If we recall anything of our first years of life, it likely comes to our consciousness only in isolated, bright islands of memory set in a black sea of times forgotten and never to be remembered.
It has always seemed curious to me that we can’t access more of our earliest memories. After all, so much critical development occurs during that span in our lives. It’s when we take our first steps, when we learn to talk, when we learn to use the bathroom, when we learn not to spit up our food, and that pinching and biting our playmates is a no-no.
It is the time in our lives when we learn to become persons, and if things go right, what we learn then we will do without thinking about for the rest of our lives.
My first memories have nothing to teach me about the origins of any of my quirks and oddments, though if they did, that would be helpful. I’d like to know why I turned out so weird, but there is no trauma.
In retrospect, my earliest memory opens a window on one of the best days of my life, though it didn’t seem so at the time. I am fortunate because it carries an indelible time stamp on it: June 4, 1963. An important day in the life of the Whale family, as you will see.
Anyway, our neighbors, Jack and Delores Moon, are babysitting me because my mother is in a hospital preparing to deliver her sixth — and as it turns out — final child. I don’t know anything about that; I only know that I want my mother and she does not come to me.
On that day, I am all of one-year-and-21-days old, and I am bawling my eyes out, despite Delores holding me and doing her best with a cookie to still a tempest that will not be calmed. At the high point, my big brother, Matt, crosses the street to give us the big news: it’s a girl. I have a sister.
That is where the memory ends. In a day or so, that baby girl will get a name: Diane Elisabeth Whale, today Diane Hackett. She remains to this day an especially resplendent jewel in the family crown. (Sorry for all the mean things I did to you when we were kids, Diane.)
As I write this, my wife, who is standing behind me, casts shade on the recollection. She reminds me how improbable the memory is, given my tender age at the time. And, she adds, neurologists tell us that the more times we access a memory, the more likely we are to change it. This, she says, could be one of those instances. I say no, no, as improbable as it may seem, I remember it.
The photo of the Whale family now complete, which I have attached to today’s column, appeared in the Auburn Globe News days after Diane’s birth.
In other memories I am pushing down the hallway a toy filled with brightly-colored balls that pop up when it is rolled. There is no time stamp on that one. I also recall waking up one evening, and sensing more than seeing my mother seated in a chair next to my bed, likely out of concern that the braces I then wore on my legs would trip me up if I should try to walk.
I remember as well accompanying my dad to Sid’s Barber Shop somewhere in downtown Auburn, which Sid had in his home. While dad gets in his trim, I wait in the living room. Spying a bowl of candy rocks on the table there, I partake of a few.
When my shorn dad comes out and sees me jawing a mouthful of candy, he scolds me for taking without asking. Sid and his warm-hearted wife only laugh, however, and, as we leave, lay a few choice sweets in my hand. I only wish I could remember where Sid lived.
Other early memories are of Game Farm Park, when it was a game farm, cackling and gobbling with various fowl, and of White Lake, a pocket-sized beauty of a swimming hole with a sandy bottom on the former Miles Sand and Gravel site, which is today owned by the Muckleshoot Tribe. In 1973, it was closed to the public after a 14-year-old boy drowned there.
When I was growing up, Auburn and Kent were widely separated, and somewhere in the mix is the night the whole family went out to the outdoor theaters north of the city to watch “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.” When it was over, I remember my dad carrying my puny, sleepy self on his shoulders into the house.
I hope that the memories you all have of your own early years are also warm.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.