My first memory which I can place in time is my fourth birthday party. My dad took me for a drive in his midnight blue Ford Mustang so my mom and her sisters could decorate the house for my surprise party. He took me to Roy Rogers and I got a chicken sandwich and a black cherry fountain soda. The soda slipped through my fingers and spilled all over my white OshKosh B’gosh corduroy pants, making a red lake on the seat and then the carpet at my feet. I don’t remember getting yelled at for that. It was my birthday. He loved me.
Later, at the house, in my pink pants, everybody jumped out and yelled, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” One of the gifts I got was a plastic sword from Thundercats. The sword, when held up high, said, “Thunder Thunder Thundercats Ho!” Just a few days after I got that sword, my babysitter’s little brother heaved it onto their roof and the sword was gone. I never ratted him out about it. But I guess I am now.
I text my brother wanting to know if he can remember his own fourth birthday and he texts back that he can’t.
I ask a lot of people if they can remember their fourth birthday party.
I ask a lot of people what their first memory is.
The best answer I get is from my coworker Justin, who can remember something from when he was two years old. I ask him how he could remember back that far and be certain it was placed in time accurately. He says he knew he was two because he was in Arizona. He lived in Arizona until he was two, and then he moved away from the desert and that’s when his bright hot desert memories end. The first desert memory is of some friends of his mother who had gone up into the mountains that day, and while they were up at the top, they put snow in a cooler and brought it back down, specifically to show Justin, the baby, who had never seen snow before. And this memory of snow impressed Justin enough that he’s never forgotten it. They let him touch some of the snow. They put the rest of the snowball on the table and walked away. Justin was alone and couldn’t reach the snowball on the table, he was too little. The house cat jumped up on the table and pissed on the snowball, ruining it.
His earliest memory also involves being mad at the cat for ruining the snow.
When I tell Rae Justin’s story, she says, “That sounds like bullshit.”
“What does?” I say. I don’t think someone would make up a story about a cat pissing on a snowball. “What purpose would it serve to lie about that?”
“Then maybe he’s remembering it wrong.”
“Maybe,” I say. “People remember and forget things for all kinds of reasons.”
“Cats are jealous little jerks,” she says. “It could be true.”
Rae’s first memory is of being four years old and her sister being just a little bitty toddler. Rae got a suitcase, popped it open and put her sister in the suitcase because she wanted to travel everywhere with her sister, she loved her sister so much. She zipped up the suitcase. Her sister didn’t make a sound.
All my memories look like Super 8 films or Polaroid photographs stringed together in my mind. Fuzzy. And warm. And not quite developed right. I’m sure they look this way because of the influence of photo albums. And the opening sequence to The Wonder Years.
I wonder if my dad’s and mom’s childhood memories are black and white, influenced by family photo albums before Kodachrome.
“Then what is the first memory that you can place in time?” I text my brother.
He says, “I can’t say for sure but I think I was like 5 or 6. Thinking back on it, it seems weird adding an age to yourself in a memory. It’s almost like the better definition is just a child.”
“Just a child, yeah. But I’m still a child, haha. I’ll remain that way for as long as I can.”
I tell him, 5 or 6 is terrible, he can do better. I work with a guy who can remember being 2. I tell him I can remember being 4. My brother lights a cigarette and shrugs. “When it’s not there, it’s not there.”
His name is William. When he was a little boy my mom called him Willie, so did my aunts, and grandma and grandpa. Dad would goof around and call him Wilbur, like the pig from Green Acres. His birthday is August 15th, 1983. Sometimes he is one year younger than me, sometimes he is two years younger than me. I like when he is one year younger than me, because when we were children we were closer to age and we were isolated from other kids, living on a campground, empty after summertime. We played together and were friends, and you always wanted your friends to be as close to your own age as possible, otherwise you felt like you were blowing it. When he was nine years old, he saw the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Christian Slater played a character called Will Scarlet. Will Scarlet was a knife expert. Will Scarlet was a lot cooler than Robin Hood himself. It’s revealed later in the film that Will Scarlet is Robin’s brother.
Our mom is named Robin.
She’s not related to Robin Hood.
