A few years ago I bought a book, thick, heavy, a hard cover. It’s the sort of book I bought more as a collector’s item, meaning I had no real intention of actually reading it. But it turned out to be more than just a pretty totem – I soon got really into it, or more specifically I got hooked into its premise, the idea behind the book. Unfortunately, as luck would have it I have completely forgotten the name of the book, which is ironic because the book is about memory, in fact it is a collection of some of the worlds’ most famous peoples’ earliest memories. The question: What is your earliest memory? The very first time you remember remembering something? The first time you became aware of yourself in other words, fascinated me. Inspired by the book I started asking people this question and I was intrigued by the responses I got and the subsequent conversations around memory that these questions brought to the surface. From all the “research” I did I remember two memories by two friends mostly because they were told with such finesse, my little quotes at the bottom don’t do them justice, and I think I remember them because they are so cute:
“Shoes. I just remember seeing shoes lined up on the floor, then I saw for the first time that mine were the smallest pair in the line. I think that was the first time I was aware of my size in relation everyone else at home.” (A photographer)
“I remember losing my glasses in the veld and not being able to see, I remember feeling scared and searching though the grass which was taller than me” (writer, actor, filmmaker)
There are moments which I “remember” vividly from my childhood which of course cannot be corroborated/validated by anyone, especially with regard to my very first memory. So how does one know if the memory one holds dear or just simply holds on to is true or imagined or if it’s a memory borrowed or aided by pictures, conversations or stories told by parents, relatives? For example my younger brother used to love saying “I remember when I used to do this and this as a child” and I would ask him how do you remember? You were just two years old then? Mom told you this story! I would conclude. But in all honesty how do I know that he does in fact remember his childhood from as early as two years old and even younger? Some of the famous people’s earliest memories in this book of memories whose title I can’t seem to remember go as far back as 9 months, something which I found so incredible it was unbelievable. So just because I can’t remember what I did at six months doesn’t mean that next person won’t right?
Another thing with this earliest memory story is I have a lot of childhood memories and they are very specific to a particular moments in time, a frame, a scene, a slice of film so often I can’t really say if my most vivid childhood memory is my earliest (read first) memory because I will have to have a context in order to create a timeline. For example this is what I remembered then to be my earliest memory:
“I am walking with my mother, who is pregnant and my older sister, we are in the middle of the city of Johannesburg, there are lots of cars and my mother is shouting at me, she’s annoyed with me, because I am not paying attention to where she’s going, I’m falling behind, distracted, I’m looking at everything everywhere, following cars, people, sounds, the city is intoxicating, at the same time I am timid, scared of cars so she must have really had her hands full. We walk into a department store a few minutes later, to get in my mother has to push the heavy glass doors with gold-plated boarders open, as she opens the door, the first thing I see are brown leather (veldskoene) shoes and as I look up a big white man is holding a packet of Simba chips in his hands, he was so high up i couldn’t see past the one golden chip held between his fingers which, surprise, surprise, he is was offering to me. I look up at my mother whose hand tightens its grip around mine, and drags me inside the store before I could say yes or no – Her facial expression threatening blue murder. If I so much as dared to protest”
.When I went home next I asked my mother if she remembers an incident like this, she emphatically said no. I was really disappointed, because I wanted to eliminate the possibility that it was a “dream”, I wanted to establish it as something that actually took place, an undisputable fact of my life. I used to talk about this “first” memory of mine and analyze it within a context of my first real experience of racism or apartheid South Africa, which I now think is probably not true in the classic sense, because I see that generally mothers, regardless of skin colour would not want their kids taking/ eating food from strangers, if it is a white (probably racist) stranger in downtown Johannesburg in 1983/4 one could easily infer racial undertones to that scene without any fear of judgment,but it doesn’t make it a racial incident necessarily. There’s so much talk about race in South Africa today it’s almost comical. It’s almost as if the country is suddenly waking up with surprise: “guys we’re black!” “Jesus, we are white!!” Everyone seems to be shocked by this. Shocking.
