First Memory

Memories are a funny thing. When I hear the word memory, I think of the song from the musical “Cats.” But perhaps that is because I love music and that song has a special memory attached to it. We may not remember every detail of time, so our brain fills in certain details of the memory based on what we know about the circumstances or how we felt. I always wondered why we could not remember our very first few years. Were our brains not fully developed (of course not)? Was it so awful that we just erased it (just kidding)? I am sure there is excellent scientific research that I could internet search through Google Scholar, which would give a complete understanding of why we cannot remember.

When we do have a first memory, the lack of prior memory makes it seem precious. The thesis of a paper, or the first sentence of a book, contains the purpose and outline. Perhaps because I did not put much thought into my first sentence, you may gather that I am writing this for amusement. But what I also mean is that memories can be ironic. When looking back on my memories, I begin to see patterns taking shape into who I am as a person today, and I hope it lends guidance onto where I hope to grow.

My first memory is of an early, crisp, cold December morning. The pale grey light reflects the weak winter sun against snow and clouds. The light attempts to shine through large old windows, with the tinge of cold coming through the glass panes. In the living room inside, little children quietly play on a big braided oval rug. Mom and Dad must be having coffee and a peaceful morning moment. It is St.Nicholas’ day. Traditionally children hung their stockings or shoes out in the hope that the saint would leave small treats. Chocolate coins in gold foil, and tangerines, and maybe a special Disney toothpaste all your own! I remember as the spoils lay across the rug, a few feet away was a little wooden train track. The colorful cars connected by magnets and little wooden trees and houses created scenery around the tracks.

I also remember that the day before was the day my brother John passed away. He was four years old. So I would have been five. We knew that St. Nicholas day was different.

I feel as though that were my first memory. That is what pops into mind when I try to recall in chronological order. But maybe it has the most impact on my young mind. Because I have other memories that came before. I remember that day before St Nicholas. John had leukemia, a form of lung cancer. Mom and Dad had converted the front sitting room into a guest room and had John sleep there because it was easier to care for him. It was right by the kitchen on one side and near the foot of the stairs to the bedroom and the living room where we did some homeschooling on the other side.  There were often nurses that came to visit and specialized medical equipment to place near the bed. I remember checking the lump on John’s back after bath one time. He was often tired. He lost all his hair during chemo treatment. I remember going with John and Dad to one of his treatments at Boston children’s hospital. The hospital had big colorful flowers painted on the walls, and it looked like a cheery place, but it was so quiet. There were times when the Make a Wish Foundation brought things over for the family that John asked for, probably with the help of Mom and Dad’s ideas. A fancy camping set with a 12-person tent, sleeping bags and mats, and the classic blue metal camp pots and pans with a portable gas stove.

We got a swing set and play pirate ship. The swing was all piles of lumber until one of the maintenance guys from Dad’s college work came to our house to put it together. There was a tower with a slide and monkey rings, two swings, a swinging bench, and a see-saw. The pirate ship was one of those plastic Little Tykes play areas. We had a sandbox as well with Giant metal Tonka trucks that Dad played with when he was a kid. We used to play knights and pirates complete with plastic armor and swords and helmets. They always smelled funny because of the plastic. John was always sweet and very generous when we played.

The family drove out to see Dad’s family in Dane, Wisconsin. The drive was almost twenty-two hours, but I do not remember them at all as a little kid. Grandma and Grandpa had a family farm, but their house was one Grandma wanted away from the farm at the top of a neighborhood on a hill. The basement was the place to hang out with a brick patio on the back where the adults liked to drink and grill. There was a pool table, but we didn’t try that until we got older. The most standout item to a little kid was a giant stuffed bright green frog that we used to lay on. We had a couple of older cousins that would come and play with us while all the adults caught up. We went out for an Easter and a Christmas time when we were young and again during the summertime a few years later.

Some of those memories may have been before or after that St. Nicholas day. The day before St. Nicholas day I don’t remember exactly where I was. Either in the bedroom with John or maybe reading in the living room. A plumber was working on the kitchen sink that morning. It was later in the morning; Mom came out and broke down crying in the kitchen. The plumber helped her call Dad. Before John died, he seemed peaceful, and he said, “I see the angels.” One can only hope that someone that young and innocent did see the angels because he must have become one of them. My family prays to John every day after family prayers. My Dad especially reminded us of that. One only hopes that he is helping us from heaven.

As I am older now, I look back and realize that Mom must have been around twenty-five when that happened. I cannot even imagine how that must have felt. The financial stress and time spent in the hospital. The uncertainty and having to take care of other small children and still make the future hopeful. Dealing with the sorrow must have been incredibly painful, and I don’t know if Mom ever had the time or maybe did not know how to deal with it fully. She was busy with little children at home. And she had small children for many years after that, since we total nine siblings now. We still say ten siblings because we count John.

Dad remained busy working for the small catholic college, Magdalen College. Both he and mom went to school there a few years apart from one another. They both stayed in the area after graduating, Dad working business for the college and mom working in finance in a bank. They have a great picture of them dating. They are at the seacoast in new England, sitting on a granite rock in off the beach with the ocean behind them. The sun is setting, and bathes them in a golden light. Mom’s hair is blowing the breeze, and Dad has his arms hugged around her. Mom has a bright red windbreaker on, and as usual, Dad has on something Navy blue. Probably from Land’s End. Mom always said they didn’t get to know each other that well when dating. One of their good friends Ms. N. was with them often, and I believe she took that picture for them. Ms. N comes into some of my later memories as she became a professor at the school I attended.

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