Many people's earliest memories involve events that were frightening or traumatic. Not mine. My first clear recollection is of a moment of magic.
It was early on a winter evening. I was two and a half, walking home at dinnertime from the house next door, where I'd been playing with my best friend. Because the two houses were so close, I was given the privilege of walking by myself.
Feeling proud and excited, I stepped outside and entered a world that was completely new to me.
The air was cold and nearly still, with just a faint stirring of the wind. The bushes in the yard had been transformed into shadows. The sky held the most amazing colors--overhead a deep, rich blue, fading to azure in the west, then turning rosy, and finally meeting the ground in a burst of fiery orange. I felt as if nothing existed in the world at that moment except for me and the frozen grass beneath my feet and the incredible quality of the light. Anything seemed possible, and I could feel my mind stretching out to encompass this new sense of wonder.
I know this is a genuine memory because no one else was present to interpret the experience for me or describe it to me after the fact. I'm less certain about other early childhood memories. So many of the events I think I recall became family stories, told and retold at the dinner table and in gatherings of relatives. Do I really remember the time I scribbled all over the walls of my bedroom? Or was my vivid impression of that incident created and reinforced by the many times I heard my mom describe her dismay when she walked in to find me standing on my bed, crayons in hand, and heard my greeting: "Look, Mommy! I'm making my room pretty"?
Memories can be slippery, elusive, even false. In college I was fascinated by the story in a psych textbook of how the pioneering Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget became interested in that subject.
When he was a toddler, his nanny took him for a stroll in a park, where two bad men tried to snatch him from his baby carriage. She roused a ruckus and fought them off, becoming a heroine to his family for saving him. Soon afterward she moved on, and Piaget didn't see her again for twenty years. Then he ran into her on the street, and as they were catching up, he mentioned the valiant rescue. To his surprise she laughed. "Oh, I made that up," she told him. She'd been dallying in the park with her boyfriend that day and lost track of the time, so she invented the dramatic tale, hoping it would be an acceptable reason for bringing her young charge home late.
Piaget was astounded. How could the story be a lie when he remembered the incident so clearly and in such vivid detail--the scar on one bad guy's face, the other's mustache, the fear that coursed through his body as strange, rough hands lifted him from his carriage? How do children form memories, anyway? What sticks and what doesn't, and why? Where does memory end and imagination begin? These questions led him to his life's work.
What I find intriguing about Piaget's experience, and mine, is the way a story can impress itself so completely on the mind and imagination that we think of it as real. A fabricated story takes on its own truth, or another person's experience becomes part of us. (Ever had your spouse recount one of your frequently described memories as if it were his or her own?)
That's how the best fiction works. And creating that kind of true and vivid experience for readers is what I strive to achieve when I write.
Photo © 2013 by Charles Lucke