February 05, 2007

Early Memories

My earliest memory is not before the age of four, when we went to nursery school at the Yale Child Study Center, and even it is slight: I recall a very large black rubber wading pool in the court yard outside, a wading pool that was nonetheless never filled with water, only with dead leaves from the many trees that ringed the graveled yard. I was not disappointed by this, since I was afraid of the black rubber inflated side, associating it with a large snake. I didn't like to go near it. While I know that Lynnie was there and the boy next door as well, I have no memories of them or of any other child or interaction. The only other thing I remember is the blank windows -- mirrors? -- through which, presumably, the psychologists and so forth studied us as we went about our day. I had even seen through them myself the opposite direction when my father showed us how it worked one afternoon. But somehow, when faced with the blankness of a dark window or reflecting mirror during the day, I didn't understand that there were people looking at me, people outside them at all. I believed they were simply a wall like any other, solid and impenetrable.

That summer, I think, we visited my grandparents in Newton, MA. I had never seen such a big house, but we all stayed outside under the sun, because it was warm and our grandmother was ill with some sort of cancer of the blood -- it is still unclear to me what that was -- and liked the sunshine. Our grandfather pointed us to a white canopied set of chairs, facing each other -- swing chairs, he said, made for two. Anything made for two was made for twins, we had decided long ago, and so we dashed for the swing chairs and hopped on board, rocking in bliss for half the afternoon. We were sorry when our parents called us to "say good-bye to Grandma and Grandpa." As if they would miss me, I made a promise to the chairs that I would be back to see them again soon.

I never saw those chairs again. My grandmother died that year and my grandfather sold the house, canopied swing chairs and all. I don't remember if we went to the funeral. I remember vaguely that we did, though I understood none of what was going on. But that may be later overlay from some other time. I don't remember how my father reacted. No doubt he kept it from us, so that we wouldn't be upset. I'm not sure I wouldn't have been very tender if he had cried in front of us; I think I would have probably crawled into his lap and tried to comfort him, if he let me. But so far as I know, he didn't show this, not in a way that made him accessible to us.

My grandmother is a mystery to me. She has always been "the sainted Martha" in my imagination, the woman who could do no wrong, the mother that my father adored and idolized, or perhaps who idolized him, I dunno. Yet I know nothing about her, what she did that was so good, what she said, what her temperament was, whether she was intellectual or social or artsy or what. You'd think that someone who is held as sacrosanct in the family, who cannot be spoken of but in awe, would be better known! But no, all I know of her, literally ALL I know of her, is that she died relatively young. Perhaps that's all that it is: the good die young, they say, and so because of that she has become Martha, the grandmother of legend, too good to live.

THe memories after that are far more plentiful, and it is not so easy to put them on a timeline, so many years afterwards. In kindergarten, I, who was always a goodie-two-shoes, both in nursery school and in all my school years, wanted to see what it felt like to be last in from off the playground instead of first in line. To that end, one afternoon at recess, I hid behind a bush when the bell rang, hoping not to get caught or called for before the class had filed into school. I watched stragglers run past the bush, trying to make it to the line before the teacher got mad, while some, giving up, simply sauntered to the tail end. Before I could change my mind, the teacher had given the command, and without so much as a "Where's Pammy Spiro?" the entire class filed into the dark corridor and the door closed behind them.

The playground was quiet when I ventured out from behind the bush. I could hear the birds and the wind in the trees and the traffic from the street not far away. But overwhelmingly, it was quiet, without the sounds of all the other children together laughing and shrieking and talking and yelling. It was dizzying, the emptiness, the silence. It was a feeling I'd never experienced before and I wasn't sure I liked it. But I was determined to make the most of it. I went to the swings and sat in the middle, the choicest one I never got to use. I pushed back with the tips of my Mary Janes then let go and swung forward, pumping each time I went backward until I was swinging as high as I dared. One second later, at the top of the arc, I let go and flew, just as I'd always wanted to, feeling for a fraction of a second free of my body. Then I landed in a heap on the grass, getting the breath knocked out of me. I gasped and gasped, scared I would die, until finally air came back.

I lay back and looked at the sky. The trees seemed to peer at me, bending over, and the sky pressed downward. I felt dizzy, as if I could feel the world turning underneath me. I thought I could hear the trees talking to each other in the rustle of their leaves. Everything was crowding me. The trees reached closer and closer as the sky pressed in. Closer and closer. I was terrified. I scrambled up and raced for the door, not daring to look behind me, certain that something was in pursuit and closing in fast. I reached the door, yanked it open, psuhed inside and slammed it shut-- safe.

But of course, I was not safe. There was hell to pay from the teacher when she discovered that I had been missing from the class, me, her prize pupil. How could I? Did I want a note sent home to my parents? Did I?! She calmed down eventually and there were no dire consequences after all. But I had learned my lesson. It was not worth breaking the rules to gain a new experience, because that new experience was bound to be terrifying, and dangerous to boot. I'm not so sure it was the best lesson to learn, but I learned it well.

Posted by pamwagg at February 5, 2007 07:57 PM


Hi Pam, I also played it safe when I was little. So safe in fact that when the class would play baseball in the courtyard I would run away from the ball instead of trying to catch it. I can't remember doing anything particularly daring. I was a "good" child though a bit too quiet in class. I guess it wasn't until junior high school that I would break the rules and skip school with friends. My parents were both working at the time, so noone knew. It was fun and I got away with it. But on the whole I, too, stayed within the confines of the rules.

Posted by: Kate K. at February 6, 2007 12:36 PM

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