I remember this

At the ripe old age of 40-something, I have to admit that I recall very little detail about my childhood. Not exactly nothing, but, probably like many people my age, I have a very limited and haphazard collection of memories from pre-school and primary school days.

When it comes to my childhood, by which I mean my life from the age of zero to about 12, my memory is much like the photo albums that I still leaf through occasionally – it seems to contain a selection of random, disjointed pictures, each capturing a fragmented moment in my life, but lacking any context about what was being said or thought or felt by anyone in the photo, or what happened immediately before or after. 

Possibly what we were all saying was, "The sun is in my eyes!"

Possibly what we were all saying was, “Hurry up, the sun is in my eyes!”

I began this post after reading an article about nostalgia, but I’m not really all that nostalgic about my childhood, and as I thought about my store of random childhood memories, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s famous novel The Waves. The Waves was challenging to readers when it was written in 1931, and is still challenging now, written as it is, in a poetic and dream-like stream of consciousness, spoken by seven “characters” who essentially “tell” their “story” from birth to old age, or in some cases death, through intertwined monologues about their inner thoughts.

I studied The Waves many years ago at university, and no doubt I was probably floundering to understand enough to write a passable 1000 word essay on it at that time, but one element that stuck with me was Woolf ‘s depiction of memory. Woolf depicts the way that random and often seemingly insignificant moments from our childhoods etch themselves into our brains, and bob up to the surface every now and then, evoked perhaps by associations that we are not even conscious of.

For example, early in The Waves, the characters, out exploring as children, discover a house they’ve never seen before, where a lady sits at a window, writing, while gardeners sweep outside.

That image – the lady writing and the gardeners sweeping – is referred to intermittently throughout their monologues as they grow to adults and then into old age. The last time (that I could locate on a quick look through today) is by Bernard towards the end of his life:

And by some flick of a scent or a sound on a nerve, the old image – the gardeners sweeping, the lady writing – returned. I saw the figures beneath the beech trees at Elvedon. The gardeners swept, the lady at the table sat writing.*

Virginia Woolf was interested in how it is often the seemingly insignificant moments that we recall with greatest clarity, and the unintended, unremarkable events that sometimes stick in our memories with as much, or more, resonance than events that we write on the calendar or mark with anniversary celebrations. She was exploring, in line with many philosophers and authors at that time, ideas about consciousness, reality, and identity, and how much our perceptions, and our memories, shape our sense of who we are. And how much our sense of who we are, IS who we are.

We all have such images, of seemingly inconsequential moments, filed away in our minds, usually featuring ourselves as the protagonist.

For example, here is one of mine: me, at some very young, pre-school age, in the dark, heading to my parents bedroom to tell them that I’ve had a bad dream. Presumably I’m upset and scared. Only I’m stopped in my tracks in the hallway, unable to go any further because of the menacing knight in armour, standing guard outside their bedroom door.

(Clearly, the knight was a figment of my childish imagination, a fact that I was not able to discern then, but footnoted onto the memory at some later stage.)

Or, here is another image, probably from around the same age. I’m being told by my father or my uncle that I must leave the lounge-room while my mother breast-feeds my brother, G. I know it was G., the oldest of my brothers, because I know (as with the previous memory) which house this occurred in. We moved to another house when I was four, and before my other 3 brothers were born.

Another: me, at the house we had recently moved to, peeking through a hole in a gate that divided our back garden from an even further back garden, at the jersey cow that Dad had bought and kept for milking. I think this was in the morning, shortly after finishing breakfast.

And a final one: me, hiding in the laundry, listening  to mum in the kitchen with my little siblings, going about their morning. I don’t remember the circumstances that led to me turning around and walking back home from school but it’s pretty likely that it was because I’d arrived late again, as was a daily occurrence, and couldn’t face entering the classroom and being told off by the teacher in front of everyone else, yet again. So instead I walked back home and hid in our laundry, knowing that I’d be in trouble if my presence was discovered by my mother. I was trapped. I must have been about five or six.

As with all of those memories, I don’t recall what happened next in that scenario, but I can guess that I didn’t hide out all day. I’ve never been a very good rebel. In all likelihood I was probably discovered before morning playtime, smacked, sent back to school, and smacked again by my teacher when I arrived. It was about 1975 – straps and sticks were still well utilised in my primary school.

These random moments have become the standard repertoire of my memories of my childhood. Of course, as I mentioned in another post about memory just recently, occasionally something evocative  – a piece of music perhaps, or a smell – might prompt some other long-forgotten recollection to surface, but those mentioned are the ones I have filed away neatly under “Childhood Memories”, for easy access when I need a memory to aid a conversation (or a blog post) about my childhood.

I wonder why those particular, random moments have stuck with me while others did not, and whether it’s to do with a strong emotion felt at those moments.

If it is, in most cases, my memory of that emotion is gone. In at least three of those memories, all that I retain is a visual memory, the out-of-context freeze-frame. Any emotions I may have felt then, do not come flooding back to me when I picture those moments.

Of course, based on the particular memory, I can easily make an assumption about how I felt: in the first memory, terrified, in the next, probably a little bit hurt, and also confused as to why I couldn’t stay with my mum, in the next I think I had a sense of excitement at exploring the new, inviting back yard and at owning a COW!

In that last memory, however, I do recall at least one of the emotions that I felt, perhaps because it seems a surprising emotion for a child of approximately 5 or 6 to feel. It was a sort of melancholic nostalgia, for the “good old days,” when I would have been home with mum, as my younger siblings were, and not burdened by the worries of attending prep at school. I don’t feel very much nostalgia for my childhood now, but apparently I did as a small child. It’s sad to think of a child of 5 or 6 feeling that the “good old days” were past, and that life was now an anxiety-inducing burden.

So I can’t tell you with great accuracy what I was like as a pre-school, and primary-school-aged child, because I can only base it on these fragmented recollections, but I have quite a few memories like the one mentioned above – freeze frames of me, caught forever in some situation where I felt anxious, scared, or even, in hindsight, depressed. Crying at school because I needed my shoe laces tied and I was too scared to ask anyone to do it for me. Feeling inexplicably sad after staying with relatives, to have to come home again.

I think these memories stayed foremost in my conscious mind as I grew into a shy and unconfident teenager, and then adult, because they reinforced my perception of myself as a bumbling social misfit, proving that I had clearly always been this way.

Nowadays, I have more confidence, and I’m sure that those disjointed, fragmented memories of an anxious, depressed child don’t represent the whole, complex picture of “me” at age 4, 5 or 6. It’s just that for some reason, perhaps because they fitted with how I saw myself as a teenager, I focussed on the significance of those unhappier memories and allowed others to fade away.

So those fragments of memory have for a long time fulfilled a similar role to the photos in my mother’s photo albums – they were all I had to make a somewhat disjointed picture of myself as a child, and in doing so, tell me who I am now.

*Virginia Woolf, The Waves, Grafton Books, 1986, pp 181-182

*

I remember redwood trees, bumper cars and wolverines
The ocean’s Trident submarines
Lemons, limes and tangerines
I remember this

REM – I Remember California

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