A writer in one of my memoir classes a couple of years ago posed an interesting writing prompt from her training as a psychologist: “Recover three of your earliest memories with a feeling attached—then ask your immediate family to do the same.” Well, we won’t be trying that last part.
But here are two I came up with–
1. The light
I am maybe 3 or 4 years old. Every night I am tucked in my narrow bed in my little bedroom at 107 Audubon Drive, in Carmel. The head of my bed is against the wall opposite the window that faces the street. There is a streetlight outside.
There are curtains covering my window. When they were hung, someone missed the first hook at the center on one side, so they do not meet perfectly. Therefore, a beam of light from that streetlight enters my room and strafes across my pillow every night. Every night I fight it, turning my head left or right, scrunching to one or the other side of my little bed, to escape the relentless knife-blade of artificial light.
One day—in a fit of spring cleaning, probably—my mother takes down the curtains, washes them, and re-hangs them. This time, they meet properly. The beam of light no longer enters my room. I can finally sleep.
I feel surprise and wonder. Who knew that things in this world were mutable?
2. The Kitselman Party
I wake from sleep to find myself surrounded by fur. Lush fur above me, below me, silky fur to my left and right, plush feathery fur between my fingers still balled from sleep, a universe consisting entirely of delightful fur.
In the distance I hear adult conversation, the giggle of ice cubes, music from the record player. In this moment I am absolutely perfectly content and happy. I am so young I don’t even know how to get down from here and go find the people if I wanted to.
Here’s what I didn’t know at that moment: that my family arrived at this party with me asleep in someone’s arms; that someone laid me still sleeping among the fur coats piled on the pool table. I wouldn’t even remember this moment if a story hadn’t been told over and over again, about how my older brother Andy, himself no more than 4 or 5, spilled the crème de menthe on the carpet at the party at the Kitselman mansion. In that retelling I remembered but did not speak of my own memory of that night, of the loveliness of waking among the furs, secure and unbothered.
I have often wondered, as an adult, if that moment gave rise to my obsessive love of my stuffed animals. And if that moment gave birth to a certain (entirely unjustified) internal security that I will always have what I need in life; that I do not need to worry inordinately about tomorrow.
These are good gifts from early memory: surprise and wonder, security and optimism.