JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Last week, as I was walking the dogs across the frozen, barren landscape that is Maine in February, I thought, I miss southern springs. I lived in DC as a young woman, and visited my family in Alabama over the years, and I have a visceral memory of the perfect, soft air in Tuscaloosa this time of year, with the greenery and flowers already growing. Despite being born in about as northerly spot as you can get in the US (the then-Air Force base at Plattsburgh, NY,) I spent my first seven years in much warmer climates - Alabama, Rome, Baltimore and then back to Alabama before heading to Germany.
Then I thought, what do I remember about the springs of my childhood? And the answer is… not much. Which turned my mind to the question of my earliest memories. Yes, this is the surprise topic twist! I have to think very hard in order to ignore the icy winds on my chilled cheeks during the dog walks.
|Julie, Barbie and Mom (who sewed the dresses.)|
Ross used to tell me he could remember events from when he was eighteen months old, but I’m much more typical. My very first memory is meeting my new sister when I was three and a half. It’s astonishingly complete - the white woven bassinet, the light filtering through the gold-colored woven curtains in my parent’s bedroom, the slick feel of their coverlet (I got to hold Barb very carefully while sitting on the bed.) Then she disappears for a few years until popping up again in one of my few Baltimore memories: we were taking our nightly bath together and she had a tick on her back!
(A side note for our younger readers: yes, believe it or not, in the mid-sixties a tick in Maryland was a rare thing. Also, she got it because we were allowed to free-range roam all over the neighborhood, and we had spent the afternoon in a local swamp. Which was probably also a toxic waste dump, this being the mid-sixties)
Other than Barb’s arrival, I have nothing from my first years in Alabama. Nothing from Rome. My only other memories of Baltimore are of sitting in circle with my “boyfriend” Alan and the teacher telling me to stop hugging him. But I can recall the exact page, typography and all, that I first read by myself in her classroom: THE FAT CAT SAT ON THE MAT. (No pictures! This was a serious reading book, designed to make us proficient early readers and grow up to beat the commies in the space race.)
How about you, Reds? What are your earliest memories? And does everyone have an earworm from the song I referenced in today’s title?
RHYS BOWEN: I have very clear memories from an early age. Maybe this was because I was born in the middle of WWII and there was an atmosphere of tension in the air. I remember the sound of the air raid siren, in fact it still quickens my heart rate today. And searchlights in the sky still freak me out. I was only once taken down to the backyard shelter and had such an awful panic attack I was never taken there again. (But I’ve had claustrophobic dreams since). I remember clearly my grandmother’s living room, sometimes cooking a meal over the open fire because the gas had been turned off. And the blackout curtains. And the drone of planes coming nearer. I also remember playing endless games of pretend with my blind great aunt. I was the good fairy and she was the bad witch. I was the good princess and she was the evil queen. It took me a while to realize that in life one can’t always be the heroine!
I can remember making potions from flowers in the garden–the unpleasant smell of marigold petals and once I picked up our new puppy and he peed all over my dress. And we looked after a cousin’s cat and it escaped. And I had a doll in green velvet called Kathleen. And a baby doll I called La Baby (and I fed her puffed wheat into her china head).
I had imaginary friends called The Gott Family: Gorna Gott, Leur Gott, Goo Goo Gott and Perambulator Gott. They did everything with us. (You can tell I had no real children to play with!
Life changed when my father came home from the war when I was three, so this all happened very early in my life. I still have a book of drawings I did at that time– I recorded all the exciting events–a visit to the zoo, a fairground, my first movie, Christmas, the street party when the war ended. They are all there in childish rendition but quite recognizable.
|Hallie, plotting against an oblivious Amy|
HALLIE EPHRON: So fascinating, Rhys and Julia! As for me, I have one very early memory of looking out through the bars of a crib in my childhood bedroom. Next up I remember my mother asking me to watch my infant sister for two minutes while she went to the bathroom. I was sitting on the couch and I think Amy was lying on the couch beside me. I must have been four. Before my mother returned, Amy had rolled onto the floor. Just the first of many times when I tried (unsuccessfully) to kill her.
