Calvin: Dad where do babies come from?
Dad: Well Calvin, you simply go to Sears, buy the kit and follow the assembly instructions.
Calvin: I came from Sears?
Dad: No you were a blue-light special at K-Mart—almost as good and a lot cheaper!”
Not long after we are born, before we know we know anything else, we know we are alive. We don’t know this intellectually. We simply know because knowing we’re alive is inseparable from being alive. And you’re thinking: so what else is new?
On assignment from my therapist, I’ve been hanging out with my baby self via photographs of me taken shortly after I was born and going up to about age five. I was ten months in utero and born with a full head of black hair. According to my mother, the black hair quickly gave way to blondish brown hair, and for a few years I might have been Danish. Then my hair grew dark brown again and I went through my Navajo/Magyar phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I have two memories vying for Earliest Experience I Remember Not Based On A Photograph, both experiences occurring when I was three-years-old. One of these experiences was pleasurable, the other terrifying. I’ll start with the good news.
So…we were living in the house my parents built in Mill Valley, a little town fourteen miles north of San Francisco. When my parents built that house in 1949, the year I was born, the hillside lot and three-bedroom house, beautifully made by artisan craftsmen, cost seven thousand dollars. Today, 2018, that house, which is still standing, would go for multiple millions.
I woke up and padded down the hall in my pajamas to my parents’ bedroom where, to my chagrin, they were not in their bed. Where were they? My pajamas, I must tell you, were white, of one piece, and covered me from neck to toes, the sock-like endings to the legs having thin leather soles. I tell you this because those leather soles figure prominently in this memory.
Not finding my parents in their bed, I went in search of them, and as I emerged from the hallway into the living room, I saw our front door was open. I know this experience took place on a Saturday or Sunday because my father was home. Monday through Friday he was not home because he left the house at dawn and came home at night long after my two older sisters and I were asleep.
I stood in the front doorway and looked out on the cement walkway leading from the door to our lawn. On the right side of the cement walk was a bed of succulents—bluish plants surrounded by white sand. My mother, her black hair in a ponytail, a sunhat on her head, was on her knees, pulling little weeds growing among the succulents. I remember she was wearing a sleeveless top and shorts, and I remember thinking she was incredibly beautiful. This is my only memory of my mother ever doing anything in a garden other than strolling around. My father was further down the walkway—a blur.
I was keenly aware that my mother was calm and happy, and I was also aware that her calmness and happiness were unusual and mysterious, and this felt wonderful to me. The other mystery was: why were my parents up before me, which, apparently, was an unusual circumstance on weekends.
As I stood on the walkway beside my mother, I very slowly shuffled my feet back and forth so the leather soles of my pajamas rubbed grains of sand against the cement and made scratching sounds I really enjoyed making; and I just kept sliding my feet back and forth as I gazed at my calm and happy mother.
The second memory involves our mangy gray cat—Casey Cat.
We kept our metal garbage can on a cement patio on the backside of the house. One morning I stepped out of the kitchen onto the patio and found Casey Cat crouched atop the garbage can devouring a big rat, the rat’s dark red blood running down the side of the can—Casey Cat’s snarling face half-buried in the eviscerated body of the rat.
“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” Mary Roberts Rinehart
I’m tempted to make a big deal out of these two memories because they are my earliest, but as I’ve been hanging out with these pictures of little me and enjoying the child I imagine—a kid wanting to be outside as much as possible, wanting to run and dig and shout and play with other children—I doubt these two remembered experiences are bigger deals than thousands of other experiences I don’t remember.
Still, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, there are several points of interest that may explain why these experiences are so deeply etched in my memory.
1. My mother was calm and happy, which amounted to something extremely rare in my memories of her: she was content. I have many subsequent memories of my mother smiling and laughing, but very few memories of her being calm, and no other memory of her seeming content. To be content is to feel we have enough, to feel we are safe, to feel we are loved.
2. Casey Cat, sweet purring fun-to-pet Casey Cat, turned out to be a ferocious snarling murderer. How confusing! And that torn-apart rat atop the blood-drenched garbage can was my first glimpse of mammalian death, my first inkling that my own life might have such an end.
I admire this young Todd for his openness, his curiosity, his remarkable physical energy, and his great joy at being alive. He seems sad sometimes, and worried about something, but he doesn’t let sorrow and worry keep him from dancing and singing and exploring the world.