It was summer.
Had to be – the bedroom window was open and the curtains luffed in the afternoon breeze.
I’m lying in bed monitoring the slow, rhythmic undulation of cotton fabric. I remember noting that the breeze wasn’t constant and the curtains seemed to ripple in a predictable pattern followed by a spell where they lay perfectly still. It’s decades later but I remember that. It was mesmerizing but not so mesmerizing as to lull me into sleep. I wasn’t a I must have been, what? Four, maybe five? At what age do you stop having afternoon naps? I remember the bedspread: duckling yellow with a regular pattern of tufts called hobnail chenille that my fingers would crawl over like braille. My mom had put me down for an afternoon nap but I hated naps. I knew well enough that getting out of bed wasn’t an option so I watched the dancing curtains. That’s all I remember; just that snap shot, just those scant details. I consider this my earliest memory. Although I can’t pinpoint it on my personal timeline, we moved away from that house when I was in second grade. I’m going to say I was four years-old, although with a menagerie of kids to corral, my mom remained a big naptime advocate for a long time. You never love kids more than when they’re sleeping.
It’s decades later but I remember that.
Early childhood memories are amongst the most perishable treasures on earth. You’d think that these initial impressions would imprint so deeply that we’d be able to summon them throughout our lifetimes. Science says otherwise. Apparently, we all suffer from something known as childhood, or infantile, amnesia, the inability to retrieve episodic memories from the first three or four years of life. Apparently, this amnesia lingers on in some until as late as eight years of age although, in most, autobiographical memory stabilizes around age five. But although we can’t hail these memories like you would a taxi on a London street corner, they’re at the very bedrock of who we grow up to become.
Research by a neuroscientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland indicates that the memory clock may start ticking around the age of two and a half, which is approximately a year earlier than previously thought. Dr. Carole Peterson spent 21 years conducting studies on the ability of adults and children to recall their earliest memories. Her study, published in the peer-reviewed publication, Memory, reveals that we tend to ‘telescope’ our memories, which is to say, that we magnify them as if viewing them through a lens. This creates the impression that the event was more recent than it actually was. It’s almost impossible for the individual to date stamp an early memory. Generally, through this telescoping effect, we move up those early recollections by a period of about a year. So, maybe I wasn’t four or five when I was watching those curtains in the wind; maybe I was three, or even two.
It’s almost impossible for the individual to
date stamp an early memory.
The value of these inquiries into early childhood memory are manifold. The neuroscientists that study these things believe that many psychopathologies may be rooted within these early memories. In extreme cases, for example, the 2001 Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which followed the progress of children who were abandoned or institutionalized at birth, found irreversible deficits and delays were rooted in those early years. Bad early memories can be truly haunting. These inquiries into early memory retrieval are useful in understanding how we develop our ability to learn and acquire facts. Declarative or explicit memories are the first victims of Alzheimer’s disease or age-related memory impairment. Understanding how foundational and autobiographical memories are warehoused in the brain could prove useful in inquiries.
When I focus even harder on that early scene I can conjure a view into my childhood closet. I see a Viyella skirt on a hanger. And I pine for an afternoon nap.
This week’s question for readers:
WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY?
Register for The Plain Jane newsletter and stay up to date with upcoming contests.
Submissions to last week’s question:
WHAT’S YOUR PREFERENCE? SUNSHINE, OR LIQUID SUNSHINE?
I just LOVE the rain and am definitely a pluviophile! When I was a little girl my mom would say I would smile and say “It’s Raining!” before hurrying out the door to wade in puddles. You can always tell when someone was born in Vancouver by the different reactions when it starts to rain – and no, I do not own an umbrella! My husband, on the other hand, was a contractor for 30 years and, while he doesn’t mind the rain, it still gets to him when he wakes up in the morning and imagines having to work outside again.
I cheered out loud that I found someone else with the same feeling about rain. I was born in November in Vancouver so rain was already in my DNA. I, too, don’t use an umbrella – just throw my hood up if I am outside and it’s pouring. Tourists use umbrellas, not Vancouverites. A few years ago everyone was complaining we had 30+ days of rain and I hadn’t even noticed. When I wake up to rain I feel energized and chores and mundane housework seem to get done with more enthusiasm. Suddenly I want to clean out the fridge or garage! My kids and grandkids all know I am a “rain person” and only the 11 year-old gets it. She loves the rain too. The others all think there is something wrong with me.
I, too, am born and raised in the Vancouver area – born in Burnaby, raised in the east end and graduated fron UBC. It wasn’t until we left our home province and started our married life in Calgary – city of chinooks – that I realized how much I missed the rain. One doesn’t have to shovel rain. Yes, Cowtown is always sunny, but it cannot compete with Vancouver. Vancouver is clean because of the rain. There is nothing better than hearing raindrops on the roof when falling asleep. Droughts aren’t nearly as comforting. Looking forward to the fall rains!
On the coast, Winter is a grey ghost that fills the sky, gathers weight enough to thunder down on rooftops, swallow up all of the mountains. Mornings, foghorns bellow into a hollow drum of haze. The whole world disappears beneath a coverlet of cloud. Walking in the woods, we move through the thickness of it, collect mist on skin and clothes, breathe it in. A delicate coolness, like soft cloth caresses. Sword ferns shimmer, painted silver with dew. We emerge, spruce-scented, drenched. I am in love with the rain!
I am happy to inform you that there is a location in BC that, I gather, has the highest annual rainfall in North America, thus keeping us in the global picture. It is a weather station at Clemens Creek at the western end of Henderson Lake on Vancouver Island – west of Port Alberni. The average annual recorded rainfall there is seven metres. I was there once during a heavy deluge, and I can assure you that an umbrella would have been useless. The water was everywhere and came in all directions.
I don’t regret the loss of cold drizzle all summer long and relentlessly gloomy winters we had from 1966 till a few years ago, plus freezing ocean entry and bracing winds on the sand – but I am seriously worried about the survival of our magnificent rainforests – not to mention the poor fish. The ocean temperature has been 21 degrees all week! You can see the algal blooms come and go ,and I started swimming May 16, the day after our last ski trip – unheard of!
Pluviophile is my new favourite word. Now when people look at me quizzically when I tell them how much I love a cloudy, rainy day, I can tell them I’m a pluviophile, even though I have never travelled to Mawsynram, Meghalaya, India. Endless days of bright, intense sunlight and heat dampens my spirits and gets me down. For me there’s nothing like a rainy day to bring on feelings of peace and calm.
I hate both forms when they drag on for weeks. I’d be the only one out on recess every day during November rains, and Delta was always drier than the rest of the GVRD. I used to record the days of weather and, compared to forecasts, half were usually wrong during the 70’s.. Since 1996 we have gained two to three inches of rain, on average, and my memories of good springs have been lost since then. Just doesn’t happen as much. May was sunburn season, winters rained as usual, snow happened, or it didn’t, but summers were the best on the west coast, just as they still are. It always got into the 90’s just like now.. YVR was the only place recording temperature back then, way out in the Georgia Strait. So, in reality, summers are warmer here and winters a bit colder, and that magnifies heading Northeast, along with rain and hours of sun. Newcomers would never know there were mountains north of the Fraser River for half the year. I don’t miss the fog. Sorry climate change people, our weather is more reliable than the politicians.