esperation has made me resort to a random topic generator, and the question it asked me was “What is your earliest memory?” I’ve asked myself that on numerous occasions in the past. The simplest answer is that I don’t know. I have a variety of presumably early memories, but most of them I can’t anchor to anything. I remember waking up in a car, late, in the darkness, to see a dim blue possibly-neon sign in the lower-left corner of a window. (My father thought it might be a time when we were on the road—I would have been three—and I insisted on seeing the lights in town, as I apparently often did at the time before going to sleep. But this was some roadside place miles from anywhere and there was only one sign to see, and it wasn’t much.) I remember refusing to go into a lake with my parents because it was named Bottomless Lake, and I wasn’t about to do anything that dangerous. I remember looking at what my adult knowledge tells me was a typewriter on the floor beside a couch or chair and noting that one of the keys was cracked. Odd fragments of unknown significance, or of no significance at all.
I can date some memories by the place they occurred—following other kids with a pail in my hand to go play in a sandbox at Artesia, New Mexico. The white sand of another New Mexico place. The insects attracted by a large sign made of many small yellow light bulbs rising above me—also New Mexico. The horrible long boring trip in the old convertible with the running-boards when we moved from New Mexico to Washington one hot August. I was three and a half then.
Probably my most vivid memory from those early days was when we were waylaid by frogs one night—possibly on a trip from New Mexico to visit my grandparents in Colorado. I was asleep in the back of the convertible when I woke up abruptly. The car had come to a stop. There was a horrible rasping sound coming from all around us—an indescribably ghastly noise. My father was gone. My mother told me not to worry—it was only frogs croaking. I wasn’t really sure what exactly that meant, but somehow I got the picture my father was out there somewhere in the darkness fighting a host of unearthly creatures, and that those creatures were probably going to get us too.
I don’t actually remember the upshot of it all, except that at some point my father returned safe and sound and we proceeded on our way. I can’t exactly date the event, but I may have been two at the time. My parents remembered it quite well; what had happened was that the road ahead of us was impassable due to a flash flood. The frogs were croaking because, well, there was water there. My father was out to check on the road’s condition; I believe that there were several cars stopped there on account of the flood. Not too long after this, in Colorado, I got a look at frogs, and heard them regularly croaking during the night. I could hear something higher than that (crickets actually) that I thought might be female frogs, and something still higher yet (that when I returned as an adult I could no longer hear) that I thought might be their offspring.
I don’t know that this frog memory is my oldest memory, but it is certainly the most vivid of my early memories. After that I have datable memories of moving in to a small house in Vancouver (3½), my first sight of the ocean (3½), a flash of that Christmas (3½), my fourth birthday at that house (and this one is vivid; I wanted a set of working toy traffic lights and damned if I didn’t get them), my father telling me of the death of my great-aunt whom I had really liked (4), looking over and then moving in to a new house in Portland (4), and so on. I have many memories of things that happened in that house, or while we lived there, but they are a lot harder to date specifically, as we moved out when I was 9.
But the New Mexico memories, faint and fragmentary as they are, must be my oldest. Most of them are mere glimpses of scenes and situations, with some parts in sharp focus and the rest vague and fuzzy. I remember my father heading off during a lightning storm to climb the tower at the radio station and do battle with the elements—something I am assured never happened. (I believe that it never happened, but I also believe that I thought that was what was happening at the time.) I remember seeing rocks in a sandy place by the side of a white building wall. I remember uncovering some small creature covered with spines while digging in the sand. I remember—
At least, I remember remembering these things. Any longer, with most of these memories, I can’t be sure that I am remembering the event itself, or only remembering that I once remembered this thing. I’ve written memories down in the past, and on rereading them years later, realized that my current memory is different from what I wrote then. Things I was vague on then I am certain of now. Things I was certain of then now seem vague or even completely wrong. New details come to me when I muse over it—but are they real? Or are they just something my mind has obligingly supplied me?
So there you have it. My first memory is a time we were waylaid by frogs, and my father had to get out of the convertible to go fight them. It may not be pretty, it may not be true, but it's what I remember.