First Memories

“The first memory then becomes the starting point in our own narratives of the self. ‘Our first memoris are lik the creation stories that humans have always told about the origins of the earth,” [John] Kotre writes. ‘In a similar way, the individual self—knowing how the story is coming out—selects its earliest memories to say, This is who I am because this is how I began.’” –Miller & Paola, Tell It Slant

I have been reading books recently about writing and journaling. A few weeks ago the above quote caught my attention. The idea of a connection between our earliest memories and who we are today has been rolling around in my mind ever since. I’m still not sure that I agree with the authors, but it is an intriguing idea. Here is some of what I have been pondering:

My earliest memories are like snapshots, pictures of moments unrelated to full situations. I remember my dad standing up in river water, holding out a clam for me to look at. I remember running down a road, chasing a station wagon as it drove away; followed by sitting by a campfire arguing with someone that a cat cannot possibly be a fish. I remember a bright room, a dark window, shattered glass, screams, and blood.

Over the years, I have filled in the stories surrounding these mental snapshots. When I was young, we lived in a cottage not far from the Illinois River where we went swimming in the summer. There were clams along the river bottom, and my dad would bring them up to show to me, before throwing them back.

My parents were leaders of the youth group at church. The summer that I was three years old, they took the teens on a campout to a lake an hour or so away from town. At the end of the week, my mom left early with most of the kids. My dad drove back later. Somehow, he forgot that I had not gone home with Mom, an he drove off without me. As the story goes, another family saw me toddling after the car, and took me back to their campsite until my parents returned for me hours later. (I can’t imagine what that car ride back must have been like for my parents.) During that time, my rescuers cooked up catfish they had caught earlier that day, which I was certain was mis-named.

Finally, during a winter retreat with that same youth group later that same year, one of the girls accidentally put her arm through the window while climbing into a bunk bed. That explained the noise, and screams, and blood.

According to the quote that intrigued me, the fact that these are the earliest memories my mind has chosen to remember should also connect with who I am today. Perhaps it is a stretch, but I can see some connections.

I enjoy swimming, being outdoors, and discovering new-to-me critters and plants. There is no sense of panic or fear in the broken window memory. And today, when I deal with emergency situations as an EMT or as a ski patroller, there is a sense of fascination and a focus on helping the patient.

There seems to be an even closer connection from the little me left behind at the campgrounds and the big me of today. Again, there is no sense of fear or panic in this memory. While growing up, my mom frequently commented on how independent I was. I went to summer camps, eventually for weeks at a time, and did not experience home-sickness until going to college in Canada for a year.

I apparently had no shyness about the family who took me back to their campsite. Even today, I enjoy meeting new people and spending time with them; an attribute that runs from childhood through the present. I might have been overwhelmed if I had been totally alone when my Dad drove off. With a group of people to interact with, I was comfortable.

how can a cat be a fish?

Finally, the memory of arguing about a cat not being a fish comes with feelings of laughter. Apparently, even at that young age I was both fascinated with words and happy to argue my own beliefs. Whether considered to be strengths or weaknesses, both of these characteristics are still true of me today.

So…I look at my earliest memories. And I look at myself and who I am today. Perhaps the authors are correct and what I selectively remember builds and strengthens who I have become. Perhaps this is all a bunch of “hoo-ey.”

I would be interested to hear the opinions of my readers—based on my examples or based on your own experience. Do our earliest memories shape us or do we shape them?


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