They say we don’t remember anything really prior to the age of three.
No doubt there are innumerable emotional memories from infancy, but in my case my earliest visual memory was the dedication of my infant sister: I was exactly three. It’s funny how the brain works though. I used to pore over my mother’s photo albums as a child, collecting all the images of those photographs – mental photographs of photographs – and arranging them chronologically in my mind. I can go back in time and enter the room of a home in which my relatives are compiled and see myself as an infant cradled in someone’s arms or sitting on someone’s lap. I can look around at the furniture and the faces and hairdos and fashion, can even hear some of their voices and laughter (which I’ve taken from later memories and projected backward into these ones), and those moments in time are stored with the first person memories that began in the preschool years. But they’re not firsthand memories – they’re only memories of photographs.
The mind’s eye is a fascinating thing. Did the generations before me do the same thing with black and white photos, removing the grays in their mind and filling it all in with color, making that the superimposed memory instead of sepia? And before photography, did they take the stories about their toddler years, told them by relatives, and store them chronologically, as imagined, with their firsthand experiences just as I did with photographs? Probably. Indeed, even the stories my parents and grandparents told me about their own childhoods, teen and adult years, are stored chronologically in my memory as well, as though I really saw and heard those things happen with my own two eyes and two ears. Does everyone do this or is it the writer’s nature in me, the way I build scenes in my mind and freely wander through them exploring? But how accurate are those images? When I see my father as a boy, stooping with surprise to pick up a human skull in the overgrown grass of a field in India, freckle-faced, brown hair slicked to one side, and a button down shirt tucked into his jeans, does that fabricated video reel look anything like the literal experience my father had? Either way, it’s the same story, regardless of the color of his shirt. Could I tell you what species of trees were backdropping the field or where exactly in India it took place? No, I don’t even know what trees grow in India, besides the rubber tree. But I nevertheless see his story like a memory. There are tangled trees and wheat-like grasses, a dry cracked skull in the palm of his hand. No doubt it’s an amalgamation of all the images of fields and skulls I’ve ever seen in my life. But somehow I feel like I was there.