My earliest memory has no plot, no real story behind it. It is simply an image that lasts only 3 or 4 seconds. I am sitting on a lap, someone’s arms securing me so I don’t fall off. I can see out a window and things outside are moving backward. There are noises. Suddenly, the window goes black and the noises sound louder, surprising the hell out of me. After a few seconds, the light comes back.
As an adult I once asked my mom about this memory and she believes it must be from a train trip she took with me to Philadelphia when I was two years old. I was sitting on her lap as the train entered an underpass. While I remember the window getting suddenly dark and just as suddenly light, I have no other memories of that trip. I am not sure why were going to Philly.
The memory is unmoored. It exists with no context at all, other than the scant details my mother has been able to fill in. She thinks maybe we were going to the big Wanamaker’s department store on Market Street in Philadelphia to look at the Christmas decorations, but that is a guess. Knowing how tricky memory is and how we all fill in the details and change our memories each time we access them, I have worked hard my whole life to keep this first memory as pure as can be. I don’t want to alter it. I like it just as it is.
And the reason I like it so much is it still has the power to bring back a bit of the feeling it gave me even then in the moment. I did not have the words to name the feeling, but that made what I felt even more pure—I wasn’t filtering it through expectation, image management, or intellect. I was simply feeling something. And as I got older feeling became something to be avoided, managed, thought about, and, if worse came to worse, simply denied. My family is not big into feelings.
But on that day, on that lap, on that train I felt a rush of feeling surge through me when the window went black and then light again. To help myself understand that surge, I have put some words to it, but please know that these words don’t do the feeling justice. The mix includes surprise, fear, excitement, pleasure, expectation, and a bit of giddiness. That first memory—that first feeling—set the template for me. It gave me an example of what feeling can be. And when I look back now from the vantage point of somewhere near the midpoint of my life (I hope) I can see that the parts of my life that feel best to me are those that most closely approximate that first memorable feeling.