The scribe of the soul

What’s your earliest memory? It’s generally agreed by psychologists that our memories can go back to when we were two but no further, although others dispute that. Whatever the age, I think early memories ground us, helping us to understand why we turned out as we did. Over the past couple of years, I’ve interviewed certain architects, recording their memories for the NSW State Library archive, from childhood to architectural success and beyond. Naturally, I ask about their earliest recollections. It always fascinates me. Often it’s random things, noticing trees or loving boats. Some are more dramatic, with memories of wartime and a parent’s anxiety.

My earliest memories are mainly tactile. It’s the feel on my knees of the scratchy carpet in the dining room and the slipperiness of the seagrass matting (on the stairs, of all places). It’s the cold tiled floor of the sunroom. They’re clearly the memories of a toddler who spent his days playing on the floor. I remember the delicious feeling of being under the dining table, too, the idea of being hidden, and of rolling around on the grass in the garden. There are visual memories, too, like being totally captivated by the bright red berries of cotoneaster we passed on the way home from taking my sister to school. When I see them now, I’m whooshed back to sitting in a pushchair with my mother at the helm. It’s amazing what we can dredge up from the past.

Many memories are prompted by old photographs or videos and you wonder if you only remember them because you’ve seen them so often. Others have been talked about in the family for so long that you’re almost duty-bound to claim you remember them even when you don’t. I’m pretty sure I don’t remember my insistence on sleeping in my school cap, so proud was I of my new school uniform, but I’ve been told about it so often that it’s become lodged in the memory bank.

At the moment, I’m dredging up newer memories as I work on a novel set in the 1980s. I have the luxury of my diaries and journals of the time but still, I’m amazed how many names and places mean nothing to me now while other events remain crystal clear. I can remember whole conversations and even what I was wearing. How odd, I think, that some memories are stored in such detail and others discarded. Or maybe it’s all there and we just need a prompt, a specific key to release them. It’s a recognised sign of age, that the past becomes clearer as the present grows foggier. Maybe I just need to wait a little longer and all will be revealed.

I remember one particular event from my toddlerhood. I must have been about three or four years old, as it took place in the house that we moved from when I was four. We lived on a relatively busy road.  I remember happily running around in the front garden and then, for some reason, dashing out of the gates. My mother called out and raced after me, pulling me back to the front of our house. There, she pulled down my trousers and smacked my bare bottom. I remember the total shock of all that. It was out of character for my mother to smack me, for a start, but I remember the feeling of shame, too, as cars passed and could witness my punishment, my disgrace (and my buttocks). That extreme emotional response has lodged in my memory for decades but I never discussed it and never mentioned it to my mother.

And then, nearly fifty years later, when my mother was dying and she was drifting in and out of consciousness, she gripped my hand and said, ‘I’m sorry that I smacked you.’ I knew immediately what she was referring to. ‘I was just so worried that you were going to run into the road. I was so upset.’ And I squeezed her hand and said it was fine. I’ve often marvelled how the memory of such a seemingly inconsequential event so long ago, nothing more than a few moments of childhood, had lingered, but it had obviously shocked us both. By acknowledging it, its power was now gone.

If I can still access that feeling of shame and shock, I can only imagine the effect something much more profound would have. Thanks to #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and the numerous support organisations, people are sharing stories of trauma that have been hidden or ignored for so long, the abuses often inflicted by people in positions of power. The memories don’t go but there’s some kind of conclusion in the acknowledgment of the pain suffered, the understanding that lives were changed because of things that shouldn’t have happened.

Memory is an incredible thing, the ‘scribe of the soul’, according to Aristotle, documenting the past and maybe even adding a dash of artistic licence. It is also a gateway to wisdom, through which we can review our experiences and learn to do things differently (or not). I feel lucky that I enjoy delving back through the years, savouring my adventures and the places and people I’ve encountered. I can even bear to go through the memories that make me cringe. I suppose memory shows that every action has a consequence, however tiny. And in the end, I wonder if they’re a way of reminding ourselves to live our best selves, being as kind and thoughtful as we can. People will remember, after all.

What’s your earliest memory?









Categories: memoirTags: , , , , ,


  1. My family moved house several times when I was a child so it is easy to calculate the age when memories occurred. We left the house I was born in when I was two. Behind that house was a field with cows, those enormous beasts being a hard thing for a two-year-old to forget. And once a group of kids took me to a pond where there were tadpoles in various stages of their transformation into frogs. Pretty cool. On another occasion, a group of kids with a baby sitter were on a walk down our street when I saw a dog having a crap. He rotated his bum as he pooed and made a perfectly formed ‘dairy queen’ pile. I was amazed at his talent. When I pointed it out, I was scolded for being ‘dirty’. There was plenty more of that to come in later years but it was the first time I remember the shame and outrage of being totally misunderstood. I have a lot of memories from then and one I feel might have been earlier, whatever the psychologists say. I remember lying in my crib and watching time pass in the form of reflected light from the window moving across the ceiling. My mother was a party animal not at all suited to caring for an infant child. I think she left me napping to visit neighbours and probably stayed for one too many… Thanks for this thoughtful and nostalgic post.

