We all have different abilities, one of which is the vividness and extent of our memory. I have a seven-year-old granddaughter who can remember simple things we did when she was one and a half. Her memory could be described as photographic. I think she gets it from her dad who is the same way. My memory would be better described as erratic, often based on having strong feelings at the time of the memory. I also theorize that I have forgotten many incidents for the same reason.
Here are some childhood memories of mine, some I’ve told to family and others I haven’t.
I have one memory before turning five. It was traumatic because I was 3 or 4-years-old and I was lost at a carnival at night. My uncle found me but for a moment, looking at the whizzing lights of Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, and looking up at people rushing by, I was really scared.
I remember two things about being five. One is wetting my pants on my first day of kindergarten because I had no idea where the bathroom was and wouldn’t ask. I wore my jacket around my waist to hide my mistake. The second memory was the summer vacation between kindergarten and 1st grade. I wondered why my mom wasn’t sending me to school any longer. It lasted three months, a lifetime for a little kid, but I didn’t ask her why I wasn’t going because I was afraid she would be reminded and would send me back.
I can’t remember being six. I’m sure I was--at least for a year.
I think I was seven-years-of-age when I experienced one of my most vivid and wonderful memories. My dad had followed his brother to Oregon and found work as a logger there. He sent for my mom, brother, baby sister and me to join him. I had never been beyond Missouri and now we were taking a train from St. Louis to Medford, Oregon. I recall waking up on the first morning in eastern Colorado. We hadn’t reached the mountains yet and I thought, while looking at the strange landscape, that we may be on the moon. This was 1956 or 1957, computers and cell phones were science fiction. TV was in its infancy so awareness of the world around me was slim to vacuous. This made my experience later that day all the more fascinating.
We were still on the train heading into the Rocky Mountains. Of course, we were in the cattle car but I decided to explore the train having been on it for many hours. You may remember the special railcars that passenger trains once had that looked like butter dishes. There were stairs leading to the passenger area where huge overhead windows allowed a panoramic view of the passing scenery from the comfort of your seat.
Good fortune allowed me to be walking through the butter-dish observation car just as we were traveling on the top of the world, where a light snow was blowing on the mountainsides and in valleys below. I recall a purple hue over the entire scene of rugged cliffs and evergreens. Never had I even seen a mountain, and here I was in the vaulted majesty of one the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world.
We only lived in Oregon for a few months. We never stayed anywhere very long, but I did have a few memories there. In one memory I had a chance to be a substitute bat boy for my uncle’s semi-pro baseball team. There actually were people in the stands and I could feel the eyes of all 200 or so on me as I picked up a bat and dropped it three times on the way back to the dugout. I may have only been sent out to retrieve a bat that one time. Bad audition I guess.
There was a big forest fire near Medford the short time we lived there. We could see it from our house, the huge billowing clouds of smoke that made everything else seem small. I wondered how the fire started and when it would end. It lasted many days. A few weeks later, and I don’t know why it stuck with me, but I was agonizingly bored! I turned on the TV for something to do, but Medford only had one channel back then and it was broadcasting a horse race. I picked a horse, decked out in green with yellow polka dots, to win. He lost and I turned off the TV. I’ve never been that painfully bored since, except maybe in a few meetings at work.
Oregon did not work out after my mom had to drive us home, without a license at that time, because dad was passed out. Things went downhill. We moved to Caseyville, Illinois, a St. Louis suburb. I was eight and it was the happiest year of my life as a kid until my dad, who was an alcoholic, had a relapse. I’ll get to that later.
In Caseyville, we were like a 1950’s TV family for about eight months. My dad had stopped drinking and he had a steady job. We had a nice car (for us) and a small but adequate house. I had a pet dog, Frisky, and friends with whom to play. Every morning in the summer I would wake up hearing kids outside. I jumped up out of bed, put a cap on my disheveled hair, and ran directly outside to play, only coming inside when I had to eat. There was a store at the end of our dead-end street where my mom would send me for bread, milk, or whatever. I would tell the man, “Put it on our bill” because we kept a charge account with the market. I was deliriously happy for those few months.
My “Leave It To Beaver”, Caseyville life ended violently one night after my parents had a vicious argument. My father got very drunk and tore up the house. We left that home that week, maybe the next day. I don’t remember where my mother, siblings, and I went that year. I do remember my father was no longer with us. I asked my mom about our bill at the market. It was never paid. My dad was in and out of our lives from then on, mostly out.
My next clear memory is watching my five siblings at home one day while my mom worked. I was only 10 years old and my youngest brother was under a year old. My mom had to work and there was no one available to watch us. I didn’t watch them every day--only when my mom couldn’t get anyone else. I was told by my brothers and sisters that I would chase them around the house with a broom when they wouldn’t listen to me. I’m sure I did. They were wild and I was not someone they wanted to listen to.
We moved three or four times a year almost every year when I was a kid. I know that is difficult to believe but it is true. Changing schools so many times was very difficult for all of us. It was terrifying to be the new kid so often. It wasn’t that kids treated me badly. I was just very shy and awkward. Often, I was ahead certain school topics, and just as often I was behind the rest of my class. Being placed in the middle of a geometry class, mid-semester, when I had never studied geometry before was very confusing.
I have a few other childhood memories, some are in my Dadhood book where I discuss my dealing with bullies. There were other memories like those mentioned but they aren’t necessary to make my point. That point being much of my childhood is lost to me. I had happy memories and sad ones, just like everyone, but there is no thread tying them together-- no childhood neighborhood to go back to or lifelong friends prior to high school. I have fleeting memories of people or events with huge gaps in between. If my childhood was a 16 story building, I missed a few floors.
On a more tragic side, I watched my mother-in-law slowly lose her memory to dementia. It was heartbreaking to watch her confusion and not know her family or history. When you’ve lost your memory, you’ve lost your life. I lost a portion of my life, not to dementia but simply an inability to string things together. We all forget important episodes of our life, some of which helps us to move on. But when we forget chunks of our life, we can be confused about how we got to where we are, or why we are the way we are.
I didn’t know where I would end up when I started writing, but I think I have a final point now and it comes back to parenting. Children shouldn’t be given too much, but if you give your kids anything, give them life-lessons, good memories, and a stable home life to remember them.