For the first few years after I was born, my parents drove a ‘78 Monte Carlo, and my earliest childhood memory is of burning my ass on it in the parking lot of what might have been a Shoney’s.
The sequence of events goes like this: my father, sometime around 1984, pulls me out of the car and sets me on top, probably to reaffix a shoe or to keep me from eating a handful of gravel. Seconds later, I’m screaming, the baby blue metal grilling my thighs, and my dad is yanking me down in a panic. I couldn’t have been much older than two at the time, but the pain remembered is amazingly clear: first ice-cold, then white-hot; all moments on either side unrecallable.
Years later, the family car would play a role in the development of another formative memory. By that time we’d traded in the Monte Carlo for an ‘88 Chevy Astrovan, a vehicle named, one assumes, to call to mind the noble errand of shuttling astronauts to the launch pad, but which more commonly served as a private getaway for soon-to-be-single-moms in need of a place to weep. It was in this van that my friend Michelle and I found pornographic material in the driver’s side door, the glossy pages of which opened our eyes to the thing in life that women really want, which, as we all know, is to squat in platform jellies while a man in a polyester vest shaves our pussies.
The question of who the magazine belonged to was never answered, though I somehow doubt it belonged to my mother, a longtime champion of big ‘70s bush. There’s a righteous kind of pelt you just don’t achieve by letting some clown near your business with a Lady Bic. Judging by the way she hurled the magazine into a chlorine bucket in the back of my dad’s pool truck, I’m guessing it belonged to him, though it was later publicized that “someone had borrowed the van” and left the smut behind, the idiot.
But back to the ass-burning on the Monte Carlo: Why remember such an unhappy event? Photo evidence supports that I had plenty enough good times as a baby, none of which left even the slightest impression. Why can’t I remember, for instance, the day spent having my head poked through old-timey stocks at a farm zoo with my mom and aunt, or the many childhood baths taken in a plastic laundry tub? Why can’t I recall reclining pantless on an upside-down kiddie pool with the family cat—a cat who, by the way, I likewise have no memory of bringing with us when we left Orlando for the Panhandle?
What in God’s name happened to that cat? Did it die, or did we leave it behind? What was its name, and did it love us? Chalk it up to another of life’s great mysteries.
Any day now, my two-year-old daughter is going to start forming the earliest impressions of her own young life. Vladimir Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory: “In probing my childhood… I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed.”
What will my daughter’s bright blocks of perception be? She’s never been cooked on a Monte Carlo, but she’s run head first into the corner of the kitchen island, an event I can assure you was every bit as terrifying. I’d prefer her first memory to be something pleasant, of course, like her parents loving her and feeding her regularly, but I’m not sure her genes will bear out that kind of optimism. If my daughter is anything like me, she’ll have the tendency to remember only rejection and chaos—not bedtime stories or opening presents, not hugs, kisses, or warm reassurances of unconditional love and security (things which, by the way, my mother insists were lavished upon me in goddamn abundance).
Then again she could turn out like her father, who comes from a long line of pathological positive-thinkers. Where I’ll smell a gas leak, Nick will detect a pleasant candle; where I’ll see the inevitability of Lyme disease, he’ll discern “just an ordinary tick bite.” Who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong?
Science tells us memory complicates with age. First, there’s recognition memory, which allows us to recall faces and objects; next comes working memory, an outgrowth of semantic development. Over time, our capacity for episodic memory increases as a result of having access to words and concepts, and it’s generally thought that this encoding happens in the portion of the temporal lobe known as the hippocampus.
My mother-in-law likes to tell the story of how she first knew her baby boy was intelligent, a tale that involves her son’s persistent efforts to stick his fingers into electrical sockets. “He knew something would happen,” she’ll say, smiling. That boy’s earliest cognitive fragments are threefold: admiring a friend’s rubber spider, backing away from a pitbull named Blackjack, and talking to “Jerry,” as in, “I used to lay on the curb in front of our house in New Mexico and talk to Jerry, the man who lived in the sewer.”
“Excuse me?” I ask. “The man who lived in the sewer?”
“He wasn’t real,” he says. “But sometimes he wanted me to get in there with him.”
I call up his mother to verify the story. “Did you know your son had an imaginary friend who lived in the sewer?”
She admits that she did, though not until a while later. “I just thought he was looking in the sewer,” she says. “I didn’t know he was talking to anyone down there.” We chat for a while about the nature of memory in children, and she ends the call with a quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“How did Jerry make you feel?” I ask my husband later. He shrugs. “Come on,” I say. “Dig deep.”
He spends a moment scanning the recesses of his psyche. “I once tried to help him out with a wiffle bat,” he concludes.
