First Memories

Oct 5, 2008

Murray, KY – Most people remember events from the age of four or five. Some much later. My wife is a member of an elite number who have very early memories. She can clearly recall, as an infant, lying outdoors in her pram on a sunny day, looking up at the trees. And today she can even describe in detail what she was wearing then.

My conscious life begins at Grandma Schroeder's house in Louisville. 453 East Brandeis. I lived there with my mom, dad, and older sister Alice Jane. I was ten months old when we moved in with Grandma following the death of Grandpa Schroeder in 1939. My mother had been born, and grew up, in that house. It's the first home of many that I remember.

One of my earliest memories is having my picture taken astride a pony named Tiny. I know that I was two years old then because I have the picture, and on the stirrup cup is Tiny's name and the year, 1941. I can also clearly recall sitting on Grandma's lap as she cleaned my fingernails with a bobby pin while, on the radio, Judy Garland sang The Trolley Song.

Grandma's bulk and rheumatism caused her to move around the house slowly, like a stately but listing ocean liner. The hem of her baggy, print house dresses always hung lower in front than in back. And her big, floppy house slippers made hissing noises on the linoleum floors.

Mom constantly worried about her mother, who didn't accept aging well and struggled to maintain a semblance of self-sufficiency. One time, while walking from the kitchen to her daybed in the dining room, she took a short cut by squeezing between the wall and the parlor stove. The sleeve of her rayon bed jacket brushed the hot stove pipe and caught on fire. She smacked the fire out with her hand and hid the bed jacket under her mattress. Of course, Mom found the jacket when she changed the bed and she scolded Grandma like a child. I watched the whole thing and felt embarrassed for my grandmother.

I remember all that - especially the warmth and comfort of Grandma's lap and bosom - but I can't remember the sound of her voice or anything specific she said to me.

My mother, Marguerite, was the baby of her family. She had a sister, my Aunt Mary, and two brothers, Uncle John and Uncle Claude. Another sister, Ethel, had died just five months before Mom was born. Ethel's grave is in St. Stephen's cemetery, right across the alley behind Grandma's house. I used to go in the cemetery with Mom and the two ladies from next door. They all took butcher knives and trimmed the grass around the edges of the graves and gravestones. Sometimes the neighbor ladies whitewashed the rows of round rocks that outlined their family plot.

I learned from an older cousin that Grandma Schroeder never fully recovered from Ethel's death. For the rest of her life, she frequently went to the alley to look through the big iron fence near Ethel's grave, and wept inconsolably.
This unresolved grief led Grandma to be overly protective of my mother. As a result, Mom spent her entire life uncertain of her capacities to cope, at the mercy of her own quixotic and unpredictable temper, and constantly convinced she had some vague but serious illness. Finally, at the age of sixty-two she died of stomach cancer, no doubt feeling she had been right all along.

Today, she shares one of those low, cast bronze headstones with my father. Family members no longer have to bring butcher knives and whitewash to the cemetery; the big lawn mowers just roll right over. The cemetery calls it perpetual care. The epitaph my father chose says, Together Forever. I think Mom would have preferred, See? I told you I was sick.

If she were alive today, my mother's symptoms would be recognized as depression. Today's therapy and modern medication would have given her some peace of mind. Instead, she struggled through convinced she was ill; afraid she was crazy; certain she was unworthy of my father's patient, unwavering devotion; and cruelly vindictive when he, or anyone failed to meet the demands of her fragile, ravenous ego.

I don't see these as unkind thoughts. Recollections of childhood - happy and unhappy - are the ripest, most pungent memories of all. We prefer the ones who make us smile. But our darker memories contain lessons that add the patina of wisdom.