Earliest memories around 1954-1957
I wonder how far back most people can remember events in their life? Do some people have clear concise memories from when they were tiny? Or is early childhood more of a fog, with only small bits peeking through from time to time? And how many of those memories are “true” memories, coming from within, spontaneously? I know some memories can be “grown” and nourished, perhaps through photos and family stories – you may not remember exactly but you have heard the story and seen the photos so often it becomes like your own memory.
Those are not the kinds of memories I intend to share here. what I want to share are memories that come to me naturally, not from stories I’ve been told, but from tiny bits that are saved in whatever long-term storage locker I have in my mind. Which can cause a problem for early memories, because my early childhood is very much a blur, aside from a few tiny glimpses, vignettes of the past. Here are three such glimpses.
I’m not sure of my age, I might have been two and a half, probably a bit younger, as I was able to stand up on the front seat of the car as my mom drove, and was just tall enough to see out of the front windshield to the road beyond. I often rode like that, at least when I was little. They had no seat belts back then, and standing right next to my mom was probably her way to keep me safe – if she had to brake hard, she could reach her arm out and hold on to me, whereas if I’d been in the back seat she had no control. So I had to be under three, after all, because by three I was riding in the back seat.
We had been to visit my grandparents in Eden, a drive of several hours. I don’t know why my dad wasn’t there, but it was one of the few times my mother drove that long trip by herself. And as bad luck would have it, we had to pass through a huge Texas thunderstorm, the kind that they called gully washers. This was back before the more modern highways were built – instead it was a two lane (one lane each direction) highway that passed through hill country and had quite a few low areas to get through – areas that often got flooded during high rains.
I remember it being late in the day, but still daylight, however it was so dark from the clouds she had to use the headlights on the car. Storm clouds all around, rain pouring down on to the windshield, it was hard to see very far in front, as the rain was so heavy even the fastest setting on the wipers didn’t do much good. As we passed over the crest of each hill, my mother would slow down for the descent, and as we neared the bottom of the slope, we would come to the low point where the road was covered in water. I’m sure my mom must have been terrified.
Some of the low points were visibly safe, but on others, she slowed to a stop, and stared at the water covering the road, judging its height and whether the car would make it through. I could feel her tension. When reaching a particularly hard to judge gully, my brother, who was sitting in the seat next to me, would ask if we could make it. My mom would grit her teeth, and slowly move forward, through the water, as carefully as possible. Once on the other side, she would tap the brakes several ties, making sure they were dry – I remember that because she explained it to my brother, who must have been around 6 or 7 at that time.
What I remember most about that trip is the excitement. I was enthralled. I knew there was some sense of danger, that my mother was tense, and wanting to get home, but at the same time afraid of each low point that had water covering the road. But in spite of the tension I sensed in both my mother and brother, I was thrilled. It was the first time I had been in the midst of a storm like that, the rain beating on the window shield, thunder and lightning flashing all about me. The raw energy of the storm! Even that young, I loved thunderstorms, and here I was in the midst of it.
I have always loved thunderstorms. Still do, and while I’ve seen a few thunderstorms here in Switzerland, nothing has ever quite compared to the Texas thunderstorms. We did, of course, make it home safe and sound. And I never forgot it – but for me it was an amazing and wonderful experience. I guess I was too young to know any better. 🙂
Memory 2 – I’m Free!
It was my third birthday, and I remember jumping up and down in the back seat of the car – I was standing on the seat, leaning against the back of the front seat. I actually remember the car – it was a blue 1954 Buick, I’m pretty sure, unless my mind is tricking me. Cars back then didn’t have bucket seats, it was just one long bank of a seat in front and in back. I was excited and kept repeating over and over again, “I’m free! I’m free, Mommy, I’m free!” At some point, my mother, who was driving, corrected me, telling me it was “three” not “free”. I continued to jump up and down, insisting I was free, at least for that day. She soon taught me the correct was to say it, as she should have, but I like to think at that point I was speaking a kind of truth – I was still innocent of Rules, un-corrected. I was free. 🙂
Memory 3 – Mother
Strange how many of my very early memories involve that Buick. Being in the car. This third memory is a little different, but clear as if it happened yesterday. Let me preface it by saying that my mother rarely if ever raised her voice to me. This was one of the few times she lost patience with me. But being one of the few, it perhaps had more impact than it would have, had she been the type to yell at her kids at the drop of a hat.
I must have been around four, maybe five, maximum. I was sitting in the front seat as she drove – perhaps we had been shopping or were going somewhere, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I was chattering on about something, trying to get her to listen to me, saying Mommy, this and Mommy that, excited, but wanting an answer, “Can I Mommy?” And she wasn’t answering. Perhaps she was concentrating on driving, I don’t know. But in my little girl way, I kept asking, “Can I Mommy, Please? Please, Mommy, please?”
She snapped back – suddenly – “Stop calling me Mommy, I’m your Mother! You’re too big to call me Mommy. ”
Everything else flew out of my mind. To have her so suddenly snap at me, and tell me I’m not to call her Mommy, well, it made an impression on me. I had never been Yelled at. I didn’t say another word. Later, once we were home, she did tell me again, but calmly this time, that I was getting too old to call her Mommy. So from that day on, I called her Mother. Occasionally I slipped up, and she would remind me, but without snapping at me. Or if I was sick she might let it slide and allow a Mommy or two to slip by. But Mother she became, from that day on. Years later, as an adult, I occasionally called her Mom, but for the most part, she remained Mother to me from then on.
Three memories, each distinct, from very early ages. I find it interesting that all three took place in the car. I do have a few scattered memories from a little older, but these are the earliest.
I do want to emphasize something about that third memory. It is not my intention to criticize my mother. She was neither strict nor overbearing. And I “get it”. I’ve lost patience with my girls before. It happens. If anything, it is more a reflection of how sensitive I was as a child – how little it took to impress me, how much I wanted to please. I don’t know why it bothered her to be called Mommy, but apparently it did. And I, being the child I was, wanted to please. Especially her. There is a lot more I can say about wanting needing to please my mother, but I’ll save that for another time.
It will be interesting to see where these memories take me.
Meanwhile, I’d be curious to know how far back most people can remember.