July 3rd, 2010

First memories

[NOTE: I came across this old post of mine the other day, and thought it might be fun to repeat it, with some added thoughts.]

I’ve always had an excellent recollection for early events in my life, with the peculiarity that my memories tend to be visual as well as auditory and emotional. That is, not only can I remember a great many incidents occurring at a very young age—what happened, what was said, how I felt—but there’s also a sort of theatrical scene-setting. I can often recall where I was standing in relation to the other players—and, more oddly, what everyone was wearing at the time.

It took me a while to learn that most people don’t remember things that way. I would be reminiscing with a friend and would say, “Don’t you remember? You were standing over there, and you were wearing that black and white suit with the red silk blouse,” and the friend would gaze at me in puzzlement, wondering what I was talking about.

Of course, no independent corroboration exists to tell me whether I’m right or wrong. So perhaps I’m full of it; there’s no way to know for sure.

I once participated in a study of first memories. The researcher’s premise was that our earliest memories are not random and that, in particular, a person’s very first memory has some significance and is a sort of theme.

I have no idea what the results of that research were, or whether the concept is true, but I find it fascinating.

As for my first memory—well, first I’ll offer the following, from commenter sergey, posted quite some time ago:

Tolstoy also writes in his authobiographical notes on his rememberance of how he was born—not only all the environment of the room, but also his sensations of the delivery itself. My own first rememberance does not runs so close to the begining, but I do remember very clear how I was weighted after being brought from the clinic to the flat of our family doctor. It was cold being sripped of swaddling bands and put on scales platform, white and cold metal trough, and I was frightened when it begin to rock to and fro under me.

Why am I posting sergey’s first memory? Because it is virtually the same as mine. Although I think mine occurred when I was older, perhaps at ten months or so, I was very surprised indeed when I read his comment. It’s the first memory of another person, one who lives halfway across the world, and yet it represents a fairly accurate rendition of my own first memory.

If so, why this first memory rather than another? The theme in my early life that I think it represents is the idea “you’re on your own, kid”—at least, in the emotional sense.

That may have been my first memory; it’s pre-verbal. There are no words because I didn’t have them yet. But my first memory that involves thinking—and it’s a pretty big thought, actually—took place in the bathroom when I was about two. I was sitting on the john, probably being toilet-trained, and my mother was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, waiting for me. It suddenly struck me that we were two different people, a thought both scary and fascinating, perhaps even exhilarating.

I remarked to her in awe: “You’re you and I’m me.” Come to think of it, it’s another extension of that same theme mentioned above: “you’re on your own, kid.”

Feel free to offer your own first memories in the comments section.

30 Responses to “First memories”

  1. Hong Says:

    I was lost in a park crying. Actually my parents were nearby but chose to simply observe and take a picture. There’s a photo of little me buried away in some album. I must have been around five.

  2. anna Says:

    i remember watching a cat licking itself, which puzzled me until my aunt explained that a cat uses its tongue as a washcloth.

  3. Gringo Says:

    My earliest memory is talking with a same-aged friend on the phone when I was 3 or 4. I found it a miracle that I could talk with someone not in the room. This is also distinct because for nearly all of the decades in that house, the phone was in another room from my memory. Over a half century later, I am still in touch with my phone friend and her siblings, even though both of us are long gone from where we grew up.

    My sister and parents informed me of things I did when I was younger than that, but as that memory came from others, I do not count them as earliest memories.

  4. Jim Nicholas Says:

    My most vivid early childhood memory is, at about 21 months, of joyfully running up the hill from the lake to our cabin, carrying a small pail. I can visualize myself doing it, as if running toward myself. And there is the clue–that I can see myself. In the family album is a picture of me doing just that; I was running toward my father and his camera.

    I suspect that many of my other early memories, some going back almost a year earlier, may be similar–memories of stories told to me about what I did rather than my own unaided memories of the events.

    This is not to say that the ‘memories’ that one calls up when asked are not psychologically significant. But I doubt the veracity of most of them as real events.

