The Lasting Emotional Weight of Childhood Memories

I’m 3-something years old, and my family is living in an upstairs apartment in Woodbridge, New Jersey.

My dad is working two jobs, 16 hours a day, just a few years after we have immigrated without a penny in our pockets from a ravaged post-war Europe. There’s a howling nor’easter going on, buckets and buckets of rain. Probably some vestige of a hurricane.

I have somehow managed to sneak downstairs and out into the little spot of dirt and concrete that serves as a front yard. My mom is no doubt occupied with my newborn sister, her fourth child in nine years, and I am roaming free.

But as I’m looking up, I suddenly hear a voice rise above the storm. Where is it coming from? I finally manage to focus and see my mom’s head sticking out the upstairs window.

She’s bellowing.

“Andy, what are you doing?”

It is a very good question, for all times and seasons.

What I seem to be doing is exulting in the power and mightiness of the heavens. It’s a sense of pure ecstasy, wonder and freedom. I want to absorb every drop of rain, tromp through every available puddle, take in every last drop of this most marvelous storm.

A straight shot of bliss, solo.

 

***

From: Psychiatric Quarterly, January, 1953 

The value of early memories in psychotherapy

By Ralph J. Kahana, L. Hyman Weiland, Benson Snyder, Milton Rosenbaum

“In recent years, it has been a routine practice in the psychiatric and psychosomatic clinics and wards of the Cincinnati General Hospital to ask patients directly for their earliest childhood memories. It has been the writers’ experience that—when the memories are analyzed within a psychoanalytic conceptual framework —they may provide meaningful information about unconscious conflicts, significant traumatic experiences in childhood, defenses against anxiety and transference reactions. Although such data can be obtained in other ways, it is often promptly available in the earliest memories and thus helpful in the early formulation of a case.” 

***

We’re still living in New Jersey, and my dad is working at a bookbinding plant not far from our apartment, across a small footbridge and some railroad tracks below that. He’s forgotten his lunch on this day, and with my older sister and brother in school and my mom tending to my infant sister, she’s asked me to take it to him. I set out on my task and soon come to the bridge, where I stop.

What necessitated the bridge, what danger it rose above, is unknown to me today. It was short, with wood planks, and I doubt it could even have accommodated cars. What catches my eye and gives me pause this morning is the thin iron side railings, just a couple of them, and the space below the bottom rail, substantial enough between it and the wooden plank underneath that a little kid like me could easily, I fear, be cast down below were I to somehow slip and fall and go sliding beneath the rail.

All totally implausible, of course, but I freeze at the bridge anyway, neither coming nor going, no telling how long, until I espy my dad waving between railroad cars on the tracks perhaps a couple of hundred yards away and to the left.

(“Andy, what are you doing?”)

I see my dad pointing off to his right and I follow his direction down off the lip of the bridge, picking my way along what may have been some kind of dry streambed to where he is waiting. I hand him his lunch, embarrassed and self-conscious that I have simply been standing there, paralyzed, until he urged me along and figured out a way to circumvent my fear.

But the fear doesn’t go anywhere. For several years afterwards, I cannot walk past even a sidewalk gutter without swinging as wide as possible away from its ominous open mouth.

 

***

From: Psychology Today, April 4, 2015

What Your Oldest Memories Reveal About You

Do you remember the best moments, or the worst?

By Krystine Batcho, Ph.D.

It is not yet clear why certain experiences are remembered for a lifetime, while so many more are not. The earliest childhood memories recalled by adults are often of emotional events. Although many such memories represent negatively emotional events, many also preserve the happy experiences of childhood. Certainly injuries, such as a playground accident resulting in a broken arm, often persist in adult memory. But also memorable are happy occasions such as an especially enjoyable holiday or time playing with friends on an outing…

The totality of our autobiographical memories mirrors not just the fabric of our lives, but also the fabric of who we have become…The person we become can think about the events that shaped us, reevaluate them, and choose how to respond to them. We are not prisoners of our past; we can retain control over how we decide to use aspects of our past in shaping who we want to be and to become…We didn’t get to choose the childhood we were given, but we can choose what to do with the stuff of our childhood memories.

***

We have moved to Los Angeles, near downtown, sharing a duplex with an African American family whose children, Marvin and Francine, are slightly older than my brother and me. (I’m 5 or 6, my brother three years older.) We occasionally link up with them for one childhood exploration or other, and on this day, my brother and I are following Marvin into the backyard with a basketball, although there is no court or basket back there.

Instead, Marvin takes to firing the ball at his family’s pet duck, who scurries about the yard as an unwitting participant in this human-animal game of dodgeball.

Marvin misses a few times as my brother and I observe, and then: bull’s eye.

The ball hits the duck square, with great force, and it crumples immediately, dead.

We walk up to it, Marvin in charge, it being his duck, his game.

He decides we should bury it, so we go to a narrow strip of earth behind what must have been a garage and Marvin digs a couple of feet down and places the duck in, then covers it back up.

Some days later, no telling how many, we are back there again, digging up the dirt, and suddenly I am face to face with what seems like millions of ants swarming all over a mass of white feathers, decomposition firmly underway.