I have vague memories of being in my father’s car the night before his wedding and being scared. Who can I ask about that? I have a memory of a car accident – the first time I smelled the scent, the metallic taste of blood, the first time I felt real fear of death, of dying. I have memories of my mother’s shoes, all high heels, boots wedges, she had beautiful shoes which I wore every chance I got, often when she wasn’t looking, I thought they were beautiful, the grey knee-high velvet winter boots, the red/burgundy stilettos, the golden wedges, I wish I could bring those shoes to life today, to fulfill my childhood fantasy – I loved my mother’s shoes and clothes. I have no real memory of the moment I knew I had a new brother – which would make me around two years old at the time. My grandmother used to love telling the story of my initial reaction to my brother’s birth she said “I came to her one day and said, “ai, sekaya qhosha, ngalomntwan’akhe omusha” which made them laugh until tears roll down their faces. Loosely translated in English I said my mother …. Guys seriously I don’t really know how to translate that, but the sentiment is that my mother was so protective of her new baby it was like she’d just met a new man, a boyfriend. So my white guy with a chip memory, would be my earliest memory because my mother was pregnant at the time, presumably with my brother, then I would have two memories of my mother being pregnant as a child, first with my brother and then with my sister – which is which? So I have to “trust” that what I remember as my earliest memory is in fact my earliest memory even though I can’t be sure that it actually is, because no one else or more importantly my mother does not remember a white man offering me a golden chip during a trip to Johannesburg, why she must have been so pre-occupied! Memory is such a fascinating subject as recently demonstrated by my mother and sister who asked me if I still remember which soup bowl is mine one night when we were having soup. And I honestly didn’t remember: they qualified that with I wouldn’t be the real Jedi if I didn’t remember.
So for that night I was an adoption case, until I saw the soup bowl, which I didn’t see that night on another day and said, this is it. My sister didn’t seem impressed. So that was a very peculiar incident for me that they should “test” me in such a way as if somebody had stolen the real Jedi and this person standing in their kitchen is a fraud. I have travelled a lot; lived in so many places and seen things I wish to forget that remembering my soup bowl might seem negligible, to me. But it is not, to my mom and sister. Simply because they’ve seen so little of me in the past ten years, the memories we “share” together have become so preciously few they are even tied to utensils, I mean crockery where are my manners? They think of me when they see that soup bowl. That soup bowl would always be prefaced with its Jedi’s soup bowl. So birthdays become important, events, gatherings, where families can share a memory together like a dream, become crucial in keeping a family together. The more happy memories or sad ones for that matter you have together the closer the relationship.
So I have a lot of memories of doing things and travelling the world all on my own and for the reasons mentioned above, I’m really looking forward to a time when I can create share, dreams which will become memories with another person, or other people in this blogging case. This movie Inception keeps showing ups as I write this, it is a really good movie, so I want to find a co-architect as it were, a witness to my life and I theirs. But it’s all tied up in dreams, those are the strings attached. I think it’s natural really to want that – it is such a human, a basic human desire, otherwise, you’ll live in your own universe and be called crazy by other people who don’t share your universe. No one will say “How do you remember that? You were drunk out of your mind” or something like that. I think having been a lone ranger for so many years, I now think, or seriously believe that life is infinitely done better in pairs, its more fun! I was laughing at a memory I have in the kitchen the other day, and my sister asked what it was, and I realized that to her I must seem crazy because she doesn’t share in the humour, or memory of the humourous incident , even if I tell it, it’ll still be a had to be there kind of thing or else I’d be Trevor Noah. I have become so used to my own company, hanging out with myself that I could literally roll down on the floor laughing out loud at my own private jokes –alone or in company and that would seem quite, normal to me. But I can also see why that would send all the red lights of crazy flashing.
In isiZulu there’s a name for that they call it “Umuntu wakho” or “Motho Wagago” In seSotho which directly translated means your person. I think I do believe that every person should have a person. My sister once told me even Micky Mouse has a mini. I don’t remember being “alone” in my childhood, I always had a partner, I always had someone I dreamed with, first my older sister, then my cousin Lebo, then my cousin Fungile, then Sthembisile, then my little sister D, then my brother Peace, and now that they all have their own people and they are sharing the bulk of their dreams with others, there’s not enough room for my Fantastic dream world. So I guess I should find my own dream partner. Tjo! How did I get here… yes, yes, memories, well it’s good to remember that it’s not good for a man or woman to be alone, but the trick is about balance – know how to be alone, without isolating yourself. And then there’s the dream bit, we must share a dream. My person must be really crazy wherever they are, for surviving this long without me! I’m proud of you already… see what I mean? Come on now before I get committed…
- Mystery of Fading Childhood Memories (memory capacity) (kaleyvatalaro.wordpress.com)
- Earliest Childhood Memory (lawrencem2013.wordpress.com)
- Earliest memories (sarahcoughlan.wordpress.com)
- Earliest childhood memory (amandadeppa.wordpress.com)
- Earliest Memory (madisonanglin.wordpress.com)