I’ve read that we don’t start forming memories until we are 3 years old. I have three memories from when I was 3 that I’m sure are my actual memories and not things I remember from hearing the stories over and over. The first is a memory of water running into my ears and thinking I was drowning. We had a small dog when I was born. As many toddlers do, I loved to play pretend. One day I was pretending I was a dog and tried to eat from the dog’s food dish while he was eating from it. He bit me. Since my face was right there in his, he bit my nose, just below my eyes. Joyce and Larry swept me up and raced to the emergency room, where, despite Joyce’s protests, they strapped me into a device called a ‘papoose’ to clean out the wound. A papoose is basically a straight jacket for babies, a board you swaddle a child onto so as to immobilize them. There was gauze over my eyes to protect them, but whatever liquid they poured into the wound to clean it ran into my ears. I don’t remember the dog bite or the race to the hospital. I remember the liquid running into my ears and hitting full-blown panic mode. Memories are strange things.
I remember waking up from a nap to find myself alone in the house. I climbed down off of Joyce and Larry’s bed and wandered from room to room in the empty house. I don’t know if I woke up crying or started crying during the lonely tour. I don’t know that I was crying from fear or anger so much as confusion. This was not how things were supposed to be. There was always an adult to come get me when I woke up and now there wasn’t one. I was standing alone crying in the middle of the living room when Joyce came in and found me. She’d just run next door to borrow something and got caught up talking. Seeing my distress, she wasted no time; she ran to get her polaroid and snap a few pictures of my red eyes, slobbery mouth, and snotty nose. Joyce loved to show people her photo album. She’d laugh when she got to those pictures and say, “this is the time Michelle woke up from her nap and decided I’d abandoned her.”
I was a month away from turning four when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon July 20, 1969. It was 4 minutes before 11 pm and a bunch of adults in Joyce’s family had gathered at Ruby Mae’s to watch the landing on her TV. Someone excitedly swooped me up and, holding me up to my Nanny’s living room window, pointed to the moon and told me a man was walking up there. I know that this is my own memory because my thought was typically me, even at four years old: “I’m right here with you looking at the moon and it’s obvious there is no man walking on it.”
Memories are weird, especially ones from before you are able to fully form them or have any context to help you make sense of them. I remember I loved pudding–not the instant stuff, or the pudding cups we have now. This was pudding you had to add milk to and stir on the stove while it set up. Joyce made it for me often when I was a toddler–I think she loved it as much as I did. Waiting for the pudding to be cool enough to eat was excruciating–especially because if it cooled too much, it formed a rubbery skin on top that I had to eat if I wanted more.
I have vague memories of pushing up a chair so I could reach a bowl of pudding cooling up on the kitchen counter. And I remember walking with Joyce through a dark backyard while she’s carrying a baby and holding my hand and crying. I know now that she’s crying because she walked into the kitchen in time to see me reaching for that scalding hot bowl of pudding and shouted my name. Instead of pulling it down on my head, I flinched and managed to only slosh it over my hand.
Larry was working 12-hour overnight shifts and had their only vehicle, so she called him at work, only to be told she had the wrong night; he wasn’t there. The 12 hour overnight schedule was 4 on and 3 off and this was Larry’s first off. Too panicked to be confused, Joyce gathered up the baby–my baby sister who Larry had helped name Tonia Denise–and she took me next door to ask for a ride to the ER. But they weren’t home and Joyce had to walk us to the next house over, weeping.
It turned out the burn on my hand wasn’t all that bad–blisters, but no scars–because Joyce had moved so quickly to get the hot goop off me and my hand under cool water. The true damage from the incident came the next morning when Larry arrived home from his “12-hour overnight” and the ensuing fight revealed he’d been spending his first off nights with Denise, the wife of a coworker who had his first night on at that time. Yep. Larry had managed to talk his wife into naming their second child after his secret mistress. Joyce was beside herself and wanted to leave, but Larry told her she had nowhere to go and no way to survive without him–she couldn’t honestly be considering taking two babies to her mother’s house where her parents were locked in their eternal battle?
So Joyce stayed and they must have made up because my next true memories are of motocross race tracks around Sedalia Missouri.
My family became quite familiar with Emergency rooms as we kids grew up.