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Rediscovering My Earliest Memory

Something unexpected happened,  after I posted a suggestion for a Red Room blog topic, five months ago.

Well, two things.  The first one:  My proposal, to write about our earliest memories, became this week's blog topic.  And my memoir Accordion Dreams is among the prizes to be given to the winning bloggers. (Thanks, Huntington—I’m honored!)

The second surprise:  My answer to my own question has changed.

Years back, a professor in one of my graduate psychology classes gave us an assignment: Describe your three earliest memories.  Some researchers believed this was a useful diagnostic tool, so we were practicing on ourselves.  (Here's an old New York Times article about the "three early memories" idea.)

In response to that long ago assignment, I sorted through isolated fragments and hazy images from the strange dreamy time when we are just beginning to come into self-awareness.  I came up with three memories that felt like my earliest.  I had no way of dating them,  but I guessed that my age at the time was between three and four.  (That is consistent with the research:  three-and-a-half is the average age for the first memory most people can retrieve.)

So, here are what I have long considered my three earliest memories, in no particular order:

Memory #1:  I am in the doorway to a bedroom in our apartment,  watching my mother change the diaper of one my younger siblings.  My mother has her back to me, as she tends to the kicking baby.  She doesn’t see me.

Memory #2:  I am crouched down, looking up at a package wrapped in brown paper, resting on a small hallway table in our apartment,  a little distance away.  I wonder what is inside.  I am alone, feeling a delicious sense of anticipation.

Memory #3:  I am sitting on a wall, on a bridge over a river.  My feet dangle over the side.  I am looking down at the water—far, far below—when I can see two or three tiny rowboats.  I can’t see my father, but feel him standing behind me, his hands firmly on my waist, so I won’t fall.  I feel a mixture of excitement and fear.  (My mother insists this must be a fantasy!)

These three memories seem to fit together.  In each one, I am a solitary observer, gazing at something in the distance.  I am in my own head, even when other people are present.  They do seem like the memories of someone destined to be a psychologist, or maybe a writer.  (Not someone likely to end up performing as an accordionist!)

I have another memory, one I alway considered from a later time, partly because it seemed different from those others.  I figured I must have been at least five when the incident happened.

But I have recently found a way to anchor it more firmly in time.  So now I know:  My  memory reaches back farther than I imagined, well before I turned three.   And I now think this one may be my earliest memory of all.

Here it is:

Memory #4:  I am standing beside my father, holding his hand.  We are at the bedside of his mother, my Grandma Kilpatrick.  She is sick.  She is sitting up in bed.  She has white hair.  The bedspread is pink or white chenille.


This is the only memory, the only image, I have of my father’s mother.  My other  grandparents all lived longer, and I have clear memories of all of them.

I never knew much about my Grandma Kilpatrick. She was born Mary Rodger—in Scotland, like the rest of my father’s family.  She didn’t much care for people who were different—Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Jews.  She didn’t much like it when my father married my Slovenian American mother.  According to my mother, she was “always sick" and the household revolved around her. Translation:  an unhappy, judgemental hypochondriac.

I have always carried this single image of her.  I didn’t even know if it was a true memory.   I thought that that she had died when I was perhaps five or six.  Not that my family did much about observing deaths.  We didn’t do funerals or cemeteries, so I had no idea when she died.

But I’ve been consumed lately with family history research.  Mostly, I have been trying to untangle my Slovenian roots, on my mother’s side.  But in the course of that research, I found the obituary for my Grandma Kilpatrick.

She died when I was  two-and-a-half.  Two years and nine months, to be exact. 

I am glad to have this little fragment of my paternal grandmother, even if she was, as I've been led to believe, a somewhat difficult woman.  Unlike those other early memories, there is a sense of connection, of personal involvement,  in this one.  We are three generations, linked together: my father, his mother, and me.



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