First Things First

The common question with an infinity of replies: What is your first memory?

It begs for a deeper definition of terms. It opens up the vast and mysterious chasm of things we perceived and felt, yet can’t recall or speak of.

Those vast plains of baby feedings, the body-mind challenge of using the toilet for the first time, the primal need and primordial personality alignments we made in reaction to the fleeting attention of a parent, the overwhelming presence of a sibling, the whispers and echoes of things we never recall consciously. The hurt, the raw joy. The boredom, the feelings before there were words for them.

Helena Ferreira, Mesmo Tempo, 2008

Some say they remember these kinds of things. I’m not among their number. For my biographical recipe book, the cupboard of basic ingredients is pretty bare. At times it feels as though a wall has been erected there by unknown builders, some heavy crew, a psychic corps of engineers who declared a disaster zone then erected a sign: No entry. Ever.

It’s also important to keep in mind that all of us remember loads of things all the time that never happened, or at least are immediately open to the challenge of others who were also there and have a wildly different recollection. It’s happened to all of us at one time or another: we unfold the dusty cover protecting a pristine and treasured bauble of memory, letting it into the light for the first time in ages, wanting nothing less than for the deep resonant significance of our personality to shine forth.

Then we’re told we’re totally full of shit. It never happened that way. It never happened at all. Or we’ve embellished, changed the set or the scenery, fudged the supporting characters, launched it years forward or backwards in time. We’re well-meaning fabulists, but no matter our intentions the truth tends to suggest we have an undeniably faulty grasp on our own narratives.

There’s nothing to do but laugh and be good natured about it. If we have the presence and composure to do so. But it always hurts, doesn’t it, to be challenged on the essential story?

And we all know, deep down, that we’ll never accept anyone’s contradictory evidence. We know we’re right.


My first memory. It’s the night before the first day of kindergarten. I am four. I don’t understand this at the time, but I will always be among the youngest in my grade by virtue of my summer birthday. This will contribute to a profound sensation of feeling out of step, different in an unwelcome way, an apprehension that I will use the considerable powers of confirmation bias to embellish and deepen well into my adult life.

But those are way ahead. I’m small and skinny. I wear glasses. I can read and write with skill beyond my years, in part because of how much time I spend alone. My first dog is gone, lost already. I suppose I miss him but that isn’t part of this story.

I must be worried. I’m in my mother’s bed, her room down the hall from mine. I end up here when I’m anxious or frightened. Or when she was anxious and frightened, who knows? We spend a lot of time together, just the two of us. It’s been this way for quite a while. I am forming a personality in reaction to hers. This will be in some ways problematic for me.

It is dark in the room. Maybe she was trying to sleep and I came in asking for reassurance. Perhaps we had been talking for a while and she shut off the light to soothe me. She must have to work in the morning, just as I have the inaugural session of my 13-year journey through the Central Ohio public education system.

If I am frightened, my self today deems that to be pretty justified. It was a very long and complicated slog through those pathways, after all.

We’re talking, my Mom and me. What is going to happen the next day? I know the school building: huge and imposing, like a castle with big steep mansards, it was built in 1892 and looked it.

Avondale Elementary in Columbus, Ohio

From the sidewalk outside Avondale’s three-story hulk you can see the crucifix-topped dome of Mt. Carmel hospital, where I was born and which looms over the street where I live. That place seems like a citadel of unknown suffering and the mysteries of lives in distress, all day and night every day of the year, anonymous but bustling like a factory of dread things.

(The vast hospital grew and grew over the neighborhood for more than a hundred years. It will be demolished in the spring of 2019.)

Mount Carmel West Hospital

It’s possible by this point (I am four) that I have an active imagination and capacity for strong rumination.

I’m asking what’s going to happen. There are some rudimentary things to tell a four-year-old who senses that he is outside the mainstream, as though there are workbooks of practical knowledge passed on through a normal life which he senses eludes him.

Generally, the playbook for kindergarten: You’ll get dropped off on time (being on time is, suddenly, a big deal, or at least something that consumes others’ attention. In time, young Quinton will become borderline obsessive over it). You’ll be part of a mass of others like you (but you know they are not enough like you) who will be filtered and sorted through efficient processes. You’ll end up in a room, where you’ll meet your teacher. With any luck at all you’ll like your teacher, or they will at least be decent and tolerable (there are other options here, to be addressed as they arise, and chalked up to a larger and generally mysterious process in which the universe teaches through adversity). You will probably be allowed to go to the bathroom when you need to. When you do, it will tend to be in the company of many others.

The teacher will ask the class questions. If you know the answer, raise your hand and wait to be called upon. Then show everyone how smart you are.

All of this seems entirely confusing and terrifying. Except, of course, the last part. I know I have that covered.

So why remember this first? It seems reasonable to guess that there wasn’t some miracle of neurological awakening that happened that night, that somehow consciousness came online and marked a delineating point: before this, no memory. From here, remember.

Of course not. Because memory is more than unreliable, more than fickle, more than a mere mystery: It’s a story the author of ourselves tells us about who we are. It picks the highlights for the book of life with ourselves staring out from the cover.

Who is the author?

Why remember this first? Who is doing the remembering?

Across the street from home on Souder Ave.

The textures of that night: the bittersweet breeze of late summer on Souder Avenue. The quiet street illuminated from time to time by the headlights of a late-passing bus. The sound of ambulance sirens from blocks away as they head toward the emergency room of Mt. Carmel hospital. The light hum of my mother’s clock radio counting off the minutes and hours until tomorrow’s obligations.

I remember none of those things. They might have happened. It doesn’t matter much. They are the kind of details that give pleasure in the moment, now and when I was four and able to emerge from the gravity of my internal thoughts and experience them.

What I remember is asking: What do I do? How do I be?

What I was really asking: Who are we? Who am I?

I remember a winter’s morning at Avondale School. The children from all the grades are pulled out of class to celebrate. Christmas is coming. We sit on the floors of the long central hallway, we spill out onto the stairways. Bustling and churning. I wipe my glasses on my shirt.

Everyone begins to sing. I’m confused. I fake my way through “Jingle Bells,” but after that I’m lost. Another carol begins, then another. I have never heard these songs before. Everyone else seems to know them. I stare at my teacher with a wave of anxiety, as though I am going to be found out and exposed.

She sees my look, scrambles to the classroom, and comes back with a book. She flips the pages and shows me: the lyrics to the song. I look at them but don’t sing. I look at them and read along, listening to the great chorus of the others. I am the only one in my class who can read, this is my very private reality not to be shared.

Who is doing the remembering?