  5. Tatyana Says:

    Like Gringo and Jim Nicholas, I’m not sure my earliest memories are my own or I’ve absorbed them from stories told by my parents.
    Certainly I don’t remember anything earlier than approx. 1.5 yo. The memory I have didn’t pop up on its own, but was triggered by a photo of me taken at the Zoo – a girl with a huge bow on the blond head. My eyes wide in astonishment, I look through the wire fence to a camel’s head very near my own.
    I don’t know if my Dad lifted me to see it, or the camel lowered his head to my toddler level – but when I looked at the picture, I suddenly remembered how it smelled, and the warmth of that May day, and strangeness of camel’s lips and his huge eyes.

  6. Roy Says:

    My earliest memory is when I was a toddler. I woke up in a crib. I was wearing a diaper and nothing else, and there was a Christmas tree in the room. I cannot place an exact date to that memory, but I suspect it was sometime around December of 1955 or 56.

    My earliest memory of which I can definitely place a date happened when my mother came home from the hospital with my next youngest brother – December 6 1957. I was 3 1/2 years old. I remember calling him “baby” and was fascinated that he was so tiny, even to a 3 yo.

  7. LabRat Says:

    I was not quite three, and I was picking out a storybook to bring to my mother for her to read to me. The memory is the dawning realization that I could read it myself, and the sense of huge triumph and freedom that suddenly opened up to me. It was Mama Don’t Allow.

    I have no pre-verbal memories at all. The fact that my first memory is gaining the ability to read may well say something about that, or vice versa.

  8. Karyn Says:

    What an interesting post!

    My earliest memory is standing in my crib crying and crying and crying. My parents are walking out of the room, possibly to let me “cry it out”. I would have been under the age of two based on my memories of the room I was in which I described to my mother once. My dad was wearing a white undershirt and black pants. I don’t remember much about mom except that she left the room first. I’m wearing a green onesy and all I wanted was apple juice and my throat was sore. But, I couldn’t communicate that to my parents. I can describe the room, of which no pictures exist, in great detail.

    I’ve always wondered if there was some significance to one’s earliest memory. Interesting that I’ve always had trouble communicating to others what I want.

  9. expat Says:

    I remember recurring situations rather than specific incidents and mostly from about age 4 or 5. Some of these situations were captured in photographs that probably imprinted them on my mind. I do remember getting a Mary Hartline doll for Christmas one year and I can remember Mom taking my snowy boots off outside on the back porch. I remember staying with cousins in their house heated only by a cookstove with a vent to the upstairs bedroom. It was cold, and I remember my aunt fixing us pancakes on the cookstove. When I stayed there in the summer, the tea man came once a week and we got to select a piece of candy. I also remember opening the gate to my grandmothers chicken yard and being scared when the chickens got out. There are images of my preschool dance class, where I never seemed to get the moves right. Another biggy was visiting the rack of Golden Books at the grocery store and trying to decide which one I wanted. Some of these things seem like they are right out of the Waltons.

  10. Sgt. Mom Says:

    The earliest that I remember, is pretty fragmentary – it’s a memory of sitting in the floor of the seaside rental cottage that my parents lived in for six months after Dad came back from Korea. I was playing with the puddles of sunshine that came through the window that looked out over the ocean. I would have been about 14-18 months old. I do have fairly coherent memories of the GI married student housing that we lived in for a year and a half after that – the lay-out of the rooms and all, the light brown dress with polka-dots that my grandmother wore, the little sandbox that Dad built for me out in back, the motor-cycle that he had, burning my hand on the kitchen stove … and very clear memories of the So Cal cottage in the hills where we moved when I was three. I have very vivid and verifiable memories of all that – not memories built up from photographs, or from things that my parents told me.
    I am told that remembering anything at all from much before the age of four is pretty unusual – my daughter, for instance, does not recall much before that age, and we had move to and lived in some very distinct places.

  11. kaba Says:

    Six years ago I went through a very difficult regime of chemo and radiation therapy. During this time I had these very vivid dreams or memories from my early childhood. I could recall entire scenes and conversations just as though I were watching a movie of my own life. It was haunting. Two years later my older brother experienced similar treatments and in our conversations I learned that he had experienced very similar recall.

