“They say” that people don’t remember things before the age of five, but this not true for me. My memories are embedded in the places I’ve lived, which have been many. Hence, my earliest memories put me in the summertime on the edges of a tributary of the Patapsco River, somewhere outside of Baltimore where my parents had a cottage, a small place on post and pilings with brownish asphalt shingles. There was a hand pump in the kitchen for water and a latrine across a narrow road behind the cottage, filled with cobwebs and all things scary, in line with others’ latrines.
I was two and a half years old, and “the memory” is actually several snapshots of that place, a spanning and blending such that I’ll never know which memory came first. One memory is, at that cottage, I shared a bedroom with my two brothers. In it there were three iron army cots with squeaking springs under the thin mattresses. We had gone to a Ben Franklin’s one day, and I had stolen a chocolate bar and had climbed under my army cot to eat it. My brother, a year and a half older, discovered me eating that bar of chocolate and when I wouldn’t share with him, he tattled to my mother who then angrily dragged me out from under that bed, piled me into the family car and drove me back to that store to confess I’d stolen that nickel candy.
Within that same place, at that same cottage, are my parents sitting in lawn chairs by the water’s edge drinking martinis with their next-door neighbors. Jack was one of my father’s colleagues at John Hopkins. His wife, Olive, typed Braille books. I have a swirl of memories being at their small cottage next door to ours, the most poignant being touching the pages that Olive had typed, feeling the raised bumps while Olive explained that some people could not see and they read books with their fingers. I felt her watching my wonder as she allowed my exploration of this strange typewriter, during which time Olive would be rolling her daily quota of cigarettes that she’d put in a shiny brass case.
There was a swing set there at the cottage, and I regularly shinnied up the pole to view the world from on high. I have a clear snapshot of being up that pole one day, overlooking my parents and Jack and Olive as they smoked cigarettes and sipped on martinis. When I descended the pole, I went to my mother’s chair and, apparently thirsty, I reached for her dry martini and took a large gulp as if it was water. I remember the four adults watching me, thinking I would spit it out. Instead, I remember really liking that martini. Then I ate the olive.
I know those memories are from the age of two-and-a-half, because the summer when I was three and a half we moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I drove in the front seat with my father to the new house — an old farmhouse on 26 acres — in our station wagon loaded with our clothes and smaller possessions. As I exited the car, I slammed the car door completely shut on my right thumb. As I stood screaming, my father rounded the car to spank me for screaming only to discover, upon opening the door, that my thumb was almost completely severed. My father reached into the car and grabbed, of all things, my best pair of socks, my only pair of socks that had embroidered flowers on its edges, to wrap my thumb together and rush me to the hospital where they reattached my thumb. For that whole long, hot, humid summer, with my right thumb wrapped in thick gauze, with creeks and fields and woods to explore, my life was severely restricted so as to allow my thumb to heal. I remember learning to read that summer.
My brother is a year and a half older than me, and we have talked about those times seventy years ago, and though of course he doesn’t have my specific memories, he too has memories embedded in those places which we have shared to reinforce what would otherwise be considered a daydream.