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?