    Did the chemicals we were subjected too trigger this? Or perhaps being in a life-threating situation? I have no idea. But I am convinced that the totality of our life experience is locked away somewhere in our brain cells and we are just not able to call those things up on command.

  12. Good Ole Charlie Says:

    Going up to my grandmother’s house for a Sunday family dinner…and watching the grown-ups running around and shouting to come quick.
    Toscanini’s broadcast stopped – a Sunday ritual in my Italian-American maternal family – and the adults were upset with something coming from the living room radio….
    December 7, 1941.

  13. grackle Says:

    I’m lying face-up in a crib. I know it was a crib because there are wooden bars to either side and a solid wood foot-end of it beyond my feet. The end has colorful things painted on it, balloons and other things that my mind’s eye cannot quite make out. The crib is next to a window and light is pouring through lace curtains to either side of the of the window. My aunt Sheila is bending over me. She’s smiling, talking and touching me on the face. I can clearly hear her voice, which possessed a distinctive sound. My feeling is of wonder.

  14. LisaM Says:

    My earliest memory is of being held against a wall and beaten with The Stick by my mother, because I was hot and wanted to take my blanket off. She had told me to stay covered, and I remember crying that I was hot, and she got out of bed and beat me for keeping her awake. I was 2 or 3. Indeed all of my memories until Kindergarten, revolve around me being beaten, chased and screamed at by my mother. I also remember her tricking me or lying and then laughing when I cried. I have no memory of my father from this time, nor of my brother being born. I sometimes think my personality split and the emotional part disappeared, leaving the part that was able to cope with it. I’ve often thought of being psychoanalyzed.

    I have a 21-year old nephew who has memories of his time in the womb. When he was 2 or 3, he’d ask us, “Don’t you remember? It was dark and I was floating all the time.” He’s a very bright kid, and we tend to believe him.

  15. Scott Says:

    For some reason, my earliest memories involve water. My very first memory is the first time I ever got soap or shampoo in my eyes when my mother was giving me a bath in the kitchen sink. I remember experiencing a burning sensation to my eyes that I had never experienced before. Then I remember screaming and crying at the top of my lungs. But I don’t know why I was crying. I don’t know if I was crying BECAUSE of the burning sensation. Or maybe I was crying because I had unexpectedly experienced a new sensation for the first time and I didn’t know what to expect next. Or maybe I was crying because the woman who had been caring for me had suddenly hurt me, which turned my whole world upside down and scared me. Not sure. But I vividly remember the hurt to the eyes and the screaming and crying that followed. I don’t think I was able to talk, or at least I don’t remember saying anything, just the crying and screaming.

    The next earlist memory is playing in a plastic toddler wading pool (maximum depth about a foot and probably 6 feet in diameter) with a friend on a hot summer day. I remember splashing around in the water, and my dad would turn the hose on and spray us. We just thought that was the funniest thing. We’d laugh and giggle and tell him to do it again. And of course he would. I was probably between 3 and 4, because at age 5 we moved to a different house.

  16. CV Says:

    I remember visiting Washington D.C. with my parents and baby sister. I was around 3 years old (Kennedy administration) and of course had no clue where I was at the time.

    I have two flashes of memory about this trip experience. I remember standing on the steps near a big white government building (the Capitol?) and I remember stopping at a gas station to fill up our car, an old Hudson, which looked like a much larger PT Cruiser! I also remember looking at the dashboard inside the car.

  17. colagirl Says:

    My earliest memory is my brother and me fighting. We were still living in our old house, so I would have been maybe three at the time, and my brother was two. I remember that I slapped him and he started crying.

    My next earliest memory was me trying to drink a cup of milk. I remember the cup–it was yellow. I was drinking a cup of milk, only I looked down and saw a fly had drowned in it. *shudder* To this day I’m paranoid about drinking anything that doesn’t come in a container that can be closed when I’m not drinking it.

  18. Ilíon Says:

    I thnk my first memory has to do with my perception of and outrage at an injustice … which might be said to be a theme in my life. Though, as I was young, and I’m fairly sure, preverbal, my understanding of the situation wasn’t completely accurate.

