When my children remember being small, what images will come to their minds? Memory comes on like the pops of flashbulbs, one image, then another, until the light stays on to make a continuous picture. For me, Memory Number One is at age three, in my nursery room classroom, a dark room in the basement of a church. Cubbies and fingerpaints. The face on box of Munchkins. A set of stairs in the room that rose to a window, where we’d crawl out into the light, to the playground. Pop.
Next I’m in the car in the parking lot behind Miller’s Hardware in Lynbrook, New York, listening to “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain and Tenille. Pop. “I will! I will!” Pop back to nursery school: the water table, plastic smocks, a Thanksgiving feast, a paper pilgrim bonnet, a turkey made out of an orange. Pop. There was a kid I dubbed “Ned the Head.” It was apt. He had a blond bowl cut. Where is he now? I think my mother knows but I won’t ask.
From when C was a baby we tried to take him on all sorts of adventures, thinking what he saw and did from birth would inform his character forever. He was eight months old when we took him to England, for a wedding, and we thought that though he’d never remember it, somehow the fact that he first saw the sea at the Jurassic Coast in Devon would always live within him. Maybe he’d grow up and crave ice cream cones with Flakes stuck in. Maybe he’d be a Hardy scholar. Maybe he’d buy his mother a retirement cottage in Lyme Regis. Nice thoughts.
But subsequent, post-age-three trips to the beach in Long Island and Cape Cod have laid themselves over these first memories, and those trips pop into his head when now, at age 5, he thinks of the beach. Digging for something he calls “fish yolks” in the primordial ooze at the Brewster salt flats, throwing rocks into Gardiner’s Bay, or the surfside playground at Hither Hills. Pop.
Now T is two, and we are on our own in the mornings before his nap, while C is at kindergarten. We trudge home after drop off. He plays trucks, blocks, looks at his books while I clean up breakfast, get started on the laundry. I think, I could take him to the farm/playground/Science Museum. But then, I think, ah, forget it, he won’t remember it anyway. The lot of the second child.
When we toured C’s kindergarten room before school started, it struck me how so many things hadn’t changed since I had been in kindergarten myself. I remembered the little colored plastic cubes they use to learn math. The calendar with numbered, changeable cards. Still the same. Pop. While C sat at a table and he and his new classmates stared shyly at each other, checking to see who would be the first to glue colored macaroni on a birthday crown, I chased T around the room while he took it upon himself to try out/destroy kindergarten. He grabbed at the calendar and I was brought back to that old room. Pop.
I heard the songs my teacher, Mrs Kurtzer, would bang out on the piano. “Abraham Lincoln kind and true. You did the best a man can do. Abraham Lincoln, we! Love! You!” I think she might have made it up on the spot. She did her best. There were the transparent, colored records she would play for holidays; an orange one for Halloween. Red for Valentine’s Day. The foods she would bring for each letter of the alphabet. Carob for C. It was the last gasp of the seventies. E was a tough one: “Edam Cheese.” I can still hear her say EEE-dam, and I think that’s the only time I have ever eaten it. Pop. Pop. The flashbulbs are getting closer together, and they must be for C now too. I must be careful what I say to him, I think. He’s going to start remembering it now.
That night I had a dream about going back to kindergarten. I was a parent this time, and I think I was supposed to be there for C, but it was definitely my classroom back in Oceanside, N.Y. In Mrs Kurtzer’s room there was a circle made out of black linoleum laid into the floor. We used to sit around the circle. In the dream, it was torn up; I could see where the circle had been, in an outline of crumbling, funny-shaped beige lino stuck in the old ruts. On top of the old circle was a big, colorful rectangular rug, like the kind we saw in C’s room. It made me sad to see that old circle, such an indelible image of school in my mind, carelessly ripped up and covered over. I had trouble falling back asleep after that; I had to go downstairs and watch a sitcom on TV at 3am.
Besides the typical flashes of school and home life, my early memories stem from our family’s frequent trips into New York City. It was probably then that I developed my abiding love for New York. Even now those first memories come back to me in a heady rush and make me miss the old place, more than usual. And for some reason I remember the journeys in and out more than I remember what we did when we got there, things like seeing the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, going up to Columbia to see my aunt and uncle, or eating lemon gelato at Ferrara’s in Little Italy during the San Gennaro festival. Instead, it’s the Southern State, crossing into city limits on the Cross Island, a huge full moon over the Belt Parkway one night on a return trip from Brooklyn.
But most of all, it’s this -
The stenciling, in my memory, was more faded than it is in the image. When I see it in my mind the peeling paint is surrounded by a riot of traffic, grafitti, and slapped-up posters on the busy way into the city from the suburbs. On these trips, leaning back on blue leatherette in the back of a station wagon, I would anticipate this overpass and prepare myself to read this slogan. It filled me with dread. It couched my ever-present excitement to go into the city with sadness, and I went under the river feeling blue. But I guess if you love New York, that’s part of what you love; the melancholy, the ghosts of all the things that are lost, the dust heaps. The brutal passing of time, the bad dreams you have to live with if you want to press forward. Without that, the city could never be the continually changing fascination that it will always remain. And I’ll always mourn those indian trails, buried under a thousand levels of dust and asphalt, like I’ll mourn those palimpsests of early memories, my own and my children’s.
Right now, T is sweetly asleep. C is at school, sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on a brightly colored rug, tracing letters and learning songs, his head filling up with all wondrous and new things, and out will go the old. Until recently, he could still recall moments from his toddler days, but now, like me, he can only reach back to three. And I can already see, when we talk about nursery school, his old memories are popping like bubbles. He can no longer remember a time before his brother, but that’s as it should be. Later, after school, the three of us will go to Lexington for haircuts and ice cream, and play ball on the Battle Green, a patch of grass where, years before, something very different happened. Pop. While they fill their days with childhood concerns I’ll watch and remember, and act as steward for their early years, so those memories can one day, unlike indian trails, rise to the surface again.