I was in a railway carriage. On the seat opposite a lady was talking to me, ‘I’m your Mummy’. I had no idea who she was. What was a Mummy? I was two years old.
Exactly when did my remembering begin? Did it emerge gradually, perhaps over days or weeks, in the soft warmth of the womb, with the reassuring rhythm of mother’s beating heart? Or was it during the miracle of birth, an unceremonious and rather shocking dump into the cold outside, along with a gush of water, blood and afterbirth.
Nothing is up for discussion without conscious awareness, and this had to wait. I could have been a much more capable infant at birth had it been delayed by, say, three months, ignoring for a moment, the other problems of a long gestation. But we are bipedal creatures, we walk upright, and the mechanics of walking limit the mother’s pelvis in such a way that a baby’s head can only be so big at birth. So, like any human newborn I could only function at the most basic level: suckle, digest, excrete, sleep and grow. I must have had no sense of independent existence for months, and certainly no resonance in memory of the dramatic events of birth.
Other creatures need to get their wits about them much more quickly because danger lurks, even for the newborn. It’s all about fight or flight, mostly flight, and the parent can only protect their young for so long. Also, those on all fours are never going to have a big head, so birth comes more easily. Memory has a different purpose for most non-human animals too. Take our own pets, for example the wolf descendants. My sister’s closest and most constant companion is her short haired Lurcher. These are the canine world’s most predatory athletes. ‘I’ll call her Folly,’ my sister had announced five years ago, when she chose her puppy. My sister is not well but she can still have a laugh and she knew what people would say about her keeping a dog and she gave Folly her name accordingly.
One day I phoned to say that I would be visiting soon. ‘How’s Folly by the way?’
‘She spotted a rabbit in the woods this morning, went off like a rocket’.
I hadn’t been down for nearly six months but Folly knows me as soon as I open the door; it must be the way I look or my loopy walk. She has a sniff at knee level, but it’s only to see if there is anything new or different, for example do I have any other pets. No one told her about me while I was away, or reminded her about my footsteps, or my face, or that I enjoy the company of dogs. She just remembers me the way I am and knows that we’re friends. It’s been like that since she was a puppy. Likewise she’ll remember where the rabbit came from that morning, and to avoid the Beech tree where she met a Rottweiler last week.
In my sister’s room the rattle of a trolley and knock on the door brings a smiling face swiftly followed by two cups of tea. ‘I asked her where she is from,’ says sister, referring to the bringer of tea. ‘I wondered if she was Fulani – but no, she’s from Somalia,’ Sister had hoped that she was Nigerian so that she could reminisce about her childhood and happier times.
‘What are your earliest memories then?’ I enquire. I like to check up on sister’s memory. It tells me how she is.
‘I wish I had been older when we left Nigeria,’ she says.
But I have heard this before.
‘I was only seven…if I had been older I would have remembered more.’
Sister is right in a way. At an even younger age, two or three years old, memories are dream-like images that haven’t been coded into words, and are often soon forgotten. To be retained, memories must be charged in some way, perhaps by excitement, a day out by the seaside or fear, danger, abandonment…something like that.
Do we keep the innocent qualities of our early memories? That’s the challenging question. Reminiscing is important, alone or maybe with another. Memories must be reinforced, but there’s also then a risk of Chinese whispers, the stories may grow and change with the retelling. I might even adopt my brother’s memory as my own, perhaps due to envy. At best though, it seems that our memories reflect and resonate the stories of our lives. How much emotional baggage do I have, how much blame, how much anger? It can go in the other direction too. Memories give pleasure. They recall good times gone by…and acts of kindness.
We had extraordinary childhoods, my brother sister and I, no better or worse than anyone else’s, but for the most part very different. We are lucky, we have letters, our parents wrote books and articles, left photographs and drawings. We can talk about our memories, compare notes. There are many witnesses too. In court it would be corroboration…there is plenty of corroboration for our memories.