Your earliest memory is one more step to understanding the story of you…
The dawn of conscious memory is the miraculous moment you are suddenly aware of life.
Your brain, your senses, and your ability to process thoughts are suddenly active. It’s not the exact time you were born… It’s the earliest point in time that you can recall being alive.
For most people, the “big bang” moment falls somewhere between the ages of 2 and 5. There are some who report they remember earlier, but it’s questionable as to whether it was truly their dawn of conscious memory, or something they were told.
Your first memory could be one of delight, something that awakened your curiosity about life. It could be an observation, like the color of the bedding in your crib or a particular toy hanging overhead. For others it might be a painful memory that booted your brain’s hard drive into action.
It’s the emotional response to your earliest memory that I find so fascinating, and it is one more step in understanding “the story of you.”
My dawn of conscious memory was a blend of emotions
I’d really never thought about it until I began studying at the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. I was anxious to get my credentials, but also willing to look at my history of loss and how it affected my life.
The founder of the Institute, Russell Friedman, shared the story of his “dawning” as a little boy, and I immediately recalled my own. It’s a story I had long forgotten, but was buried in my subconscious until the moment I coaxed it out.
I was about 4 years old, and I remember sitting in the back seat of a car. There were no seatbelts then, but I do remember running my hand along the seat, feeling the smooth leather.
My new best friend sat beside me. I don’t know how I knew she was my best friend, it was an awareness in the new feelings I had for her. Her parents were in the front seat, talking and smoking cigarettes. The smell wafted into the back seat. I didn’t necessarily find it unpleasant, just aware of the pungent smell.
I wore black party shoes and a puffy crinoline dress. I don’t remember the color, but it might have been navy blue. My mother was certain that redheads should never wear pink or orange. They might clash with my bright red hair. For most of my childhood, she chose navy blue.
We were returning from a birthday party, and I had a paper cone hat on the seat beside me. My cheeks almost hurt from smiling because I felt like such a big girl. I believe it was the first time I went anywhere without my mom or dad.
I peered out the window as we drove slowly through the military base. My father was a pilot in the Navy. We lived in an apartment on the base in Virginia Beach. I remember the sky being gray, but it didn’t matter; I was jubilant from having just been to a party!
“See this button?” My little friend pointed to a shiny knob on top of the armrest beside her. She pushed the button down.
“Watch!” she said.
The button popped up. She giggled and so did I. She pulled it out of its holder. It was a long tube. She said, “stick your finger inside and see what happens!”
I followed her orders. I stuck my little index finger in the hole. My finger sizzled! I quickly pulled it out and tucked my hand under my knees. The pain was searing.
“What happened?” she said curiously.
“Nothing,” I replied. I held my tears and trembling chin as steady as I could.
We arrived in front of the apartment. My mom was waiting at the curb, holding my baby sister’s hand and my brother at her hip. I hopped out of the car and said thank you, without looking my friend in the eye.
My friend’s mom rolled down the window, “They had a great time! Thanks for letting her go with us!”
As the car pulled away, I grabbed my mom around the knees and held on. I didn’t cry, I just hugged her for comfort. She kneeled down and put her arms around me, holding me close.
I peeked at my singed finger. It had swirl marks on the tip. I tucked it inside my fist.
“Did you have a good time?” my mom asked.
“Yes, I did, Mommy,” and that was exactly how I felt at that moment.
personal photo/the age of my conscious memory
It was a day for firsts
- I went somewhere without my mom. It was my first party!
- I learned to never put your finger down the hole of a cigarette lighter.
- I felt betrayed by my friend. It made me sad… an emotion that was new to me.
- I didn’t tell anyone what happened in the car.
- I felt ashamed I was duped into doing something that hurt me.
- I looked to my mother for love, and she was there.
If I had told anyone, would my independence be taken away? Would my new friend get in trouble? I had a great day, except for that one moment I did what I was told to do, and I didn’t know enough to question it. I hadn’t yet developed lack of trust or fear.
However, I remember the predominant feeling was joy. I had the first fun day of my life… it was the first because it was the birth of joy in my conscious thoughts.
Why it matters
In the years that followed, the relevance of those first thoughts would become quite clear. I had a life ahead that required tremendous strength and resilience. Every emotion was new, yet somehow familiar, linking back to my childhood.
It awakened new feelings like happiness, love, fear, and sadness. It lead me to believe that our feelings may have been alive from the moment we were born, but not part of our discerning minds until we experience something that requires them to come forward.
Is the dawn of conscious memory a clue to your future?
Throughout my life, I’ve had to battle those same emotions that came up that day. It wasn’t one emotion, but a complexity of joy, pain, sadness, betrayal, and reaching out to find comfort in love.
As decades went by, my life story evolved into chapters of complex emotions, especially the day I lost my son.
Before my son died, I‘d wake up each day with joy. But after he died, every morning was a kick in the gut when I’d awaken from those pre-dawn hours and remember he was gone. Another day, another hour, another minute of grieving.
One morning I awoke to the sounds of my youngest child, giggling. He was just a year old at the time. He was laughing at the sun as it poured into his room, and every time he looked at it, it made him sneeze.
I burst into laughter and the sound of it shocked me. I hadn’t heard myself laugh in so long. Through the veil of sadness, the joy popped through, and it felt so good.
You can have two emotions living in the same body, and you can choose to focus on one or the other
Each morning I woke up with that choice, happy or sad. I began to learn how to choose “happy.” The choice was mine. The tears weren’t gone… just tucked away so the joy could shine through and I could be a “whole” mom to my three living children.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” -Maya Angelou
Grief recovery is not on a timetable, you just learn to accept it as a part of your life. It hurts sometimes, and yet other times it holds the sweetest memories… even joy.
Everything that happens is not one pure experience, it holds lots of different feelings all at once
I see it like this… the dawn of my conscious memory was a look into the future of a little red-haired girl who would have to show courage in the face of surprising life events.
That little girl weighed her options and decided she could deal with the suffering of a burnt finger, but also knew her mother stood by her, encouraging her to be independent, and most of all to show love, because that’s what mothers do.
That’s what I had to do when my three living children needed me most, after the loss of their brother… I learned a mother’s love can carry them through it all.
I know that now.
It’s your turn…
Can you remember the first moment in your young life? Was it happy? Sad? A complexity of emotions? No matter what, it was the first link in the evolution of the person you are today… and it’s a great conversation starter! Ask anyone, and they will have their own version of remembering that miraculous moment of being alive.
Previously published on Medium.com and is republished here under permission.
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