Your Earliest Memory

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.



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.

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  1. 6 arrows
    Posted August 14, 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    My earliest memory is of being carried up the steps to my grandmother’s house and being laid in a crib, after having gotten out of the hospital when I had had my adenoids removed at the age of three.

    A lot of my childhood memories are from the days I went to a one-room country school from Kindergarten through 3rd grade. I remember school programs like being in a play — one year, the three of us in my grade (all girls) acted out the story of Christ’s birth. One girl was the angel, another Mary, and I ended up playing the part of Joseph because I was the tallest one. Another year I was chosen to read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the younger children as they sat on the floor around me while I sat on a chair.

    I remember some ordinary moments in the day-to-day activities and responsibilities we had at the school, too. Not just clapping blackboard erasers and such, but things like one time being allowed to go out with some of the older kids (6th graders) to carry things out to the burn barrel and watching with awe as one of the girls struck a match to start a fire in the barrel.

    I only have positive memories of those school years, and I often wonder if my desire to homeschool didn’t have its roots in all those good times I remember being educated among children of a variety of ages (K-6).

  2. Ruth
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    I was 2 years 4 days old when my little sister was born, and I remember my mom coming down the hospital steps with my dad beside her holding my sister. I remember my mom sitting down in the car with a pillow on her lap and my dad putting the baby on the pillow (it was 1954). I remember getting back to our little house and mom introducing baby sister to my grandmother who lived with us. When I told this memory to my dad, he said that’s how it happened but I couldn’t possibly be “remembering” it because two-year-olds don’t keep memories. Might have been the one and only time daddy was wrong 🙂

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      That is such a sweet memory! At least, I hope it is a good memory for you.=)

      • Ruth
        Posted August 15, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes, it is a very good memory!

  3. Ruth
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Your other earliest memory made me cry :-(. And yes, I agree with you, emotional pain is so much worse than physical pain. The memory of physical pain fades considerably with time, but emotional pain scars your soul.

  4. shelley p
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Hugs….that must have been so hard to remember….

    My first memory being on a windowsill, very high up, had to climb onto bunk beds to get to the sill, and seeing my parents spotting me…my sister had encouraged me but she was back in bed by the time my parents were in the room..I was younger than 3, as my next memory was of our new house when I was 3, it was the way I climbed the stairs on all fours as they were steep an old terraced Victorian house and a conversation my nanna and mum had about the layers of wallpaper they would have to remove before they could decorate…guess that’s why I liked the pictures of the rattery…they were homely to my memories…the house cleaned up real good as I remembered.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      You know I want to say it’s not that hard to remember, because I’m used to it. It’s always been there, a part of me, and I don’t feel like I have any emotions about it, or any of the other abuse anymore. But then, if that were entirely true, I suppose I wouldn’t have kept that one a secret for fifty years, and I wouldn’t have toned it down the handful of times I did share it. Usually, when I have told somebody about it, I say I don’t think he hit the dog, he just hit the bed to scare me, but I have always known he really did beat my dog. I don’t think I’d have lied about it if it really didn’t bother me any more as much as I think it doesn’t bother me (if that makes sense).

      Writing this stuff down has been really helpful.

  5. Kai Jones
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your memories, even the frightening one. I respect you for surviving and thriving, which you are doing even when you have reactions you don’t want to things that trigger you.

  6. Fatcat
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    You made me cry today. I’m glad it helped you to share it and I hope that my crying and praying for you helps too, as in bearing one another’s burdens.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      AW, thanks. I do feel kind of bad about making other people cry, though.

  7. jules
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    My heart just breaks for your two year old self.

  8. Lori
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Born and raised in Arkansas–still here 🙂 Which part were you in? We live in NWArkansas.
    My earliest memory is of being in the study with my Dad who was seated at his desk and I was no older than 2 because I was wearing a cloth diaper and had pooped in it–so I walked over to Dad who looked down at me in his black rimmed glasses (think Buddy Holly)–he smiled at me and said, “Do you need a new diaper?” I can still see his face looking down at me and remember the feeling of a lumpy cloth diaper on my behind.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      That’s funny.=) I was in the Searcy, Little Rock area.

  9. Fatcat
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Now that I have pondered this off and on all day, I have to ask where was your mom?

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      At work. She went back to work full time when I was six weeks old and, other than about a two year stint off when she was able to stay at home with my youngest brother (when I was 6-8) she continued working full time. Her job always carried our health insurance.

  10. Posted August 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    One of my very early memories involves being tucked into bed with my younger brother (we shared a youth bed) when we both had measles. It must have been when I was around three or four years old. The shades were pulled down and we had to wear special glasses to protect our eyes. I guess they didn’t do a very good job since we are both nearsighted. 🙂 Another memory involves my mother taking down a bottle of Father John’s cough medicine from a high shelf. It tasted of licorice.

    • Posted August 15, 2014 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Accidentally posted my comment before I was finished. I was going to say that sometimes I am confused over my memories because what I think I am remembering is just the memory of a photograph I have seen in my mother’s albums. I don’t think she had any photos of brother Dan and me covered in measles, though, or one of Father John’s!

      I’m so sad for the pain you’ve endured and my heart just hurts so much for you. May Christ be the balm that heals all your wounds.

  11. Jen
    Posted August 16, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    My earliest memory is standing in the kitchen of the house in Maryland with the rust-colored shag carpet that we lived in before I turned three. It was daytime, light streaming through the windows. It had saloon doors separating it from the living room that I could run underneath without hitting my head, and if I stretched up, I could swing them back and forth with my hands. There were tall counters that I remember (after this) my mother would sit us on to help her cook meals, treats, etcetera, and I also remember making applesauce in that kitchen.

    Nothing particular was happening at the first moment I remember – it was a quiet time, no idea where my siblings were – but I very clearly remember a sense of turning “on” – like God was saying, “Here you go, have fun now!” It is a very peaceful, happy memory, and I treasure it. Kitchens are happy places for me and always have been, I think partly because of this memory.

    Thank you for sharing your stories – good and bad, beautiful and ugly, I find them thought provoking and meaningful. I don’t know what else I can say, but good luck muddling through this mess.

  12. Julia
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m so sorry HM. No kid (or dog) should be subjected to that. Big hugs to you.

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