The Backstory: What’s your earliest memory?

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My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

I don’t know about you, but my earliest memories stretch back pretty early.  I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I have fuzzy memories of being 2.  For sure, I recall events from when I was 3.

Not unsurprisingly, my earliest memories center on strong emotions, usually negative ones.  But most of these stories are funny nonetheless.

For example, every older sibling can remember the ball and chain of watching a little brother or sister.  I’m sure it’s a drag. I’ve never had to do it. 🙂  I do remember belong left in the care of Brother #2 when both of my parents were at work during summer months – I’m sure it made perfect sense to my parents that they not pay someone to babysit me if they had a perfectly capable teenage boy at home to take care of it.

Of course, that wouldn’t have been as simple as it sounded.  I have two striking memories – mostly just images – from those brotherly babysitting sessions.

The first involves me wandering outside by myself bawling because I woke up, found my parents gone, and stumbled out the back door to find them. The vehicles were gone, and I must’ve assumed that I was abandoned.  lol   Brother #2 was dead asleep – teenage boys aren’t known for being early risers — but he finally found me outside and I guess it got sorted out.  I’d cried myself into fits.

The much funnier story involves the first curse word I ever learned.  My parents weren’t curing people …. even when my dad was furious and yelling, he didn’t curse.  Not anymore, not after he got saved, or at least never in my hearing.

Brother #2, who was probably 16 or 17 at the time of this memory, was home babysitting me (again) when he had some reason to call something shit. Shit is a fantastic word — it starts with a sibilant, ends with a  hard consonant, and works great in rhymes. My brain has always hoarded words, and my tongue quickly picked up that one.

I was walking around the upstairs enjoying the taste of the word when Brother #2 tackled me.  His intensity frightened me and I immediately started to cry.  “Don’t ever say that again! Never! I don’t ever want to hear you say that!  That’s a dirty word! A bad word!”

The memory is all red and black in my mind – I am not making this up.   I can see the room, the moment, my brother’s shadowy outline (my memories and dreams rarely capture full details).  The shadows are deep black; the highlights in the room are red.  When I was old enough to spell and recognize words, my brain tagged the visual tones of this memory to the word – even today, if you say the word shit, I will see a word in bold black sans-serif type against a deep red background, with the ghostly outlines of my childhood house lurking in the corners.

I was too scared by his reaction to say the word to my parents, which is (I’m sure) his motive for freaking out like he did — the only way I’d know a “bad word” would be if I learned it from my brother, and he knew my dad would lay into him.  Honestly, I think it’s a hilarious moment.

Some memories are borrowed from later storytelling — as family lore enters the minds of the next generations from hearing tales repeated at family gatherings and big dinners.  I am too young to really remember wandering the field on our property in tandem with our friendly golden retriever Brownie, but my dad loved to tell how he’d lose sight of me in the tall grass — but he wasn’t worried because Brownie was barking happily and the grasses and field flowers swayed as our trail rippled through the field.  I’m not sure what happened to Brownie; my memories of him don’t go past 3 or 4 years old.   But I’m pretty sure my dad ranked that memory of me as one of his favorites.

My brothers, perhaps as “payment” from my parents for dragging them up to the mountain to live, got a horse. Apparently this was the meanest, orneriest horse ever to reside on our hill, because nobody could ride the damn thing.  It had a name; I can’t recall.   But if you want to get my brothers laughing hard enough to snort their beer, let them tell you about the time Bruce, the Martin boy – who’d grown up around horses and figured he knew enough to break the animal – found himself lying on the ground after the horse took a direct beeline for a Y-shaped tree and scraped him off!

(The horse was sold; the field lay fallow; I apparently wandered it as a toddler and then the forest retook its own ground — you’d have no idea today that the area had ever been cleared.)

Brother #1 has always been interested in guns and hunting. He made friends with Eugene who lived a few hundred yards down the road, and they made their own fun on most days.  At one point they ordered a fancy scope from a gun magazine and hooked it to large caliber rifle that my brother always called “an elephant gun.”  They took their beast rifle out to test out the scope and the recoil shook the scope to pieces.  Apparently the company hadn’t expected teenage boys in Pennsylvania to shoot elephant guns? lol

My memories of home life accumulate rapidly by the time I’m 4….  I remember my dad finishing our house on his 2 days off each week, with me as “helper” …..

I recall lying down on the seat of his 1964 Ford pickup truck for naps, wrapped in a quilt that used to have a name, cradling a beloved red yarn octopus (that I named “Octopus,” of course) …

I definitely remember playing with our friendly black lab that my dad named “Governor Shapp.” (“Laziest dog I ever saw….just like the governor,” Dad would tell people, getting in a zing against the late 70s Pennsylvania governor.)

Governor (the dog) and my dad played a game — the dog would steal my dad’s work gloves or hat when my dad “wasn’t looking,” then he would chase him around the yard and I would help or laugh or both.

Someone stole the dog one day, and that was the end of my dog ownership.  We were a cat family, really.  But it always hurt my dad’s heart that someone would steal a dog…..

Mountain life was hard on animals. I probably won’t post those stories- nobody really cares about my cat tales. But dad buried a lot of animals on a corner of the property.  ….We lost a whole pile of “outside” cats one winter when they drank antifreeze that had spilled as my dad was prepping our truck for sub-zero weather that night.  Cats love antifreeze; drawn to it like moths to flame. But it poisons them and they die a pretty sad death within a day.    …. Then there’s the black cat who crawled up into the truck motor to warm up; nobody knew he was there and the fan belt took off most of his tail.  He was a much wiser cat after that.

But I promised I wouldn’t get into the cat stories.

What’s your earliest memory?


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