First Years … First Memories

Lea Wait, here. I’ve been working on the third book in my Mainely Needlepoint series. If you haven’t read the first one, Twisted Threads, published earlier this month: Angie Curtis, the main character, is from Haven Harbor, Maine. Her mother disappeared when she was ten years old. Angie left Maine when she was eighteen, but now she’s back, to find her mother’s killer and start a new life.

Lea at age 2 1/2

Lea at age 2 1/2

As Angie visits places she hasn’t seen since her childhood, and meets people she knew as a little girl, her memories haunt her. Good memories and not-so-good memories. When I’m writing from her point of view, memories are on my mind.

So when I saw an article in This Week magazine called “Why We Forget Our First Years” I read it.

Some of us have memories of our early childhoods. But this article said that most adults do not remember their first three or four years, and have very few memories of what happened before they were about 7. Would returning to a home where they’d lived as a child or meeting a long-lost relative bring those memories back? Not according to this author. He wrote that until the 1980s, that was what was believed. But a 1987 study showed that many 2 1/-2 year-old children could describe events that had taken place 6 months before. Even many children between the ages of 4 and 10 could recall incidents that happened when they were only two years old. But interviewed again two years later, two-thirds of these same children had forgotten those incidents. Called “childhood amnesia,” the study showed that most of our childhood is forgotten. Gone. The memories we do keep are sometimes connected to emotions … sometimes totally random.

Does what happened in those early years matter, if we can’t remember them? Psychologists say yes, even if we can’t remember the details of our early life, those events imprinted on our emotions, so in later years we believe circuses are fun (or scary;) dogs are good; cats scratch. Grownups can be trusted. Or not.

I have three memories from before I was 2 1/2. I remember being outdoors, bending down to look through a cellar window, and seeing a bunny. I remember climbing a lot of stairs and finding a room at the top of the stairs on the right that was filled with cartons … and my doll’s swing, on top of the boxes, in a spot of sunlight by the far window. I remember holding my grandmother’s hand and walking through a tunnel of white snow, away from my house.

When my mother was still alive I shared those memories with her, and she agreed they were real. The bunny lived in the basement of the house next door to where we lived until I was 2 1/2. The room I remembered (and which became my own room years later) was on the third floor of the house we moved into a month before my little sister was born. And my grandmother came from Boston to New Jersey and took me back to Boston with her so my mother could unpack and rest before her next baby was born. My grandmother and I left New Jersey right after a heavy snowfall and took the train to New York, and then to Boston. I have no recollection of that train ride.

I have other memories, too … many of them of my grandparents’ house, and people and things there. They left that house to move in with us when I was nine, so the memories were of events before then, but I can’t date them.

When I’m writing Angie Curtis’ memories, I’m assuming she can remember repeated events, like Fourth of July fireworks and Christmas. And she can remember emotional events, like special days she spent with her mother.

But, of course, I’m writing fiction.

How far back do your memories go? And how often do you think of them? I’m not a psychologist, but I suspect those are important questions. And, as a writer, even if I can’t answer the questions for myself … I can answer them for my characters.

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8 Responses to First Years … First Memories

  1. Gram says:

    I have memories of my early years. Probably from 1-3 years old. Because we moved from that house when I was three and I remember things that happened there and know I was younger than 3.

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  2. Early memories can be so tricky. Do we actually remember events, or do we remember being told/seeing pictures of them? One of my earliest is of riding a pony–the velvet of his nose, the texture of the saddle horn, the wonderful scent of horse. I waved at my baby sister in my mother’s arms, which tells me I was between 2 and 3 yo. But I also have a birth memory–of my limp body, being pushed through warm wet darkness toward a light. I was not frightened.

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  3. Interesting post, Lea. Both of my grandmothers died when I was ten, so I can date many memories by before or after 1958, but I have very little idea exactly how old I was in those “before” memories.

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  4. Kait Carson says:

    I can remember the carpet in the house that we moved from just before I turned 1. It was blue and nubby in texture. My mother confirmed it. Thinking back, I have lots of memories of times before I was two. I don’t think of them often, but they are there. They are all good memories, so they may have imprinted because they were fun times.

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  5. Barb Ross says:

    Fascinating, Lea.

    I have several scattered memories from before I was three–and I remember my third birthday party. However, they’re the same memories every time, so what I think is that I remember remembering them, i.e. each time they come back, since my childhood, reinforces the memory, so it is there the next time. Everything else is–gone.

    I remember in kindergarten being excited because a girl in my class had been at my nursery school. I went up to her and reminded her, and she looked at me and said, “No, I wasn’t.” But she was, which my mother confirmed. At five I think she had no memory of something that happened–for weeks and weeks–when she was three.

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  6. Lea Wait says:

    Memory is a fascinating part of our minds. I’ve often thought about it over the years because some of my children (adopted at older ages) couldn’t remember much – if anything – about their early years. Sometimes, to be honest, that was good. Other times not so good. But frustrating for them. Now I realize — many of us have few memories from those years. And we have others to remind us and photos.

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  7. JT NICHOLS says:

    the earliest I remember is about 5—i used to fall down the stairs all the time (2nd floor to 1st), –It seems like it happened every day. Could explain why I have no earlier memories, if I kept falling on my head…

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  8. Anne Mosey says:

    My earliest memory happened during the summer before I turned 3. My younger brother & I were staying at an aunt’s house while my mother was in the hospital to have a baby. I remember my parents coming to pick us up after my mother left the hospital. The reason this stands out is because they didn’t have a baby with them. He had died 2 days after his birth.

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