The Persistence of Memory

In fiddling around on Tumblr the other day, I saw a friend had activated the “Ask Me Anything” function on their blog. When you do that, the Tumblr robot sends you the question “What is your earliest human memory?” I don’t know why Tumblr decided it do something like that; perhaps it is some sort of icebreaker. Maybe it is to give people an example of a question and answer when they go to the Ask link. I don’t know about you, but I get enough auto generated questions on the internet; I don’t need another scripted entity questioning me on something.

At any rate, I started to think about my oldest memories. For a long time, I’ve sworn that my memory was crap and that retention was a fickle beast. It wasn’t until recently (within the last few years) that I realized my memory was fine if I gave a damn about it. Otherwise, my brain just treated it like noise. This has lead me to start wondering about what my brain considers to be important for it does not always jibe with my conscious brain. The fact that I can remember what a patron wanted when they came to the reference desk six months ago without an intervening visit sometimes grants me some shocked looks. I can remember minor events with friends from long ago that they have clearly forgotten. I don’t know why I hang onto that kind of knowledge as opposed to theories in biology (the subject I studied for four years in college); it is just another way the human brain baffles me.

I was surprised to find out that my oldest memory goes back to when I was ten months old. It was surprising because when I asked my mother how old I was when this memory happened, that’s the age she gave me. For the longest time I had thought that I was older, but she assures me of the age and the events that transpired. And she has good reason to know, as I will endeavor to explain.

I remember standing in my parent’s kitchen with a little Fisher Price Doctor kit in hand. My mother was on the phone with my great grandmother, talking about things that are now lost to time. I was standing in front of the open door to the basement when I indicated to her that I was going to walk down the stairs.

I may have made the first step, but I did not make the others. The most vivid part of this memory is being airborne, turning and spinning as I fell, looking across the open basement from underneath the bannister. That’s the part that has stuck with me the most (and probably the reason I remember it) is that my thought at that exact moment was amusement. Not shock nor horror nor pain, but amused at the way the world looked different in those few moments as I was airborne. It was a glance at the world in a different way for a split second and in that precious point in time, I was strangely delighted for it.

The Fischer Price doctor kit had come open and spilled the contents onto the stairs with me. I can still see them on their own flight arcs past my vision as we all went down the staircase together. Not quite a 2001 moment, but certainly added to the weirdness of the scene as I think back on it.

With all that said, I don’t remember landing. That glance out of side of the stairs is where the memory stops. What almost stopped was my mother’s heart as she watched me in profile disappear down the stairway no more than seven feet away. She had enough presence of mind to tell my great grandmother, “I have go. Andy just fell down the stairs” before hanging up the phone and flying down the stairs after me. She took me to the hospital where I checked out fine. No broken bones, no concussions, no other trauma than being ten months old in a hospital. I was lucky since neither the stairs nor the basement floor had any sort of give or softness to them.

In the few times we have spoken about it, she and I have very different emotions attached to the event. I remember the aforementioned wonder of the experience, to strange perspective of tumbling through space and how different the world looks. She remembers being a young new mother who watched as her baby disappeared from sight in a flash and the resulting noise as I hurled down the stairs. While we are both relieved by the experience, we clearly have different connections to that event.

Until this evening when my mother set me straight, I didn’t think that this was my oldest memory. And since I’d rather not leave people on a down note of a child in peril, I can actually show you what I thought was my oldest memory.

L to R: Me, Marion, Pete (baby), Mary (aka Oliah)

This picture has a fun story to it. The first being that this picture (and others that came out of the photo session) have been universally discussed and agreed within the family to have not been the best of my great grandmother, Marion. It was August in New Jersey (translation: hot, 110% humidity, dog days of summer) and she was not in a good mood. And for her to not be in a good mood is not good news for anyone else. It’s one of the few times in life that the term “snippy” can be used in a loving manner to describe someone’s demeanor. However, as this was the occasion of all of her great grandchildren being in one place at the same time, the natural inclination of the collected family to get some photographic evidence of this occurrence took precedent.

The second reason is that it represents a relatively normal moment between all of the possible things that go wrong with photographing young children. There is a reason that my great grandmother has her hand underneath the armpit of my cousin Mary (also known as Oliah) seated on her left. It was to prevent her from standing up to throw her dress over her head yet again, much to the consternation of my great grandmother. My younger brother Peter is sitting on her lap. Judging from the way she is holding him, I think he had been making a fuss between escape attempts. And when he was put on lockdown, he resorted to other audio ways of displaying his displeasure.

This left my great grandmother with no arms to deal with me. As you can see in the picture, I was poised to go back to chewing on my sneakers. In an effort to rally through this snafu of family photography, I remember my grandmother leaning over to me and telling me quietly but harshly that I would not get a cookie if I kept putting my shoe into my mouth. I complied for those next few moments, long enough to snap some pictures, before forgetting the peril of my previous ways and went back to happily chewing on the shoe rubber*.

Yes, that’s right. The one memory that I have of my great grandmother is of her being terse with me. Though I don’t remember it, my mom took me over to her house everyday to have lunch with my great grandmother when I was a baby. The house is still stands in Moorestown, right around the corner from where my grandparent’s house was (and where I used to live). It’s odd to drive by the house, to know that someone who loved me greatly once lived there, and yet can’t remember a damn thing about it. But I do remember something of her, which is more than a lot of other people. I’m glad for it, but now what I really want to know now is:

Did I get a cookie anyway?



* Thus, my long history for sticking my foot into my mouth was born. [rimshot]

4 thoughts on “The Persistence of Memory

  1. Thanks Stacey and MsShelved! I had a fun time writing them out. It’s nice to take a break from the library stuff and toss in something different like this. =D

  2. This made me laugh. Thanks Andy. You must have a good memory to remember all that. I certainly have no recollection of putting my dress over my head, though it doesn’t surprise me given my tendency towards unconventional behavior. I am told that my habit of throwing my dress over my head became an issue when we were in church.

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