Everyone has a first memory. Some first memories may go back as early as the age of 3 or, in rare cases, 2 1/2, but seldom before that. As pointed out in the excellent book, “The Memory Illusion” by Dr. Julia Shaw, multiple studies (cited and referenced in the book) explain why this is so but perhaps the simplest to understand for my purposes has to do with language. Basically it’s that without the knowledge of language, one would know neither how to formulate a memory nor how to pick which occurrences were important enough to remember in the first place. As it turns out, misremembering events in our lives, or thinking we remember something having happened that didn’t, is a quite common occurrence.
If, for example, one’s house were on fire and everyone raced outside amidst the smoke and flames while firemen arrived in big red trucks with sirens blazing, the 4 or 5-year-old would have a good chance of remembering certain aspects of the event. That age group loves firetrucks and firemen and has a vocabulary of about 2,600 words (though they are able to understand many more.) Before the age of 2, however, there would be insufficient understanding of the language and the concept of trucks, firemen and fire because that age group typically knows only 50-75 words. In fact, this age group is just learning how to string two or three words together to make phrases. However, such a major catastrophe in a family would probably be cause for multiple tellings of the event and it could easily become woven into the family’s history, brought up again and again at family gatherings (“Remember when the cat knocked the candle off the window sill and it rolled under the Christmas tree?!) In that way, a child who was only 18 months at the time of the fire might very well believe that she actually remembers the event, everything from the screams of family members to the smoke’s acrid smell and the kindness of the firemen and neighbors.
I don’t bring this up to cast doubts on everyone’s (including my own) memories but to suggest that when it comes to memories, we all need to be aware of the complicated natures of our minds and both the limits of the brain’s physiology and its amazing capacity to absorb new information and merge it into already existing data, thus possibly altering the accuracy of the original event.
And according to the BBC Academy – Journalism: “Accuracy isn’t the same as truth – it’s possible to give an entirely accurate account of an untruth.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/article/art20130702112133794)
So now that you may be befuddled about the amount of truth and accuracy of your own memories, I will share with you what I believe are true and accurate accounts of two of my memories, both apparently vying to be my first memory.
In one, I am peering into my new baby brother’s bassinet and seeing him for the first time. I am almost four years old. My mother has been in the hospital for a week because that’s how things were done in 1954. One would think my mother’s absence would make for a traumatic time for an almost 4-year old but I have no memory at all of my mother being gone. Perhaps this is because my almost 8-year old brother was at home and also my grandmother who was living with us then.
My memory takes place in the living room of our two bedroom/one bath home, one in a tract of houses hastily constructed to serve the thousands of servicemen returning home from the war. I’m on my tiptoes, holding onto the edge of the white rattan (I know it’s rattan because the bassinet was passed down to me and it later cradled my own two daughters — you see how easy it is to absorb additional information into a memory).
In the second memory, I am standing in my crib watching my mother get dressed to go out for the evening with my father and some friends. I know this because my Grandma Finger has told me so. There are only two bedrooms in the house and this crib is in the room my parents shared. I’m not sure but I assume my grandmother and big brother shared the other bedroom. Could this memory be before my little brother was born, making me much younger than would be likely for me to be able to remember? And if it is after my brother was born, it seems like I would be old enough to have outgrown the crib. But then I remember that my brother would have been in the bassinet for at least a couple of months and my parents may have been waiting for my grandmother to go back to Charleston before moving me out of the crib.
I’m not sure which of these two memories is the earlier or how accurate they are. But, for me, they speak a truth to my past. I was always close to my little brother, much more so than my older brother. I would tell my mother, “I love you, Mommy, but I love Kevin more.” I’m not sure why that was, but perhaps peering down at him over the edge of that bassinet and seeing his tiny little face, so cute and pink, bonded me in a way I never experienced with Leo.
Kevin and I have shared some very tumultuous times throughout our years as brother and sister and we still don’t see eye to eye on many things, but as we’ve gotten older we’ve both come to appreciate how important family is and the immense value of the memories we share.
They may not always be as accurate as we’d like but they are true to us.