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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

what is your earliest memory?


A headline this week on io9 gripped me:

Why our memories don’t begin until we’re three years old

Unfortunately, the piece — nor the one it’s linking to at Nautilus entitled “The Pasta Theory of Memory & Your Personal Beginning of Time” — doesn’t really answer the question beyond some very vague, metaphoric theories. But it inspires this weekend’s Question:

What is your earliest memory?

My earliest memories that I’m fairly sure have not been contaminated by family stories — ie, I really remember these events, not just being told about them later — don’t come until I went to school. I started kindergarten in September 1974, a few weeks after I turned five, and I went to the same school for three years, so some of these memories could be from when I was six or seven, even. I have very vivid memories of the school building, of the mystery meat in the cafeteria, and of one particular day when I tripped on the sidewalk while a neighbor mom was walking her daughter and me to school, and the mom painted my scraped-up knees (I was wearing a dress) with iodine, which inspired awe among the other kids at school all day.

I don’t know why I don’t remember earlier stuff. I don’t recall ever being an only child, though my next youngest brother was born before I turned two, so that’s not unusual. But my second youngest brother was born just before I turned four, and I have no memory of him arriving and whatever upheaval in the house that must have caused.


(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • RogerBW

    Some fragments from when I was about three, and the layout of a house that we moved out of when I was between four and five.

  • FunWithHeadlines

    6 months old. Confirmed by my parents years later when I described the layout of the home I saw in that memory — a home we moved out of when I was 6 months old.

  • beccity98

    I have a vague, sepia-toned memory of a hallway with a half-open door at the end of it. And I’ve always had the notion along with this memory that I got yelled at for walking in on my parents.

    I have another vague memory of living somewhere near (within sight, possibly from a tall building?) Disneyland, and packing up, and our fish were in one of those blue 5-gallon water jugs. Or maybe it was spare change.

    My actual memories don’t start until I’m in Hawaii, which was about 4 or 5 years of age.Or maybe it was 3. I only lived there from preschool through 1st grade, but I remember getting in trouble for hitting or biting someone in preschool, getting a fishing hook stuck in my thumb, catching a hammerhead shark, getting a bike for Christmas, my mom having to park the car elsewhere because it might float away, my first dog, a dalmatian named Cookie, who we only had a little while, and to this day, I still think we got rid of it because when I ran by, it would always bite my socks.

    For a while I thought something traumatic had happened to me, as I thought I had a large gap in my memory. My mom had had some big fight with my grandma, and hadn’t spoken to her in years, and I never knew why, until my auntie told me. Apparently, my real father had visitation rights, but he lived in WA, and I (for the moment) in CA. The custody paperwork said I was to be returned to CA. I guess my mom moved to VA while I was visiting my dad, (not to abandon me, her new hubs got transferred, and it’s probably easier to move without a child underfoot). My dad, I think to prove a point, flew with me back to CA, and called my grandparents to come pick me up. I guess there was a day or two where my mom didn’t know where I was and thought my grandma was in on it. All this to say, when I heard this, I was confused as to why I didn’t remember this, as we lived in VA during my 2nd grade year, so I should remember that. I didn’t want to ask my mom, because she never talks about my real father, but I finally did. Apparently, we lived in VA before moving to HI. So that was a load off. Also, I think that was the last time I saw my real father. Until I contacted him in high school and he came to my graduation.

  • amanohyo

    I vaguely remember the flight attendant giving me plastic wings and some gum to chew when landing from a flight from South Korea to the US when I was two (I flew back and forth several times by myself, but that’s the only memory I have). I was terrified, so her kindness left an impression.
    My mom made me jog with her for three miles to Ft. Sam Houston, and then rewarded me by letting me play Pac Man at the PX when I was 4, but my first distinct memory is reading, Thump, Thump, Thump (by Anne Rockwell) at the San Antonio public library on Harry Wurzbach road. The story is about a monster whose toe is stolen – he keeps asking “Who has got my hairy toe?!” That vaguely Freudian line combined with the street name and the scary (for a 3 year old) plot stuck with me. The woman who finds the toe plants it in her garden, but the monster eventually takes it back. It could be read as an anti-feminist allegory now that I think about it.

    I remember a couple nightmares from when I was 3 very well too – In one a webbed, clawed hand is motioning to me from behind the refrigerator at the end of the hall. It wants me to walk down the hall. In another, a large boulder is crushing me – I am too weak to stand up and lift it, but I stubbornly refuse to collapse beneath it.

  • bronxbee

    the earliest memories i trust are definitely sensation memories. splashing in a little wading pool with a dog. my grandmother picking gravel out of my face after i fell down the stairs (i was about 2). getting bit by a horse at the zoo (it was an accident). verbal and event memories involving other people start at around 4.

  • althea

    Of all my early certain memories, I can’t say how old I was or which came first. But I’ve always had an impression of walking across to the next-door yard with a jar of pickles or olives in my hand, and I think I was 3. Doesn’t have the quality of a dream, so I think it’s a memory. and since it just doesn’t fit in with the other early memories that I’m sure of, it feels like I must have been younger than those times..

