Thursday, March 01, 2007

On loss

I was thinking about memory and feelings after writing in yesterday's post about my father not reading the dictionary after it broke. Many of the images of my early childhood are dubious to me, because I'm not certain whether they are true memories or internalizations of stories that my parents told or of photos that I saw. The earliest mental-image-that-might-be-a-memory is of myself lying on a bedspread in pale sunlight with a stuffed toy dog, life-sized, as large as myself, beside me; my mother is near the bed, between the light and myself. If this were a genuine memory, it would be from when I was not yet one year old. Can this be true?

[The penny drops: in those years we lived in a basement apartment. Does that explain why I always felt comfortable in the guest bedroom in my parents' house, which was in the basement and had pale light?]

The earliest MITMBAM that I know to be a true memory, is of loss. Paradoxically, this is a memory that I myself had always believed to be an internalized story.

My father told the tale of losing his penknife (in his day there were no pencil-sharpeners in classrooms, every schoolboy carried his own little pocketknife to sharpen his pencil, which is why it was called a "penknife." Don't ask). One fateful day, as he was industriously carving his name into the wooden railing of the Woolwich ferry (across the Thames), somebody nudged his elbow. He dropped the knife which went overboard, and he watched helplessly as it fell into the river and was lost forever. He was nine years old.

I was talking about memories with my parents in September, and described how I remembered him telling this tale and how intensely it moved me, how vividly I shared his pain. My parents furrowed their brows and looked at each other, and my mother gently said, "Udge, that happened to you." And then she told the tale:

When Sis was born, we lived in a city divided by a river: downtown on the west, university (and hence university residences, and hence our home) on the east; we would cross the river fairly regularly to go shopping and suchlike. The bridge's railings were in concrete worked with lozenge-shaped vertical holes (like very large, clumsily thick wrought-iron railings). I had a stick, a particular stick, which for weeks had accompanied us on all our excursions; with this stick I would whack the posts of the railing as we walked past them. One fateful day, as we were crossing the river and I was whacking the railings, the stick somehow got caught between the posts or rebounded from a post. I lost hold of the stick which went through the gap, and I watched helplessly as it fell into the river and was lost forever. I was three years old.

And of course having heard that, the strange details of my image of the scene (when I thought it my father's story) now make sense: ships don't have concrete railings; a nine year old is tall enough to see over the handrail, he does not stand below it; the railing on a river ferry is not a hundred feet above the waterline. (Not that I had previously considered these details to be in any way odd, I knew that they were there but didn't think about what they meant.)

And that in turn makes sense of some of my habits of thought and feeling: better not to have something than to risk that it might one day be lost.

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Blogger zhoen said...

I have visual memories from when I was barely a year old, older brothers confirmed it years later, my mother refused to - an event she denied, but that I know happened.

March 1, 2007 at 3:27:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Pacian said...

It's easy for me to see that my 'earliest memory' is not quite to be trusted. It is of me in my cot looking out of the window and seeing a giant flashing blue light from a fire engine, suspended in the sky.

I once started to relate this story to my mother before realising that it was clearly, at best, a childhood dream. (She then added that the curtains would have been drawn and I, in fact, never slept in a cot.)

March 1, 2007 at 10:43:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger CarpeDM said...

I do not have a lot of memories from my childhood - my father was a drunk and was abusive when drinking so I spent a lot of time reading as an escape. Many of the memories I do have are from stories that I was told.

I understand the loss, though. I had two such incidences that I remember - one was the superball (I don't know if they ever had those in Canada or Germany, small rubber ball that would bounce very high) I named Herman. One day at the bus stop, he bounced out of reach and rolled down the street. I remember chasing after him and calling out "Herman! Herman, come back!" only to watch him roll into a sewer grate. Tragic.

The other memory is my pet rock (in my defense, I bought it at a garage sale for a dollar) whose name I don't remember. One of the "tricks" was to teach your pet rock to roll over by setting him at the edge of a hill. I did so, only to watch him fall into a pile of other rocks and I couldn't discern which one he was. "The day my pet rock ran away" would make another good movie for Rathbone, don't you think?

March 2, 2007 at 6:30:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger rb said...

this made me laugh

my earliest 'memory' as a baby was of being abandoned and it was so vivid I wrote it down years later and showed it to my mother who said it could not have happened and it must have been a dream though there were details in it that were true that I must have assimilated into the dream from my waking baby life, or were seamlessly passed from the dream into wakefulness because the memory ended as crying in the arms of my real nanny comforting me

of course now I 'remember' this memory because of that act of writing it down and discussing it as an older child, and it's the only memory I have of the nanny (other than an old photograph)

March 3, 2007 at 3:44:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger brooksba said...

My earliest memory involves the family dog. I was playing with Barbie dolls and he came in, took one of the shoes and ate it. I just remember being so angry with him, even though I knew it was a shoe I didn't like because it was difficult to put on with chubby kid fingers.

Loss is a strong emotion and the memories of it stand out.

March 4, 2007 at 9:54:00 a.m. GMT+1  

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