I was in my crib in my room. It was dark in the room and I was supposed to be sleeping. I think it was a nap during the day, because I vaguely remember some sunlight shining through the curtains of the window, which was just over where my crib was against the wall. I was afraid. I don’t remember anything specific of which I needed to be afraid, but I was scared and I didn’t want to be alone. I was standing in the crib, with my hands on the rail, crying. And then the door to my room opened and my father came in. I remember that he was smiling and I can still picture his thick dark beard and glasses. He came in and picked me up. The relief I felt instantly overcame whatever fear I had to have my father come to comfort me.
The psychoanalytic tendency would be to name how I felt safe in the household in which I grew up. That I could depend on my parents to provide a holding environment that reliably soothed and comforted me when I was anxious. I suppose one could also analyze this image as a foundation for a smothering, overprotective household, but I don’t think the rest of my memories and experiences as a child really bear that out.
I know that memories are crafted, molded, even manufactured through the many filters of cognition and reflection and that each time we remember one we change and tweak and redact it. I know that we can be convinced to remember memories we didn’t even experience, as I know I can do remembering a time when my brother threw up beets in the car. I wasn’t there for that, but my parents have told that story so many times I remember it as if I had been sitting next to him. I know memories are factually inaccurate and unreliable, particularly the older they are and the younger we were when they occurred. I don’t pretend to present this earliest memory of mine as if it’s completely accurate or as if it hasn’t developed over time. Did I really see my dad in his thick dark beard? Or do I only remember that from the pictures I’ve seen of my dad during those years when I was such a young child? Who knows? But that memory does indeed capture the overall sense of the home I grew up in, regardless of whether it’s factually true or not. It’s true to my experience.
I have no idea what my little girl will remember of her life so far. Of course, I will remember many small details of it. Every week she does something that strikes me as remarkable and amazing and if I forget something she’s done it’s only so I can make room for the new thing she did today. But her brain is still growing and changing at an unbelievably rapid pace; on a cellular level, her brain is likely to be a completely different organ a year or two from now. When she is grown, what will her earliest memory be? Will she remember any of these past two years? Will she remember the trip to the aquarium? Will she remember her mother taking her to see the bunnies at Easter? Will she remember riding in her car seat? Or the time we stayed up all night when she had her stomach bug?
I have brought my earliest memory back to the front of my consciousness because I relived it last week, except I was the father. Our little girl awoke in the night, suddenly and loudly and abruptly with a shrill shriek. She didn’t have a fever or a dirty diaper; I’m pretty sure she had a nightmare that shook her awake with fear and loneliness. And so I got out of bed and went to her room to open the door and see her standing in the crib, her hands on the rail, crying. And I smiled and picked her up and she immediately fell quiet and wrapped her arms around my neck and sighed a deep breath of relief. And in that moment I saw myself through the eyes of my own father, entering my room to comfort and hold me. We sat down in the rocker and I hummed to her and felt her warm body against my bare chest and noticed her breathing slow as the last few tears ran off her cheeks onto my shoulder and dried. When I laid her back down five minutes later she was sound asleep.
Do you remember in the Gospels when it says that Mary “treasured these things in her heart”? Watching her child grow, witnessing all the strange amazing things her little boy did, she didn’t just remember but she treasured in her heart. I think all loving parents do this with their children, but I think children do this with their loving parents, too. My earliest memory is probably not really an accurate memory, it’s more of a treasure, and the heart is far less interested in capturing a historical fact. That’s why my mind reserves images and sensations for what is ultimately an experience of love and safety and comfort that cannot be described. And now as a father, I treasure in my heart each moment that I help to construct and hold the loving home in which my daughter will grow up. It’s hard to even describe the kind of joy I felt to hold her in the middle of the night, to comfort her in the wake of sleeping terror, because I know how powerfully relieving it is know that someone will come to me when I cry and hold me and love me.
Maybe one day my daughter will have children of her own and she will go into her child’s room to comfort her child’s cries and she will remember when her father came in to her room to comfort him just as my father came in to my room, like an infinite Droste effect of parental comfort spanning generations. Who knows, maybe she won’t remember when I came in to hold her in the night; there’s so much for her to remember, and even more for her to forget. But I will never forget.