Of all the things that happened in the first years of your life, why is your earliest memory your earliest memory? You fed your Cheerios to the dog, dropping them from your highchair; you wrote on the wall, screamed your bloody lungs out in your crib, toddled across the living room to the kitchen and back again, pulled the cat’s tail, and dozed as your father read you a book. You went to the zoo, went to the doctor’s, went to the bathroom, and squirmed on your mother’s knee as your Aunt Cecile went on and on and on. None of these incidents made the grade, but you remember your big brother farting under the blanket. Why that, and nothing else?
You dog-eared that page because you thought it was important, you would need to refer to it later. Somehow, your brother, the blanket, the fart all seemed iconic, together or separately. Your earliest memory is your earliest map you jotted down so that you could find your way home. It’s the first story you told yourself because it all made it all make sense somehow, or seemed funny at the time. It’s your first snapshot that captured the essence of the scene, the portrait that transcribed a soul, a landscape that depicted the sublime.
My earliest memory was of a visit to the Grand Canyon.
I couldn’t have been more than four or five because my sister wasn’t there. It was just my parents and I. They kept me quiet while we drove through the endless desert by talking of the wonder of the canyon. When we finally arrived, I was excited. Dad parked the car, and we went to find it, my mother holding my hand and my father striding ahead. The air was hot and smelled of mules that tourists rode. We got to the edge. There was no fence there: just us, the edge, and the canyon. It was beautiful; more beautiful than anything I had ever seen. My mother held my hand at a safe distance from the edge, but my father went on right to the brink.
“Careful,” she called to him.
“Come on,” he said. “This is really something; a whole mile deep. If I fell, I would fall for a whole mile.”
He took another step closer.
I took a step to be near to him, to see what he saw; to experience the brink as he experienced it.
“No,” my mother yelled and yanked me back. She spanked me, I cried.
My father turned to us, his face screwed up with questions. “Martha, what’s wrong?”
“He follows you everywhere and he’s going to kill himself.”
“Martha, no. Don’t do this. It’s all right.”
“I’m not going to watch you and him both go over the edge.”
She dragged me back to the parking lot. I continued crying. “No, Momma, I won’t follow,” I promised.
We baked in the car for what seemed like hours while my father got his fill of the Grand Canyon. He finally returned, sat behind the wheel, and started the car without a word. In silence we drove back through the same desert from whence we came.
They say that once you’ve heard a person’s earliest memory, you know how he thinks, and what his fixations are. You’ve listened to the story of his life. Well, now you’ve heard mine. There you have it all: my fascination with the abyss, my mother’s protectiveness, a prediction of suicide, my vow never, ever, to follow. I never did follow my father, or my wife, either. There you have the abridged version of the epic saga of S. Harry Zade.
Here’s the problem: as powerful as it is in defining the central themes of a life, the earliest memory is a child’s story. As such, it fails to grasp nuance or ambivalence. The characters are cardboard; the plot lines, stale. It captures a child’s view of the world. It is not the thing to guide a life by. Like an old road map, as expressways are built and bridges closed, it needs updating.
If I could update my earliest memory, I could look at things a new way.
Many years later I asked my parents about the trip to the Grand Canyon. They said they’d never been there.
At first this puzzled me. Did I make it all up? Did they conspire to forget that awful event? Now, I really don’t care. Whether it happened or not, I still call it my earliest memory because it serves well as the creation myth of my self.
After all, the earliest memory is not the earliest memory when it happened. It is assigned the post later when we sort through all the stories of our lives and trace our preoccupations back to their beginnings. We choose the most inchoate legend we’ve got. In my opinion, it doesn’t even need to have happened for it to work the way it does, as the foundation of our character.
What is your earliest memory?