“I remember walking alone along this endless road, this huge expanse, rough and black. I was very young and very scared. But I had to do it. I think you told me to do it.”
“Walking along a road? I wouldn’t have let you walk by yourself anywhere at 2 years old,” says my mother.
“It is my first memory,” I repeat. But she’s right. She would never have put me in any danger. “Well, maybe this is a made-up memory. We do have those— like Piaget’s memory of being kidnapped when he was 2.”
When she looks puzzled, I say: “Jean Piaget, the child-development psychologist?” I see I have to explain. “When he was a baby, Piaget was in his stroller on a walk with his babysitter when a man tried to kidnap him. The babysitter kept that from happening even though the man hit her. Throughout his childhood, Piaget said he could literally see the policeman who showed up with a white baton, the kidnapper running away — the whole scene. Then, when he was 15, he found out the babysitter had made up the entire story to try and get a reward from his parents for keeping him safe. So much for memory. Piaget called this sort of thing reconstructed memory.”
“Well, if you aren’t reconstructing a memory, if you actually were walking along a road by yourself at age 2,” Mama says, “that would have been in Florida. Hmm.” She’s figuring it out.
“It’s odd,” I say, “because I also remember being in a car. I couldn’t have been walking on a road and riding in a car at the same time. Gramma was on my right in the car. I don’t remember her, but I do remember her dress. Or at least I remember that the dress I remember is like the dresses she wore.”
“The two of us and you. In a car,” Mama says.
I picture Mama mentally going through one of her old photo albums, past all those pictures she took of me in diapers, then in gingham rompers. There it is: the car, an Oldsmobile. “I think I was standing on the front seat of a car looking out the windshield,” I say. “I think you were driving.”
“Well, that would have been the case through ’46. Your father was still overseas, so I did the driving. Did I ever tell you? He had the best job in the military by that time: processing paperwork for soldiers coming back home.”
She’s told me this a number of times. She’s getting to the age at which one repeats oneself, as though a reminder is necessary of memories too old to be sure of. Each repetition is a memory — not of the old real-life incident but, instead, of the last repetition.
“Florida,” I say. I’ll be the one to keep us on track. “You and Grandma in the car, you behind the wheel, Grandma in one of her flowered rayon dresses. Oh,” I say, suddenly remembering something else that may be real, “I seem to be waving something in the air.”
“That brings to mind something I haven’t thought of in years.” Mama shares with me what otherwise might have passed on by.
(As I’m writing this, I’m older than my mother was so long ago when we were having this conversation. I’m now having to remember my own memory of the conversation. Give me a minute to do this…. Grandma. I called her Gramma. What did Mama call her? I have to wait till it comes to me. Sometimes memories come back when you wait for them…. Pearl! Mama called my Gramma “Pearl.” Now I’m chuckling. I feel so good being able to bring my Gramma’s name back from bygones. I give myself a satisfactory nod.)
“Pearl,” I say.
“Yes, Mama replies. “Pearl and I, and you, were coming back from grocery shopping. We had bought a chicken to roast, and a newspaper. We always bought a newspaper at the store. News in my younger days was terribly important. The war was over, but the aftermath was huge. First, soldiers were coming home, then they weren’t, at least not as many and not as soon. Then the government changed what passed for its mind again, and lots more came home all at once. People in other countries who had collaborated with the Nazis were being executed. National borders were being shifted around. There were even funny stories. Probably the funniest was when the emperor of Japan announced to the world that he was not actually the son of a sun goddess. Can you imagine, in my day and age, people thinking their ruler was a god?”
“You always bought a newspaper,” I say.
“Yes. You wanted to carry it to the car while Pearl and I carried the groceries. You climbed into the car with it. That was OK. But then about halfway home you started waving it around in front of my face while I was trying to drive. I told you not to. You did it again, anyway. Again, I told you not to, and you went ahead and did it a third time, this time in big circles over your head, looking right at me to see what I’d do about it. You found out, too, because just at that moment you lost your grip on it, and it sailed out the car window onto the road. So, I stopped the car, got out and told you to get out. I told you to walk back and get it — while I stood there ready to bolt back and grab you if another car came along.”
“So, it really did happen,” I conclude.
Now, 70 years after this incident, and 30 years after our conversation about it, I’m considering first memories. This is something you do when you write your life stories. I conclude that this memory is not only real; it’s a good memory. Because mixed up with the scared and lonely part of that long, long walk to where the newspaper landed on the side of the road is the good part: coming back all by myself, proud of myself, to my Mama and Gramma, newspaper clutched in my fist, knowing we’ll go home and I’ll get a drumstick. Also that I will never again wave a newspaper around over my head in the car.
My first memory has remade itself, and I’m proud to have it with me now.
* * *
A version of this story was published on Medium October 8, 2021.