Wednesday, March 30, 2016

My First Lie

Over on her blog, Madeline Robbins writes about her first memory, My Mother Went Out for Lemons. Go read it; it's a great story.

It also prompts me to write about my first memory -- or, well, my first memory that's a coherent story.

My first actual memories are incoherent scraps. I remember seeing my younger brother, Michael, in the hospital nursery -- he was born when I was about 15 months old.

And I remember a nightmare I had which I think is even earlier than that, after my grandparents came to visit us in Seattle and my grandmother took us to pick blackberries in the woods behind our trailer (I remember the woods, and picking the blackberries; I remember sitting on the couch in our trailer eating the blackberries; but what I remember most is the terrible dream I had that night about a ghost chasing me through the woods.)

But my first coherent memory is from a few months after my little brother was born. He was still too little to walk, though he could pull himself up in the crib -- so six months, maybe? Maybe eight. That makes me just past two years old. We would have still been living in Seattle at this point. (We moved to New Orleans when I was nearly four.)

Our trailer was very small -- ten feet wide by forty feet long, just three rooms, really: a kitchen/living room in front, then a very narrow hallway leading to our tiny bedroom at the rear of the trailer, with my parents bedroom between the living room and our bedroom, off that hallway. All three of us children slept in the bedroom.  My older brother, who was just 13 months older than me, and I slept in a bunkbed, and my little brother slept in a crib.  The beds and a chest of drawers filled the tiny bedroom almost entirely.

(This one's a little bigger than ours, plus ours had the kitchen in front, and not separated)

That's important to know for the story.

I'm even tinier than the room -- barely over two years old, remember -- but like my older brother and (eventually) my younger I used the contents of the trailer as my own personal jungle gym.  I don't remember a time when we didn't climb on everything.  The bunkbeds, sure, but also the crib and the chest of drawers and the bookshelves out front, the cabinets, the kitchen table, everything.

One of the first times I got in real trouble was for climbing up to the top shelf of the bookshelves, where my father had stashed all the bills he had paid, stamped, and had ready for mailing.  It was mail!  I opened each one, meticulously and helpfully. "What are you doing!" my mother demanded, arriving just as I reached the last.

"Opening the mail," I said.


This morning, which I remember as sunny and chill, my little brother, Mikey as we called him then, had a cold.  My mother was giving him baby aspirin -- St. Joseph's orange flavored baby aspirin.  These days, of course, no one would give an infant aspirin, but back then, you crushed them up, put them in a little water, and down the hatch.

I loved baby aspirin. See, we were on the edge of poor in those days (and for awhile after that -- both my parents came from working class families, and both from working class families that had lived rough from time to time. My father to this day won't eat potato soup, because he ate so much of it during the Depression and WWII.) I never went hungry; but the budget didn't stretch to things like candy, not very often.

And the thing about St. Jospeph's Baby Aspirin -- it was sweet.  Or, you know, sweet enough.

So I watched my mother give my baby brother his aspirin, and I watched her leave the bottle on the dresser.  And I watched her leave the room.

I knew better than to eat aspirin.  I was two, but I wasn't an idiot. Still, I also knew she would be busy out in the kitchen for awhile.

I climbed to the top of the bunkbed, and across the bars of the crib, to the top of the dresser, where I crouched and pried off the lid of the aspirin bottle. (No child-proof lids in those days.) Then, busily, I ate aspirin.

They were delicious, by the way.

I don't remember how many I ate.  I do remember that I knew not to eat too many -- I knew why I wasn't supposed to eat aspirin; I knew that aspirin were dangerous.  But I also knew that they couldn't be that dangerous, since my mother gave them to me and to my brothers.  So I knew it had to be all right to eat a few.

And they were so good.  I don't know if any of you are old enough to remember the flavor of St. Joseph's orange-flavored children's aspirin, but I can remember the lovely flavor to this day -- kind of a sweet, tart, chalky orange-sherbet burst of flavor with each bite. I still love that taste.

I was munching blissfully away when I heard my mother coming down the tiny hallway.  Alarmed, I crammed the lid back on the aspirin bottle and jumped from the dresser to the floor of the trailer.

My mother came in just as I was landing.  I might have weighed no more than 20 or 22 pounds, but the thumping crash of me landing was entirely audible, believe me -- I felt the trailer shake around me.

"What were you doing?" she demanded. She had a basket of folded laundry under one arm.

"Checking on Mikey," I said with perfect innocence. "I thought he was crying."

She stared at me with deep suspicion.  I gaze back, as innocently as I could.  See, here's the thing.  I don't know what your parents were like, but mine weren't the sort who believed in time-outs.  Even at two and a half, I knew if I crossed my mother, she'd use the belt.

She put the laundry basket down on the bottom bunk, my bunk, and then went over to check on my little brother, who was peacefully sleeping. Then she caught sight of the aspirin bottle, and picked it up.  My small thumbs had not managed to get the cap back on all the way. She looked at it, and looked at me.

My heart was pounding, but I stared straight back.

"Did you eat some of these?"

"No," I said, as idly as if it were true.

"Tell me," she said. "I won't be mad.  I promise.  I just want to know."

I kept looking straight at her. "I didn't,"

She studied me a moment longer, and then put the bottle back where it had been, and turned to put the laundry away.  I watched her, awe and something even stronger than awe blooming through me.

This moment, I think, is when I became a writer. See, there I was, such a small child -- not even three years old yet -- entirely powerless, entirely at the mercy of this immense adult, who could do whatever she liked to me, as far as I knew.

And yet.  What had I just done?

With nothing but words, with the words in my mouth, I had controlled the world that this all-powerful being perceived.  I had changed my mother's world.  I had controlled my mother's world, with my words.

I had taken a world where I was disobedient, where I had broken the rules, where I had eaten the aspirin -- I was standing there, with the remnants of the aspirin still in my baby molars! -- and changed it to one where I was a good obedient child who had done no such thing. That was the world my mother now lived in, and thought was real.  I had done that.

This experience would, for the next ten or fifteen years, make me an inveterate liar, sadly enough.  But it would also, eventually, make me a writer.

What's your earliest memory? And is it an important one?  Did it shape your life?


Anonymous said...

That is an amazing story.

delagar said...

Aw, thanks.