I am filled with a combination of awe and dread, fascination and horror.

The sight of the duck in the dirt is the only memory I have of the day. I have thought of it frequently over the years, as a kind of primal vision and symbol of the collective fate of all living things.

***

From: The concluding stanzas of “Nostalgia,” a poem by Billy Collins (1991)


I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.

Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.

And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.

I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.

I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

***

My Uncle Elmer is slowly pulling on a black leather driving glove, one hand inching it along up over first the fingers and then the thumb of the other hand, the leather close and sleek on his skin like a starlet poured into an impossibly tight gown. He’s deliberate and attentive, and so am I.

I am sitting in the seat of his fire engine red Triumph TR-4, transfixed, maybe 8 years old, as we prepare to descend from his and my aunt’s house in Laurel Canyon, a ritzy neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills where his roadster can get a fine workout as it hugs and stays sleek and close to its own curves on the tight canyon roads.

Elmer is a cousin to my mother from the old country, and he has prospered enough in the U.S. to buy a sprawling place in Laurel Canyon where the Hidas family comes to visit from the flatlands for long Sunday afternoons of adult drinking and smoking and catching up on family matters. This is followed by spirited ping pong games between the males capable of holding their own while turning their brows and shirts into a wet sopping mess.

But for the moment, I sit in the passenger seat of the Triumph, transfixed, granted the almost hallowed privilege of a drive to the store with my uncle after he casually asks whether I’d like to come along.

When he finally gets his gloves on, we head off down the canyon, the engine purring in that pop-pop-whine-pop-pop way of sports cars working their way through the gears as we zip along under my uncle’s sure gloved hand.

A dozen years later, I pay $400 for a white Triumph TR-3, my second car after an initial staid foray into youthful car ownership with a Buick. I do not purchase any driving gloves with which to tame the steering wheel as I tool around greater LA with the top down 12 months a year, but the pop-pop-whine of the engine as I work the clutch and gas pedal is omnipresent, sending shivers of delight up and down from foot to spine to brain and back.

I never make it to Laurel Canyon to show my uncle the prize that a single car ride had wrought years earlier.

But Laurel Canyon has made it into me.

***

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Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com 

Child shadows photo by magnetisch,  Reutlingen, Germany, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/33256665@N00/

Kid tromping in storm photo by Svante Adermark, Gothenburg, Sweden, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/swan-t/

Footbridge photo by Tim Green,  Bradford, UK, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/atoach/

Duck by Craig Murphy, Scotland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/craigmurphy/

Triumph sports car photo by Michael Schwartz, Germany, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gs-motorradreisen-de/

8 comments to The Lasting Emotional Weight of Childhood Memories

  • Karen  says:

    I really liked this Andrew. Had me thinking of my first memory, as you probably expected. Also age 3, my first earthquake…I can see the silhouette of my father bracing himself in the doorway to my sister’s and my bedroom telling us everything would be ok, and I can hear my grandmother screaming downstairs.

    I enjoyed getting a little glimpse into your childhood. Thank you.

    P.S. My mom has a white TR-3, wanna take it out for a spin?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Wait wait wait—your mother has a TR-3? And I didn’t know about this? Arghhh! YES I wanna take it out for a spin!

      And as for that early memory, oh, the earth rockin’ & rollin’ will do that to a child (stamp it indelibly in their memory…). Glad you took to heart your dad’s reaction rather than your grandma’s, though. He was right!

  • Sandy Hernandez  says:

    Love your descriptive writing. I am inspired to put pen to paper again…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Anytime I can inspire that I’m a happy man, Sandy. And the fact that you’ve put it out there is all the more provocation for you to follow through. Let me know how it goes!

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    I love the structure of this piece Andrew. Your memories are so vivid and Karen, you got me to thinking that all us California kids probably have a sharp memory of our first earthquake. (Mine was our backyard pool slushing for no reason and the fancy china chattering in the high cupboard).
    Oh yeah, I had a Triumph too. A maroon TR7 and red riding gloves to match. Long ago….

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Joan: First Earthquake Memories. Probably a book in that, though you’d have to hunt down some painful tragic ones to give it the true heft and scope it deserves.

      I really appreciate your commenting on the structure, because it changed substantially from first draft to last. It wasn’t until I got busy with other things demanding my time and held off on hitting the “Publish” button till much later in my day that I had a chance to mull it some more. That’s when I realized the various pieces of this thing weren’t all wrong, but they weren’t nearly as right as they could be, either. And the new structure just popped into my head unbidden while doing something else, in that “Aha!” way that various headlines and other quick-flash insights do sometimes, blessed be and may they continue!

  • Robby Miller  says:

    At age 3, for some inexplicable reason, I decided to lock my mother out of the house when she took a load of laundry to the washer in the garage. (This being 1956) Of course the spanking I received, once she finally found her way back in, is also seared in my memory.

    Analyze that, bub.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robby, I’m going to be picking up a new couch in the next couple of days, and it’s the perfect length for a tall-ish person to lay down in relative comfort. So I’d invite you to pay a visit to the Traversing offices as soon as your schedule allows so you can tell me more about that most intriguing dream…

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