in my stead because I made the dog participate in my act of disobedience by bringing her along with me. That’s my first memory. Life did not get magically better after that.
(yes, this is horrific and I recognize this objectively, but subjectively, I remember it in the 3rd person, as though watching it happen to somebody else.
You can see why I don’t often share that memory when I’m with friends or acquaintances and we’re chatting about our childhoods and early memories. It’s a mood-killer, that one.