(This special posting is by my wife. I hope you enjoy it.)
One’s earliest memories seem different from the day-to-day memories that we usually “see” behind our eyes. You seem to see yourself looking out from a sheltered area onto an ever broadening expanse. Mine are sorta dark around the edges with soft warm colors as I look at the details. Many people, especially those who don’t have clear memories of last week, let alone years back into their childhood, tend to doubt that your early memories are true:
“How old did you say you were when . . .”
“Are you sure you don’t remember that from a story that your mother (father, aunt, uncle, et al.) told you about . . .”
“No one can remember anything from when they were only . . .”
My mother-in-law has one of these of an Uncle John who died when she was three years old. He was a bachelor who worked a neighboring farm. When older family members would mention this man, they would always add that Jennie Viola wouldn’t have been old enough to form lasting memories when he died. She says she remembers him quite well and describes a scene where she saw him coming across the field to the farmhouse where her family lived. She was just a tot so the grass, for her, was very high. She ran down from the porch, and across the field to a tall man. He scooped her up, put her on his shoulder, and strode up to the porch calling for the family. She tells this so vividly that you can see a 3 year old child, in a cotton dress, hair flying, dash away from her designated place of play to be embraced by a loving uncle. A wonderful warm memory for anyone to keep close.
Two or three years of age seems to be the magic point for these first memories. They are usually very short, just as our attention span then is very short. Mine are surprisingly clear on details. I think it is easy for me to sort my memories because my family moved frequently. At least, it helps me know how old I was when something occurred.
I have several distinct memories from when I was two years old.
Easy to know I was two because we only lived outside of Memphis, Tennessee, for that one year while Dad went to some sort of school. I was still an only child. We had a house that was a cross section of an enormously long clapboard building. There was a front door that had a cement stoop. I don’t remember a street. I think we faced a field because it was very open. The door opened onto one large room that seems to have served as everything except the bedrooms, bath and kitchen/pantry. The latter was a room with a sink, refrigerator and shelves that had a door to the fenced in back yard which was directly across from the front door. A classic shotgun floor plan. One evening, the magical sort with warm sunlight giving everything a glow, Daddy called for me to come look out of the front door with him. When I got there he pointed up to the sky to rapidly approaching storm clouds. They were very, very dark and low. He told me to watch the squall line. You could see the rain falling and getting closer and closer. We stood until it was very close to the front door. Then he gave me a little push toward the back door, “Run and see the sun in the backyard!” So we did, past Moma who was standing next to our pot bellied stove. It was still sunny and dry. I was too short to see over the house, so it was as if I was in a completely different world. “Now back to the front!” So we ran through the two rooms to the front door where it was now pouring. “To the back.” So we ran past Moma again. “Faster, to the front.” “To the back.” I remember running flat out through the house, usually a forbidden thing, to see the rain in the front and sun in the back until the squall line caught us in the back. We were all laughing and having a wonderful time watching the rain move from one side of the house to the other. How wonderful such simple things can be. How marvelous the memory of them.
We couldn’t have been very wealthy. Probably poor is a better description. Yet, as with all children in homes where they are loved, I had no idea of that. This would have been in 1949, and the house had a potbellied stove on a small platform in the middle of the great room. I wasn’t allowed near it. To me it seemed to be a huge and towering thing that was the focus of the room. I had a corner of the room where I was to play with my toys and about as far from the stove as Moma could make it. I had a stove, too. It was a tin box that was assembled with tabs and slots such as onemight use to build paper projects. It was a very common assembly model for the time. The box was painted white with the oven door edges painted on in blues shading into black. The mock electric burners were painted on the top as were the controls which had a touch of red. I don’t think it was 18 inches wide, but it allowed me to “get meals” just like Moma. I remember sitting in front of it and “cooking” while Moma did the same standing in front of that potbellied stove. I can see my skirt and where it stopped short of my knees. I proudly told Moma that my stove was more modern than hers only to be informed that I had a toy range and she had a stove that I wasn’t to get near.
This is also the house where I rode the neighbors’ dog. Our neighbors had a Great Dane and I wasn’t a very large child. The adults thought it was amusing to put me on the dog’s back so I could ride him like a horse. Fortunately, he was a good-natured animal. I can remember his bony shoulders and the back of his broad head and pointy ears. I can also remember the sensation that I was about to slip off sideways and wanting nothing to do with this whole thing.
After Moma died, Jim, my brother, made copies of all of her photos for my sister and I. Walt, my husband, is a very organized sort, so we sat and went through all of Moma’s photos with the goal of naming people, places and times for each one. The photo ranged from well before my parents marriage to their very end. A true treasure trove. When we got to the photos from Tennessee it was just as I had remembered. The building, the backyard, the neighbor lady, her dog, my parents so very young and that pot bellied stove. Though to be perfectly honest, the photo made it much smaller than it really had been.
The last word: My wife’s father was in the Navy, flying off carriers in the Pacific in World War II, on carriers through the Korean Conflict, ending his career with three years in Naples, Italy, in the early 1960s. As such my wife moved many times, sometimes having three different schools in the same year. She moved from Jacksonville, Florida, to Munford, Tennessee when she was six months old and lived there for about 18 months.
Keep your sense of humor.