  • LaSargenta

    Several memories that I know were from 3 and before. We lived in a house that was a constant sea of change as my father was renovating it himself. Everything, from plumbing and electrical to walls and the staircase, except for the roof. The earliest memory is one of two from before/after/about 1 year old because I was wasn’t yet walking, but I was pulling myself up on things and over things. (a) I climbed out of my crib, got over to this daybed thing in my room, got several stuffed animals, threw them back into my crib and climbed back in. Was discovered in the crib with animals I had *not* had with me before. My mother got very upset. OR (b) I got out of my crib (again, just call me houdini), crawled over to the chest of drawers where my father had left a phillips head screwdriver (I could see it from inside the crib, not from the floor), pulled myself up on the drawer handles, got the screwdriver and then took apart the doorknob assembly to my room. Again, my mother got very, very upset.

    Next one has to do with the arrival of a box for a birthday present with a Steiff skunk with a rose in its paws and a teddy bear with joints and red felt pads on the paws. They were both huge (I had them for several years, they weren’t only huge in my memory) and from my “uncle”, an old childhood friend of my mother’s.

    I think the “you don’t have early memories” thing is malarky. I think instead that only the memories that were somehow important stick. In my case, getting my mother upset was getting a front row seat to a OTT show that could have won Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Academy Awards. She had days where she was all the reels of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane rolled into one. I had a friend in high school who was (with her twin sister) adopted and remembered being brought home by her adoptive parents. They first arrived at another relative’s home and were put on the bed to nap. For a bunch of reasons, they never visited that house again (although they knew the g’ma), so it was pretty clear that she had a memory from 4 months old and knew what it was about.

  • I have a horrible memory to begin with, so trying to remember anything from my youth is rough. It’s all so darn cloudy. I think I can kinda sorta recall a snippet of a memory from when I was 5 or 6, and in Kindergarten. It’s so general, though, that it may as well be fabricated. It makes me kind of sad that I have such a hard time remembering things.

  • Danielm80

    My first memory is of my mother telling me, “You have a memory like an elephant.” I can’t remember what I said to get her to say that.

  • Arthur

    4 years old in nursery school. There was a fire with a chain halfway out of it. I didn’t touch the fire, but I touched the chain, which burned me.

  • Jess Haskins

    I have quite a few memories starting from when I was two. Possibly the earliest is of waking up early and standing in my crib making noise until my bleary-eyed father came in to give me a few of my Dr. Seuss books from the shelf by the door to buy himself a few more moments of sleep. I also remember climbing out of my crib a time or two to go exploring when the books didn’t come fast enough. I know I must have been only two because I couldn’t read them yet, but I liked looking at the pictures.

  • NFS

    I didn’t have a typical childhood. I have memories back to my second birthday. Coincidentally on that day, I left from one country with a completely different culture, people, and language etc.. to another country. I dont remember everything but on that night, my mom was holding me and someone else was holding my brother who was 6 months old as we entered our new home. From that point on, up till 4, I lived in that country and have plenty of vivid memories. Than at the age of 4, the same thing happen. I left for yet another completely foreign country (USA). What this means for me is that all the memories I’ve had from 2-4 didnt mix with the memories from later on as these memories had completely different contexts. From 4, I pretty much remember nearly everything, including enrolling in preK, learning English, meeting new people etc etc. I’ve impressed my mom countless times with the accuracy with which I’ve been able to recall very specific details from before 4, such as the floorplan and more. None of this was told to me so these arent distortions. I was looking through a photo album recently and something caught my eye. It was a timestamp for a photo of an moment I remember vividly. (my uncle brought in all sorts of fancy customes and i tried them out one evening) Based on the timestamp I was 2 years 7 months old during that event. Thats certainly not the only memory I have from that time. I must have like a hundred more, but as for the rest of the memories, its harder to pinpoint which year from 2-4 they happened. But I just wanted to show that though its not typical, it its totally possible for one to have undistorted, unblurred memory from as early as 2.

  • Patrick Rogers

    When I was between a year and half and two years old a stray dog attempted to attack me while I was playing in the driveway. Before the stray could bite me our own dog, a border collie, raced up and fought it off. While this was happening my ten year old sister screamed and screamed inside the house but did not come and help. I remember being surprised about our dog coming to my rescue because he would barely have anything to do with me. Years later I asked about this event and everyone was surprised since they assumed I wouldn’t remember it.

  • Adam Stevenson

    Holding my Mum’s hand and going into the library to choose a book after playschool. I must have been 3ish.

  • Kathy_A

    When I was about 22 months old, we were in a car accident. My mom didn’t believe me a few years ago when I told her I remembered ut, but when I mentioned my brother (who was sitting in the passenger seat and unbuckled–this was 1968, after all, no laws dictating seatbelts in cars period, let alone worry about a 6 year old in the front not wearing a seatbelt) getting onto the floor beneath the dashboard at the top of the hill before the accident, which he had never done before, she believed me since it was a detail she had completely forgotten.

    I have always believed in a form of ESP, and that is why.

  • Beowulf

    I had swum a long distance and was tired. For some reason, the others couldn’t get in.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I can’t be sure exactly how young I was, but I vividly remember the home and back alley of the place I lived in Montreal. We moved when I was four.

    I can remember breaking my arm by falling off a patio with a basket of toys. I remember the name of the neighbours, than the gorgeous garden full of sweat peas and snapdragons. I remember throwing up on a wind-up toy the year we all got the flu for christmas.

    And in movie related memories, I remember watching the re-release of the original Star Wars in the movie theatres. :)

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