A fun thing to read in the days after you’ve carried your child to the E.R. for slamming into the kitchen island is Sam Kean’s 2014 piece for Wired, “What Happens When a Neurosurgeon Removes Your Hippocampus.” The essay tells the story of Henry Gustav Molaison, a young man who—following a bicycle accident that cracked his skull—had both ventricles of his hippocampus scooped out by a doctor riding the “lobotomy bandwagon.” According to Kean, Molaison’s memory became a sieve:
[He] lost his job and had no choice but to keep living with his parents. He spoke in a monotone now and had no interest in sex, but otherwise seemed normal. He took a part-time job packing rubber balloons into plastic bags, and did odd chores around the house. … He whiled away most days peacefully, either doing crossword puzzles—working through the clues methodically, in order—or flopping in front of the television and watching either Sunday Mass or the old movies that, to him, would never become classics. … He got pretty portly after too many forgotten second helpings of cake and pudding.
Of course there are plenty of other articles you can read while shame spiraling, but I recommend the horrific ones as a way of making yourself feel better. Any number of pieces tracking the NFL’s continuing problem with traumatic brain injuries, for example, or the New York Times profile of Magomed Abdusalamov, a heavyweight boxer who suffered cranial damage following a 2013 match in Madison Square Garden. There’s also the recent study from the Yale Memory Clinic that claims Henry VIII might have been prone to murdering sprees as the result of head injuries sustained in jousting tournaments.
“Well,” you’ll tell yourself, instantly cheering at the mention of murder, “my baby hasn’t done anything like that, so my baby is going to be just fine. What is it, 3:35 a.m.? Time for this gal to get some shut-eye.” You’ll chide yourself for overworrying—all kids hit their heads from time to time, don’t they?—and that’s when your inner critic will step in to make sure you’re staying woke about your role in this thing.
“Okay,” she’ll say, harnessing all the napalmic energy of a Babycenter forum discussing vaccines, “but what kind of mother lets her toddler go tearing through the kitchen like that? Seems to me you should have known she’d hit her head. What was she chasing anyway, the cat? We both know you should have left that cat at the old house. Then again, if you really loved your family you might have sprung for one of those rubber houses like they have in the Netherlands. Hard to concuss in a room of rubber.”
“Only the outsides of those houses were made of rubber,” you’ll argue. “The insides were built with concrete and reclaimed timber. Don’t you remember? The article said…”
“Oh, forget what the article said! Forget I even mentioned the Netherlands—did you know there are homes right here in the USA that are constructed entirely of discarded tires? I’ll bet you don’t see the children of tire dwellings going around with pecan-sized lumps on their foreheads. I’ll bet their heads are perfect orbs of beauty and potential. I’ll bet one day they get to ride in real astronaut vans instead of cheap Chevy knockoffs that smell like tears.”
“Wait a minute,” you’ll say. “Where did you see those tire dwellings?”
“The hell you did.”
“Could have been Discovery. One of those shows where the people live in haunted silos or converted dump trucks insulated with tampons.”
“That’s interesting,” you’ll say, “because I remember seeing it on a tire website, and I’m pretty sure we were together at the time. Those tire dwellings weren’t for humans, they were shelters for squirrels—flea-infested, chimney-clogging squirrels. Maybe you also think children should live in hollowed-out kettle gourds and be fed pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed.”
“I’m tired,” your inner critic will say, growing quiet.
If only the two of you had a calming place to lie down—a van, for instance, where one might lock the sliding doors and either gaze on some nice pornographic material or simply consider the dark expanse of outer space.
“Listen,” you’ll say. “I’m sorry I snapped. Why don’t we go upstairs and see if the baby’s breathing? Would you like that, to check and see if the baby’s breathing? The doc said she’s fine, but you can’t be too careful.”
As remembered by her son in Speak, Memory, Elena Nabokova’s guiding principle was “to love with all one’s soul and to leave the rest to fate.”
“Vot zapomni [now remember],” she would say in conspiratorial tones as she drew my attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra—a lark ascending the curds-and-whey sky of a dull spring day, heat lightning taking pictures of a distant line of trees in the night, the palette of maple leaves on brown sand, a small bird’s cuneate footprints on new snow. As if feeling that in a few years the tangible part of her world would perish, she cultivated an extraordinary consciousness…
Psychoanalysts don’t agree about the significance of early memories. Freud said our earliest recollections are “screens” conjured later for the purpose of obscuring other trauma. Albert Adler argued that our earliest memories—real or not—set the tone for the overarching story of our lives. In this scenario, whether or not you actually burned your ass on a Monte Carlo is beside the point; what matters is why your brain would latch onto such a moment in the first place.
It’s easy to see why Mother Nabokova pointed to all those larks and maple leaves, trying to fix the match. It’s tempting to take the ice pack off your child’s lumpy forehead just long enough to tilt him towards the sky and declare, “Look, a bird! Some lightning! Leaves! And what’s that over there—cuneate footprints in snow?” Anything to touch those blinking hippocampi, those vernal little seahorses sponging up life. Anything to make your kid understand: you have love, child, in goddamn abundance.
Rachel Farrell’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Ninth Letter, The Offing, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She’s the Blog & Social Media Editor for Michigan Quarterly Review. She’s working on a novel.