    • Who wouldn’t be fascinated by a dairy queen pile! Interesting you mention those very early memories. I can well imagine how reflected light would hold a baby’s attention. Funnily enough my mother had a very similar memory, of being in her pram and being aware of coloured light… I’m glad it sparked some memories for you, Bhagya, although some might still be difficult. X

  2. A most thought provoking post, beautifully expressed.
    How amazing of your mother to apologise for that on her deathbed. What an enormously healing moment for both of you. And what a transformational gift for you to left with when you mother had gone. I hope I will have your mother’s grace when my time comes.
    My earliest memory is feeling lost in a forest of legs as a toddler at one of my parents’ drinks parties.
    I don’t remember much else of my life before twelve – I think I just spent my time staring at colours!

    • A transformational gift, indeed, at a transformational time. She said many other incredible and wonderful things in those last days … I have been told of my star turn as a four year old, running into a drinks thing my parents were hosting. I was wearing nothing but an old teething ring, strategically placed. Thank God I have no actual memory of it or I’d still be in therapy …

  3. I can remember being in my grandmothers back garden eating crunchy dirt from a flower bed so I must have been very small. Then later at school in the playground standing in line aged about five I distinctly remember thinking “I am me” the idea of being a separate person to the others.

  4. I can remember being in my grandmothers back garden eating crunchy dirt from a flower bed so I must have been very small. Then later at school in the playground standing in line aged about five I distinctly remember thinking “I am me” the idea of being a separate person to the others.
    I loved the story of your mother. We didnt smack our children either but Nicolas aged about three ran out across Avenue Alphonse X111 in Brussels and I smacked him very hard, we both got an enormous shock I remember this very clearly.

    • Wonderful to remember such special existential moments, Michele! As for 3 year olds running into roads and scaring the bejesus out of their mothers … It seems like Nicolas might also appreciate your acknowledgement of that moment, too.☺

    • (Sorry, Michele, just released my reply to you wasn’t actually attached to your comment but was sent as a separate comment… see below.)

  5. Lovely memoir of memories! I was recently told a story by my mother of me “escaping” as a toddler into our neighbouring casurina forest and then my parents building a fence to keep me in…☹ Although I don’t remember that incident, I do remember exploring through the remnant bush at the front of our block at the age of 3, after which it was all cut down…I’ve obviously been trying to get ‘back to nature’ ever since!! 😁 Most of my early memories are in outdoor settings that made a deep impression on my senses although I also have sense memories of my mother’s smell and touch and clothes. Temperature and weather can also send me back instantly to a particular place & time. I also vividly remember the recurring flying dream I had as a child where I was able to hover above the treetops and powerlines as far as the end of the street but no further even though I really wanted to fly out to sea and away! I still have a vivid dream life but no ‘astral travelling ‘ 😉 I am also guilty of smacking my son once in a moment of about to run across a carpark shock…He says he doesn’t remember that or other times I was angry with him as a toddler (I always apologized at the time) but I am sure these things have an effect on the psyche and are stored in our body memory. TRE exercises, I have found, are hugely beneficial in releasing those early traumas whether we consciously remember them or not. Thanks for the interesting post Colin! And other comments, readers 🙂

    • Your love of trees and appreciation of nature is surely grounded in that early experience. So important. And then blessed with an expansive imagination, flying around!… The comments about smacking are so interesting. It’s such an immediate response, and punishing for both involved, really. Extreme shock stays in the system, as you say… Thanks so much for your great comments!

  6. Lovely piece of writting Colin which has me sitting here thinking and recollecting old memories. The trouble is I can’t think what my earliest memories are because so much runs into the other and I would be sure to get it wrong. As you point out, photos and a repetitive story just cement the image firmly in the brain so that it is hard to know if it really is a memory or not. Interestingly the memories I can think of are all nice ones…I must have some unpleasant ones buried deep within, but for the life of me I can’t conjure them up.

    • It’s tricky, certainly. But as Eddy says in Ab Fab, ‘I’ve started repressed false memory therapy; I’ll get something on you yet. You in a wood in a hood. It’s all coming back to me’… I’m enjoying the memories your trips around France provoke!

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