Six-year old Sunboy and I talked about our earliest memories. He surprised me when he said he remembered being born.
“What do you remember?” I asked.
“I remember the bed was high and I thought I might fall,” he said. “Wait,” he continued, “I remember being in your tummy too.”
Sunboy has a great imagination and, frankly, I found it difficult to believe that anyone’s brain is developed enough to record memories in utero or directly after birth. Still, I found the conversation fascinating nonetheless.
“What was it like in there?” I asked.
“Dark. Dark like Halloween and not much room. I would do this,” he said as he showed me how he threw himself into imaginary walls. We both fell into unstoppable laughter. When the laughter became giggles, he added, “I also remember you staying awake with me all night and I remember you giving me medicine to help me grow up.” I can only guess that the “medicine” was the formula we were advised to supplement his nursing due to his diminutive size. Whatever the source, the feeling he described was one of nurturing.
“Yes, I did stay awake all night with you when you were a baby. Every night for your first three months until you slept through the night.”
The conversation then turned to me and my earliest memory. I described to Sunboy sitting in a highchair watching Sesame Street and eating vegetable soup when I was two- or three-years old. I picked lima beans out of the soup and was nervous about the high perch of the highchair.
I’ve often wondered why a lunch of soup found itself permanently etched in my memory but other seemingly inconsequential events did not. Did I dislike lima beans that much? I also have a vague recollection of being in a play pen, and at four-years old I remember hiding between stacks of boxes packed in preparation for moving to a new home. Those three events comprise my earliest memories.
There is no way of knowing a priori which events will get caught in the sieve of the brain and coverted into long-term memory, while other events seem to pass through unrecorded. If my parents knew that eating soup would be my golden first memory, would they have given me different soup? Would a different soup have made the lunch event fall through the holes of my memory and be lost forever?
What strikes me about Sunboy’s early memories is that – after the confusing first moments of birth – he primarily recalls our love and devotion to him. He has internalized my steadfast care for him as an infant and my efforts to support his growth. Aside from life-altering events such as moving to a new home, perhaps most early memories have a component of randomness to them. What we are left with, what we remember most of all, is feelings. Nervousness. Confusion. Love. Emotions define us more than events.
However, it’s a little harder to plan future feelings than it is to plan future events. I think this says that children need not so much the grand gift of a toy or a party as much as the grand gesture of steadfast love. Emotions remain clear where details of events are fuzzy. I had my needs met. Someone loves me and wants me to grow.