Memories of memories

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

A friend wrote a story about her “memory of her first memory.”

With this phrase in the first line of her essay, I was captured. It intrigued me in several ways – the combination of words that makes me read something again, ponder it before reading on, think about it just before sleeping; maybe dream about it. And, finally, wishing I’d written it.

Many of my memories were told to me, and they then became my memories. One of my favorites in this category is the story of my tripping and falling down the long stairwell to the front door of the apartment building we lived in. I was 3 years old. I honestly have no recall of this, even the part where I got stitches inside my lower lip. Nevertheless, it has been in my memory as long as I can remember; it must have been told to me early on and over and over. I can picture the entire episode from a memory not my own.

It is the miracle of our brains that makes me think not only was I there, but my not quite fully formed mind was, too; it is now my memory.

I don’t exactly remember sitting on the kitchen table with my sister eating sugar out of the sugar bowl. I’m not even sure it happened; maybe I made it up. But the funny thing about it, however it got into my memory bank, I can picture the whole scene. It includes a chair pulled slightly away from a small wooden table (the better to climb up on that table), the two of us dark-haired little girls – 2 and 3 years old – serious as we drop sugar all over, sticking our fingers in the sugar bowl and licking off the reward that makes it to our mouths. Someone, probably Mom, must have discovered us, because how else would I know the story except for her telling of it? Although perhaps my sister told me, because she has a prodigious memory.

I do remember, all on my own, the first time I read words, all on my own. A red letter day, no pun intended. After Sunday Mass, lying on my tummy and propped up on my elbows on the living room floor, I was following the Dick Tracy comic strip on the broadsheet of the Sunday funnies. Suddenly, I was aware that I was reading words in that little balloon coming out of Sparkle Plenty’s mouth.

I didn’t whoop, tell my sister or exclaim to my parents. I didn’t even try to read anything else. I just lay there, in wonder, reading and rereading what I could make out that my favorite cartoon girl had to say to Dick Tracy. It was simple – “Hi. What’s up?” – and I could read it.

This is a memory I cherish, partly because it really is my own, however many subtle alterations have accrued throughout my life of bringing the memory up, therefore changing it each time just by looking at it from all the different angles of the years. But also cherished because of the dawning awareness over the ensuing months and years that learning to read was the door that opened both worlds, the real and the fantastic.

I maintain other memories of my first memories of significant events in my life, but none quite as innocent and important. If I remembered only this one occasion, the morning I knew I was reading, I believe I would be satisfied with that.

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