Willie was nine years old and tired of being called Willie. He wanted to be called Will. I’m sure it had something to do with Will Scarlet.
The year before, the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered. We might have seen it, but the name Will Smith didn’t mean anything. It went unnoticed. It went unnoticed until, I’m going to guess, 1996, five years after my brother saw Christian Slater play Will Scarlet. 1996, the year the film Independence Day was released. Then everyone in the world knew about Will Smith. He was a big time movie star. My brother’s name became a joke at my brother’s expense at his middle school, and then his high school, and he still deals with it today. He’s Will Smith. Not to be confused with the other Will Smith. When I think of my brother I think of him as Willie, tiny, full of infinite energy, a mop of curly red hair and a face full of freckles. My brother refused to be called Billy, or Willie, or anything else. He stuck with Will.
In my brother’s first memory that he can place, he’s five years old and sitting on a moldy green fence. My mother is standing next to him, helping him so he doesn’t fall off the fence. They’re at my bus stop, waiting for me to come home from kindergarten. In his other early memory, also five years old, he’s on my father’s red motorcycle and holding on for dear life as they go very fast.
I have no motorcycle memories.
He also says, “These are not full vivid memories, though. They’re like a snapshot and a feeling.”
My earliest memories are not this way. They’re not a snapshot or a feeling. They are movies I can watch in my mind. There is no sentimentality. They are emotionless. I can watch them play forwards and backwards and I’m not the hero, or the victim, or the villain, I’m just in them, and everything is oversaturated with remarkably warm color.
I ask him again if he remembers his own fourth birthday party. He says, “No, the memory is just not there.”
I remember it, though. I was five and he was having a shared birthday party with the son of one of my parent’s friends and I was mad I wasn’t getting presents. My mom gave me something after that. I don’t know what it was. But she got me a cheap squirt gun or something from the gas station and I stopped my bitching.
And then he tells me, he remembers riding big wheels down a metal ramp off the back of a “moving” truck and hearing Dad curse as he sat on an ugly couch watching cartoons. He says he repeated the curse and Dad smacked him on the back of his head.
But these memories cannot be placed in time.
Then he says, “The earliest vivid memory for me is making a giant—to me—snowman with you on the other side of the fence in the campground.”
And this interests me because we moved to the campground when I was six and he was four. We lived in a wooden house up on a hill that overlooked all the other campsites. Our first winter we made that snowman. There’s a photograph of us in a prominent family photo album. So I guess he could be remembering the photo and not the actual event but then I remember something that happened right around the time of the snowman. We went to New Hampshire to see my mom’s sister Sandy, who we called Aunt TT because as little kids we hadn’t been able to pronounce Sandy and TT was what came out. I recall us going up for Thanksgiving.
I ask him, “Hey do you remember being in New Hampshire probably around the fall, right before we built the snowman…”
“I don’t know.”
I ask, “Do you remember when I threw a rock and hit you in the face?”
“Yes, but it was cold.” He tells me it was Christmas. “It was a strange cold. Whenever it snowed around us, it was a wet humid snow, but the air was cool and dry. You didn’t get soaked until after thirty minutes, so I remember you and I wanting to play a lot in the snow. We were just playfully throwing snowballs on this half-pipe built on either side of the road. I started taunting you, saying you couldn’t hit me and WHAM! I took one in the face and I fell backwards into the snow behind the ramp.”
For some reason I didn’t think he would recall the half-pipe. The road had a half-pipe on it from some skateboard kids, long gone. But in my memory, there is no snow. It is fall and the leaves are everywhere in red and yellow and brown, and the grass is bright green in the yard. I am standing on the peak of a grassy slope next to an asphalt driveway and he is seventy-five feet across the road, jumping up and down, making an X as he gets air off the platform at the top of the ramp. And he is screaming, “Bet you can’t hit me wif a rock!!” And I lean down and pick up a chunk of the driveway. A flat piece of asphalt. I can look at it in my hand now and see how black it is. I can feel its weight. And in my memory, he screams again, “Bet you can’t hit me wif a rock.” He had a speech impediment already, if I recall correctly. Or maybe the piece of asphalt caused the speech impediment. I launched the hunk of asphalt at him and it spun like a discus through the autumn sky at him and it struck his mouth and he fell off the half-pipe.
In his memory, he lands in snow and he is wearing the same onesie from the photograph of us building the snowman.
In my memory, he writhes on the ground in a pile of leaves but does not cry.
In his memory, he does not cry but he has a very hard time getting up out of the snow because of the onesie.
In my memory, his mouth is bloody and I’m running down the leaf covered hill and pressing leaves to his face to stop the bleeding.
In his memory, it’s snow pressed to his mouth.
In both memories, things get red.
I don’t recall much crying from my youth. There was no crying in the house. There was no crying on the playground. There was no crying much of anywhere. Rich people cry, my Uncle John said to me. We didn’t have enough money to be able to afford to be babies about anything.
Jonathan, all his sisters called him. Jon, his brother Billy called him. Jon called me Bud, and he called Willie, Willie.
Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, Uncle Billy called us for some reason. Or Pete, Uncle Billy called us.
“Hey Pete,” he’d say to us both as we walked into his house in Ortley Beach, him shirtless and smoking at the kitchen table. My mom would sit down and drink coffee with his wife, Judy, and we would play out on the back deck. I’m not sure why he called us Pete.
I’m not sure why anybody calls anybody anything.
The Seamens are pineys. They’re funny and weird. My mother is a Seamen. I take after her side of the family. I look like them. Dark hair. Brown eyes. I can get a suntan. I lean towards art and creativity rather than mechanics. But I don’t feel very much like a piney.
Will takes after my father’s side. He is more a Smith than a Seamen. And he looks like them. Fair skin that burns in the sun. Blue eyes. Red hair like my father. He fixes cars for a living. He works with my dad at the municipal garage, just ten minutes west through the pines from the house we moved into in 1996, just about the time Will Smith the movie star was becoming Will Smith the movie star. My brother feels like a piney. Is a piney.
I ask my dad about his oldest memory and he says, “I was in an old basement. There were two older people in front of me and I was standing with grandma and grandpa. I don’t know if it was a dream or real.”
For the sake of this I am going to say that it wasn’t a dream. Dreams slip away, they’re the hardest nostalgia to hold onto. My father, Gary Robert Smith, was born June 14th, 1957. If he was standing, I am going to guess he was at least two years old. Maybe three. Four? This memory is from 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962… Where did it happen? New Jersey somewhere. Who are the other old people? I’m going to guess they are my father’s grandparents. What do I know about my father’s grandparents? Nothing. What do I know about my own grandparents? Just a little bit. What do I know about my father? A decent amount. We used to not talk about the past in my family. What do I know about myself? Less than nothing.
I ask my mom what her earliest memory is and she says, “I was in kindergarten, a fat girl a few years older than me pushed me off my bike into fresh tar and I ruined my white sweater. A week later, fighting back, I stubbed my big toe…it was a very traumatic year, haha. We all lived on Audubon Drive.”
I say to my dad, “Well, what about a memory that you know is real.”
He says, “I do remember when we lived in Ocean Gate in a big living room in a house that’s not there anymore.”
There’s something so American about the place you were born in being razed to the ground by the time your children think to ask after it.
Ocean Gate is the town just across the two-lane road they live on. I never knew any of my family lived in Ocean Gate. I ask my dad how old he thought he was when the whole family—grandpa, grandma, Uncle Joe, Uncle Jimmy, and my father—rented out a living room.
Dad says, “Probably 3 or 4 in Ocean Gate. Usually you don’t remember anything before like 5. Uncle Jimmy tells me stuff but I don’t know.”
My father is 61. Ten years younger than his oldest brother, Joe, 71. And nine years younger than Uncle Jimmy, 70. Joe and Jimmy are Irish twins like my brother and I. My father, in a way, is an only child. The year he entered kindergarten, Jimmy graduated from high school. Uncle Joe was off in college in Colorado, which might as well have been the moon.
I say to my dad, “I had a memory that I didn’t realize was a dream for a long time.”
“What was it?”
“A witch flew into aunt Elaine’s trailer and was flying around and the trailer was full of smoke and you came in the trailer and beat the witch up, broke her broomstick and punched her in the stomach and face and she lost her power and the smoke went away and everything was okay.”
He says, straightfaced, “I think that actually happened.”
I text my dad, “My first memory I can place in time is driving with you on my fourth birthday party. It was a surprise party and you took me to get fast food at Roy Rogers in your Mustang. Do you remember that? Something funny happened.”
“No, I don’t, what was it?”
I’m distracted at work and don’t text him back right away. I’m surprised he didn’t remember but it makes sense that he didn’t remember. It didn’t cause him any shame. Maybe shame is the thing that makes us remember things.
He texts back, “Hey Bud, Don’t leave me hanging what was it?”
“Haha, sorry. I spilled an entire soda on my white pants and made a lake of red soda in your car. But I don’t remember being in trouble just that my pants got pink.”
He texts, “See I did my job you’re not dead. Do you remember wearing my brand new jacket from the fire company?”
“Of course. It was gold.”
“Yup, I did my job again.”
He’s been a volunteer firefighter for almost as long as I have been here on this earth. He keeps the pine trees going for the pineys even though I don’t think my father feels very much like a piney.
It’s so strange to me that he doesn’t remember me dumping an entire soda in his car. He loved that car. Well, he loved me too. When you love somebody you probably try to forget all the terrible things they’ve ever done to you, this way it’s easier to keep loving them.
My dad went to the high school I went to. He graduated in 1975. I graduated in 2000. Will graduated in 2002.
On Will’s drive home from his job at the municipal garage every day, on the way to his apartment, he passes the middle school, and the high school, and then the elementary school we both went to. I don’t think he particularly liked school, so I imagine it must feel stale to drive by those schools. All the bad memories.
I have my own bad memories of those schools, of course. And my own good memories of them, too. I liked school just enough to actually do my homework. I didn’t mind reading and writing and I still don’t mind it. I liked to draw. When I was in elementary school and my homework was done, I’d sit at the coffee table and draw. My brother would finish his homework and play with toy cars, crashing them together and making explosive noises with his mouth, and revving the engines, and racing them around on the tile floor by the woodburning stove.
I drew so much I actually got good at it. All it ever takes is as much practice as you can stand. When I was in fourth grade, our art class let us draw whatever we wanted. I drew all these musical instruments that were smiling and dancing and alive. The art teacher gave the drawing to the music teacher and the music teacher put them outside the classroom on the bulletin board. And the art teacher and the music teacher decided I belonged in the gifted and talented program. So, every Wednesday I was supposed to go over to a different classroom and hang out with these other gifted and talented kids for the day. A month into my invitation into that club, the teacher who ran the program changed her mind about me and kicked me out of it, said she’d made a mistake.
After I wrote the first draft of this essay, I remembered something else. I remembered a spelling bee in the auditorium. I was up on stage in front of everybody. I misspelled the word ‘from’. I got nervous and spelled it ‘f-o-r-m’ or I spelled it ‘f-m-r-o’ or I might have even spelled it ‘r-f-o-m’. Who knows? They kicked me out of the gifted and talented program, and ever since I’ve just been a regular kid. It’s been great.
Wait, maybe it was the word ‘just’, spelled incorrectly as ‘jtsu’ or ‘jsut’. I can’t recall. Some four letter word.
I ask my father if he had any embarrassing memories from his grade school years, and he texts, “We did some good school trips. Saw the Statue of Liberty, the Philadelphia Zoo, and Stokes State Forest. My first girlfriend was in 4th grade.”
I text back, “None of that is embarrassing, but I went to Stokes State Forest too. It’s funny because, as an adult I don’t hear about anybody going to Stokes. When I went there as a kid in 1994…probably 25 years after you did, I lost my glasses in the lake. Do you remember when I lost my glasses in the lake. I flipped a rowboat I was in.”
“I was blind for three days, haha,” I say. “So what about your embarrassing memories? I’m still on that, excuse me.”
“Uncle Kurt used to build boats in his basement. Grandpa and I went out with him one time in the boat and they let me drive, and I almost sunk it, I turned too quick. That might fall under near-disaster.”