JULIA: Hallie, same here. I don't remember it, but my mom liked to tell of the time she was cooking in the kitchen and I came in and said, "The baby's crying." She turned around, and I had brought Barb with me...by wrapping my arm around her neck and dragging her across the floor. I sometimes think its a miracle we're such great friends now.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I do remember…looking through the bars of my crib at a huge giraffe (life size? Or at least wall-size) my artist mother had painted on the wall. The giraffe’s name was Jih. (You can imagine how that came about.) I can still see it. I also had a pink music box that was shaped like a radio, a big boxy thing on the dresser. And a music box with a spinning ballerina, which, thinking back now, may have played The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
|Tiny Hank, reporting from the beach.|
I also remember walking on the shore of Lake Michigan with my father, I was just so little, toddling, maybe three? And there was a carpet of dead alewives in front of us. I mean, I remember it as billions of dead fish. I can honestly see it now. I burst into tears, and leaped into my father’s arms–I was NOT going to walk through the dead fish.
He made me do it, saying they were dead and could not hurt me. (Let me tell you instantly, there was no one more gentle and loving than my dad.) I was hysterical, but he made me do it. (My stomach is hurting, telling you this.)
Years later, SO many years later, he asked me if I remembered that. I said I did, although I toned down how terrified I’d been.
He told me that it had haunted him ever since, and he apologized, saying it was the worst decision he’d ever made as a parent, and that he was only trying to keep me from being afraid.
JULIA: Oh, Hank. What a sweet confession to make. Everyone who's a parent makes one or two dreadful mistakes, but it takes real guts to admit it and apologize.
|Lucy and sister Susan, looking v. stylish|
LUCY BURDETTE: The trouble is, it’s hard to sort out what I really remember from the stories I was told or the photos I’ve seen. When I was born, my family lived in a little white cape home up on a hill. It was only one bedroom and my sister’s crib (11 months old when I was born!) was out in the hall, so mine joined hers. (Could I really remember that?) We used to watch my father shovel coal from where it was delivered into the basement to heat the house. One day my sister and cousin convinced me to take a drink out of a pipe up the hill. It turned out to be kerosene–I remember being fed Ipecac so I’d throw up. (Of course, that’s the wrong thing to do…). Is it possible I remember that, or was it what shrinks call a ‘screen memory’? I have no idea!
JENN McKINLAY: I don’t know if it’s my earliest memory, but it’s certainly vivid. I was in my crib and my brother helped me escape by showing me how to climb out. I have no doubt shenanigans were involved. They were always involved when we were on the loose.
|The original Hooligans!|
We had a gloriously free range childhood in the seventies and spent most of it outdoors running wild. I think that’s why I value my daily walks with my dogs so much. It reminds me of what it felt like to be free from obligations and to go wherever the mood led us, whether it was along the banks of the river, up the mountain, or into the village to buy candy. I try to walk different paths every day with the dogs so that it feels more like those childhood adventures and I’ve discovered so many wonderful things like the neighbor who gives out lemons, a little free library, massive grass carp sunning themselves in the canal, and all sorts of birds in the nearby pond. I feel like my brother would approve.
Nice nod to CATS, but I hear Barbra Streisand singing it in my head – where it will replay all day, thank you very much.
|Don't eat anything bigger than your upper body, Debs!|
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Thanks for the earworm, Julia! My very earliest memory–I think–is of playing with my stuffed animals in my crib when I was supposed to be taking a nap. My crib was in the room I shared with my grandmother, which became my bedroom until I was grown up and moved away from home. I can see it perfectly, the crib on the west wall, where I could see the tops of the trees that surrounded our backyard.
In the next memory, I’m in our den and it’s cold. There’s a fire in the fireplace and I’m coloring next to the hearth. I’m wearing my favorite green corduroy overalls and my grandmother is there. Another time, I think I remember being put on my dad’s big horse, Midnight, but that may be one of those “photo transfer” memories.
JULIA: Now it's your turn, dear readers. What are your earliest childhood memories? And for those of you too young to recall the song from the title, please enjoy Barbra Streisand in all her 1973 glory, singing The Way We Were: