Can you remember stuff from when you were three or four years old? I’m often amazed at some of the stuff that pops into my head from when I was a kid, or that I can recall insignificant details from 30-plus years ago (like what I was wearing at some event)—yet I can’t remember the name of someone I’ve met several times, or the most recent movie I saw.
How can I recall
something sixty years ago
but not last night’s meal?
The scientific explanation for our less-than-steel-trap-like short-term memory is that aging changes the strength of the connections (synapses) between neurons in the brain. As a result, new information can unseat other items from our short-term memory bank unless those other items are repeated over and over. Our long-term memory, on the other hand, can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely, although retrieval can be an issue as we get older.
It blows me away not only to say something happened in my life 50 or 60 years ago (I’m that old?)—but that I have a memory of it. That said, here are a few of these memories I can still retrieve from my long-term repository:
- Walking in on my mother and stepfather doing the deed (as you might imagine, this one’s indelibly seared on my brain). I was six, it was a hot southern California afternoon, and I opened the bedroom door to see him thrusting away on top of her. A box fan was blowing, which is likely why they didn’t hear me. Since mom was on her back and apparently asleep (which leads to all sorts of speculation about step-dad’s technique—but I digress), her breasts were flattened out, and my first thought was that some sort of bizarre body-transfer was going on. I quickly backed out of the room and shut the door, totally freaked. When they eventually emerged from the bedroom a while later—as themselves—I remember an overwhelming feeling of relief that mom was still inhabiting her own body.
- Acting out Mighty Mouse cartoons. He was my childhood hero, and I imagined that he lived in the big oak tree in the field outside my bedroom at my grandparents’ house, where I lived until I was five. Sometimes I’d pretend to be Mighty Mouse, wearing a dishtowel as my cape, and deriving my superpowers from eating the insides of the discarded ends of cucumbers that Nana would slice up for supper. Another time, I pretended to be the damsel in distress whom the villain had suspended over a cliff by a rope tied to her foot. To re-enact the scene, I lay on the floor next to the coal stove and stuck my foot in the triangle-shaped handle of the black metal coal prod hanging on the stove. When Nana asked me what I was doing, I simply said, “Oh, nothing.”
- Drawing on a giant piece of Kraft paper with my grandfather. It was probably only a grocery bag that had been cut at the seams and flattened out, but to a four-year-old, that expanse of paper seemed huge. Grampie would sit on the kitchen floor with me and we’d draw together—one of his “specialties” was ducks wearing boots. When we were finished, he’d fold up the paper and tuck it behind the fridge, where it would stay until our next session.
- Surreptitiously trying to smell my grandmother’s feet. Nana and someone (my mother, perhaps?) were sitting at the kitchen table, smoking and talking. Nana was barefoot, sitting with her legs crossed at the knee. I was no more than four and, for some reason, I was curious about what her feet smelled like. So I lay down on my back on the floor and scooted over until my head was under her dangling foot. I don’t remember any odor—or how she reacted to my inspection.
- Catching a lizard by the tail only to have it come off in my hand. When I was six and living in the Mojave Desert, I’d catch lizards by the tail just to see them drop the appendage, which would keep wiggling—a defense mechanism that distracts predators so the lizard can get away. I just thought it was funny.
- Picking at a wallpaper seam while standing in my crib. This is just a snippet of a memory—and I couldn’t have been more than two or three since I was in a crib, pushed against a wall, using my fingernail to pick at the seam of the floral-and-stripes wallpaper covering it. This may be my earliest memory—and I have no idea why it has stayed with me.
- Wishing on a star and having my wish come true. I fiercely longed for a Tiny Tears doll when I was four, so I’d recite “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight” at dusk on the back stoop of my grandparents’ house. And lo—a Tiny Tears doll miraculously appeared one day. I like to think this contributed to the fundamentally glass-half-full outlook I have today.
Memory has become more top-of-mind for many of us boomers as we see our parents and even our contemporaries start to lose theirs. One of the best—and most affirming—books I’ve read on the topic is “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain” by Barbara Strauch, the late science and health editor of the New York Times. Subtitled “The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” it provides what Booklist calls “A welcome dose of optimism.” I would agree.
I hope you’ll remember to check it out.
So what’s your earliest memory from childhood? Is it just a fragment? Does it have special emotional meaning? Is it laugh-out-loud funny? Do you worry about memory loss? Please share!