  19. Ilíon Says:

    I have a 21-year old nephew who has memories of his time in the womb. When he was 2 or 3, he’d ask us, “Don’t you remember? It was dark and I was floating all the time.” He’s a very bright kid, and we tend to believe him.

    According to what my dental hygenist told me once, when her son was very young he recalled something from before he was even conceived!

    She said that sometimes she’d walk into a room where he was by himself and talking to someone; he’d stop talking when she entered. FInally, she asked him who he was talking to, and in that d’oh way that little kids do (becuase they don’t yet realize that adults can’t read their minds) he told her he was talking to his older sister who had died of SIDS before he was born. When she expressed astonishment that he even knew about her, he told his mother, “I met her in Heaven, before i was born.”

    And then, there is my great-nephew, who used to claim to be his own grandfather (who died when my niece’s husband was a young boy) and who knew some small details of his father’s boyhood.

    I have no idea what to make of that.

  20. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    I have several memories that must date from before I was about two, because they are set in a student-housing community we moved away from after that. In the one I believe to be earliest, I am in a window, waving goodbye to my father, who’s outside in the narrow street. I have on a pale blue dress with which I’m delighted, with puffed sleeves and a stiff, starched, slightly itchy underskirt. There’s a crib beside me and sun streaming through the white voile curtain in the window; I have to push the curtain out of the way to see my dad — it smells like dust. I don’t remember what my father is wearing but I clearly see his long legs, his lifted hand, and his open, boyish face, so different from the far more familiar older, sadder face of my later childhood.

    Thinking about that memory caused me to use Google Street View to look up the scene. It’s still there: window, narrow street, play yard by the row house that was ours — though the gate at the end that used to keep cars out, where my father turned to wave to me in my memory, is now gone. It looks smaller, of course, and without that glow of light and wonder that surrounds everything I remember from that time.

  21. Ilíon Says:

    I recall sitting at the kitchen table with my mother having tea, talking about “grown-up stuff” (and feeling very grown-up myself). The morning sun is streaming in from behind me; she tells me I’m going to get a little brother or sister.

    Most of my childhood, I thought this memory was from before my brother was born (he’s @1.5 years younger), but I realize it must have been before my sisters were born (they’re @ 3.5 years younger).

  22. Dr. Mabuse Says:

    Earliest memory dates from when I was a toddler, still sleeping in a crib. It was afternoon, and I had been put down for a nap – the curtains were closed but it was still light in the room. I climbed out of the crib, got my Etch-a-Sketch, then climbed back in, where I happily sketched away to entertain myself. Probably meaningful – the Etch-a-Sketch would be the closest thing to a book I could access at that pre-reading stage. And that’s my typical MO: wanting liberation from the bars of the crib, but not a rebel who’d protest and demand someone come and release me – instead, I just quietly freed myself, then when I had what really mattered, I went back into the crib on my own, because being mentally free was the real thing, not physical freedom.

  23. grackle Says:

    My earliest memory is of being held against a wall and beaten with The Stick by my mother, because I was hot and wanted to take my blanket off.

    Lisa, how terrible for you to have had such an abusive mother. I hope you have overcome your horrendous childhood. Best wishes for you and yours this July 4th.

  24. John Says:

    One of my earliest memories is when I was a toddler my grandmother carried me out into the field where my great grandfather was plowing with a pair of mules. I remember him unhitching the mules and placing me up on one behind the yoke. My grandmother walked along beside as I held on and looked at the world from a different perspective.

    Maybe that is one of the main reasons I have been a horseman my entire life. When I have had horses I have been content. When I didn’t I was always thinking of the next one.

  25. Sergey Says:

    My second memory: I turned on the radio, an old all-waves “Telefunken”, which my father brought from Germany as a trophy. And I hear wery emotional phrase of the diktor: “The tyrann is dead”. I did not know what does it mean, since I did not yet know English, being 6 yeras old this time, but I remember the voice, the intonation and even the phrase itself!
    I ran to the kitchen to tell this important news to my mother, and repeated the phrase. And my mother turned snow-white from the terror. Now I understand why. We lived in communal flat, and our neighbour was a small Party boss: she, we all believed, was MVD informer. She was at the kitchen when I said this criminal phrase (it was not allowed to keep all-wave radio and listen to BBC).
    It was 5 March 1953.

  26. maureen Says:

    First memory that has no picture or occasion to explain it: I am under the huge forsythia bush, in the backyard of ‘Aunt Helen’s’ house. My parents were saving for the house they eventually bought on L.I., and had moved in with my mother’s unmarried sister and brother in their Flushing, Queens family home. Crouched where the spill of flowering branches seem to hide me, I see my Grandma’s feet [my father’s mother], as she looks for me. That’s it. No emotion is associated with this memory, but because of where it’s situated I couldn’t have been more than 3. I’ve always been content in my own company, and tend to be an observer, rather than an engager (if that makes sense).
    Hope you’re enjoying the Fourth! It seems particularly precious, in the light of current events. Seattle rain is damping the ruckus, but my flag is displayed (sole one on my street, that I can see).

  27. rickl Says:

    I have a couple of vague, early memories, and I don’t know how old I was at the time.

    I remember crying at night and telling my mom, “I don’t want to die!” She reassured me that I wasn’t going to die. I don’t remember being sick at the time, but I was very freaked out about it. I think I must have had some vivid premonition of what death is like.

    As another commenter already said, I remember being shampooed and getting it in my eyes. My mom solved the problem by buying a plastic device that fit around my head when she shampooed me. It was like a hat brim without the hat. Fortunately, nowadays I’ve learned to shampoo myself without resorting to that. :)

    There’s another memory that may or may not be later than those. I was in the house and my mom had to go for a dentist appointment. I can put an exact date on that one: February 20, 1962. That was the date that John Glenn was launched on his Mercury orbital flight. I had just turned four years old. I was at home since I hadn’t yet started school, and my dad was at work. I’m sure I watched the whole thing on TV, but the only thing I remember about that day is my mom’s dentist appointment.

  28. Jennifer Says:

    I was 18 months old (this has since been verified, using specific details). We were living at a center my parents were running in a small town in Bolivia. In the memory, I am in front of a group of women- maybe five- and I’m naked, sitting in a tub on top of a small table. The tub is red, the room is yellow. There’s a door over on the far left and windows on the right. My mother is standing slightly behind me, pouring water over me. I can smell her and she’s talking, words washing over me that I’m not following. All of the women are sitting in a semi circle in wooden chairs, watching me. I can feel their gaze and want to disappear away from it. I am intensely, deeply embarrassed at my nakedness in front of these women and hate that I’m here. All I can feel is shame but I don’t express it. Later (or maybe this happened on the way there, but I don’t think so), I am walking back toward our house from that room, holding my mother’s hand, and I ask her why that just happened. She tells me that the women didn’t know how to wash their children, so they needed to be taught how to do it correctly. I feel pressured by her. I look away, toward the bathouse in the middle of the center yard, where I know my “friend” (an adult) is taking a shower, and I wonder if he’s washing himself correctly. I picture it to myself, vaguely.
    I’ve verified this as a true memory by going back to the center when I was 17 and pointing out the exact room. My mother recalls the incident, though doesn’t recall that I was embarrassed (for some reason, I think I kept this a secret). Why I would be ashamed of my body at 18 months old I can’t possibly imagine- maybe suppressed abuse?

  29. Jennifer Says:

    I have dozens of vivid memories from this same time period, which have been verified to have happened before I was 3 (when we moved away from the center). I was a very early talker and walker- perhaps that explains some of my retention? Still, the memories were in a different language (Spanish) than I primarily speak now, so it makes little sense that verbal ability would have anything to do with it.

  30. Jennifer Says:

    I also SWEAR that I remember when I first really learned to walk more than a few steps. It was hard and I held on to the walls and walked around the edges of the room to keep myself steady. The worst part was when I suddenly came to a doorway and realized there was nothing to support myself on anymore. It was a frightening absence. I also remember reaching up for the fridge handle at the same period. This must have happened about 10 months old.

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