I’ve been doing a lot of work on early memories just recently. Quite literally just trying to remember as far back as I can. I’ve always been amazed at how some people can do this. They seem to be able to recall all sorts of events and experiences. Even, in some cases, sensations, like smells and tastes. They also seem to be able to go quite a long way back. It’s not uncommon to come across someone who can remember being held at their mother’s breast, and recall the sensation of being comforted. For me though, I struggle to get back any earlier than about five or six years of age. I seem to have two fairly strong recollections; one of sitting on the floor playing with a wind up Penguin, which just waddled along when set in motion. The other memory seems to be rather more traumatic. I’m in the lounge of my grandparents house playing a game. I seem to be wearing the cosy off the teapot on my head, pulled down over my eyes. I think I’m playing at being a ghost; obviously a blind ghost as I can’t see where I’m going. I’m stumbling around the room with my arms outstretched and making ghostly, Whoo! noises. My progress is arrested, and the game ended, when I trip over the fender in front of the open fire and plunge my hands into the coals. However, at the same moment I feel myself being snatched back out of danger by an adult who must have seen what was happening and was quick enough off the mark to prevent any lasting harm. To this day this memory, if that’s what it is, is still very clear; apart from the identity of my rescuer. The other things that make me question the validity of the memory, are the facts that I have no visible scarring, and that no one else has any recollection of the event at all.
These are the only memories I have that seem to have fairly clear visual imagery. (and yes, I do realise that I just stated that I had my eyes covered in one example, but strangely, I do have some visual images in that memory) Anything else I might try to recall from that period, seems to consist of things sensed or vaguely felt. One of the strongest sensations I seem to consistently come up against, when exploring these early years, is isolation. Since I don’t seem to have any facts at my disposal, I’ve begun to speculate as to how I might have developed this sensation, that I was somehow alone, at such a young age.
In particular, I’ve begun thinking about the attitudes to child rearing in the post Second World War years. I’m guessing there weren’t many text books around at that time. So mothers tended to pick up their learning from their own mothers and grandmothers. Hand me down information passed on from generation to generation. A lot of it was good tried and tested stuff I’m sure. A fair bit of it though, was probably based on folklore and social mythology. One bit of information that I picked up in later childhood though, was the idea that one shouldn’t automatically pick up a crying baby. I used to hear the words, “oh leave him/her be, they’ll cry themselves to sleep”. Or even, “you’ll spoil that child if you pick it up every time it cries”.
Now, my own mother was not a cruel woman. But I think she had become rather hardened to life. Her own childhood was far from ideal and her first marriage was pretty dysfunctional. This coupled with the fact that she already had five children by the time I came along, may have made her rather tired of the whole business of child rearing. So I don’t remember her being motherly or affectionate. I don’t remember being held or cuddled. I think that children were seen as more of a practical issue than an emotional one. We were fed, watered and clothed and occasionally entertained, but that was it. That particular generation didn’t see that the needs of a child might go beyond simple practicalities.
My own sense is that at some point when I was very small, I must have been in some distress and, for whatever reason, no one came to see what the problem might be. This went on for long enough and possibly often enough, that I simply ended up believing that I was on my own. Now, the upside of this was that I learned to be very self reliant. I learned to amuse myself, to think through things, to use my imagination. The downside was, that I somehow became disconnected. That is, I didn’t see myself as part of any group. I remained an outsider on the edge looking in, not just mentally and emotionally but more often than not physically too, as even in the classroom I positioned myself down the side and towards the back. I hated being the centre of attention. I had real anxiety if, for example, a teacher singled me out for any reason. Even in my adult life I would studiously avoid any situation that might place me front and centre.
Now being on the periphery of things also had other benefits. As from this position I could take in a lot more detail from whatever was going on at the centre of any action. I became a bit of a people watcher; studying the dynamics of a group or even a crowd. Depending on the intensity of whatever was happening, I could drift around the edge and barely register with people. Curiously this skill I developed, has occasionally placed me in the centre of a group activity, as there have been times in my life Where I’ve been required to lead or supervise a group. One can imagine my discomfort in such situations.
Working in this way, starting with an early memory and then scanning forward on the timeline of my life, seems to be proving pretty fruitful. I’m gaining more insights into the things that have shaped my personality over time and, to some extent, gaining clues as to how I might benefit from these insights in present time and the future.