“What else?” I ask.
“In like 1st grade or so the newspaper came to school for some reason and took a picture of this girl, my teacher, and myself, and when they printed it they left me out.”
That is so sad to read. I stand here at work, looking at the text he sent me. It’s always like that with adults who aren’t your family, they set you up and they knock you over and they don’t even realize it.
What he texted me sounded exactly like what childhood really was. I don’t think I can think of a better example of what it feels like to be a kid. You get so excited for something and then they just cut you out of it.
My dad has always been pretty quiet about telling stories from his life, but because of this essay I’m writing here, I’ve recently discovered he will tell me anything in a text message. That is amazing. I feel like I could make it my life’s work now just to text him and get him to tell me things that happened to him, because in a way they feel as interesting to me as things that have happened to me, and they do feel like they’re things that happened to me. When I first read the text message about him being cut out of a photo in the paper, I felt like that was something in my DNA.
Then he texts, “We went to Colorado one time and Uncle Joe and I were shooting at bottles in a creek called Crystal Creek, muddiest water I ever saw. It’s where they get the water for Coors beer. Your Uncle Joe was teaching me to rappel down this cliff, when I landed on a cactus at the bottom.”
Of course a cactus had gotten him.
“Oh my god those are great memories,” I text back.
He writes back, “People don’t like to talk about embarrassing moments. But they will teach you a lesson.”
I message my brother, reminding him to reply to my message about what being at our elementary school had felt like to him. I want to know if he went to Stokes State Forest, too. Did he flip a boat? Did he lose his glasses? But I can’t get ahold of my brother. “He is busy taking a car apart,” my dad types, toking at him from across the municipal garage. “Will’s hands are covered with grease and cellphones and grease don’t mix.” My dad’s hands are clean. He is six months away from retirement. My dad is my brother’s boss.
My mom messages me her embarrassing memory from grade school. “I remember one year we had to move in with grand mom for a short time…which meant we had to change schools. The principal had to come get me out of class and bring me to Elaine’s class because she was crying and wouldn’t stop asking for me….”
I’m reminded of Rae putting her little sister in the suitcase and wanting to take her wherever she went. Here is my mom, 25 years before that, going into her little sister’s class in the middle of the day and trying to help her sister stop being so upset. Here is my mom loving her sister. And here is her sister hugging her. And here I can see them both crying now. And here I can see the other kids in the class crying, too. And here I can see the teacher crying. And here I can see the principal crying. And it must be in my DNA because I’m about to start crying too. In the classroom with the ABCs on the wall, and the globe of the world the way it was back then, and the American flags, and 1+3=4 written on the chalkboard.
Here we are, all of us, forced out of our homes and saved from doom by our grandmothers. Here we are, packing our bags and walking along the road together, tears in our eyes. Here we are, feeling so very tiny, but holding hands so we can get linked together and in that link we can be heavy enough that we don’t get blown away by the wind.
When I finally hear back from my brother, he doesn’t answer the question I’ve asked, “What was an embarrassing thing that happened to you when you were a kid?” He says, “Hey, sorry I didn’t write back.” And I don’t press him. It’s really none of my business. And my dad is right, People don’t like to talk about embarrassing moments. But they will teach you a lesson. I’m sure my brother has already learned the lesson from whatever happened to him, but it’s a private lesson and he doesn’t need to tell me about it. The lesson wouldn’t do me any good anyway. I’m just like you, I can’t learn too much from anyone else, I have to suffer it, whatever it is, on the chin, before I believe it is real.
I text him, “I just realized that maybe I’m remembering something else different than you are. Do you remember I hit you in the face with a rock? Or with a snowball.”
He doesn’t write back. So, I’m gonna say, it was definitely a rock.
Other memories of mine, that may have been my first memories but ones I cannot place in time: while sleeping somewhere that is not my bed, I am lifted up and carried away by my mother, or my father, to a place which is my bed.
Other memories of my brother’s, that may have been his first memories but ones he cannot place in time: while sleeping somewhere that is not his bed, being lifted up and carried by his/my mother, or being carried by his/my father, to the place which is his bed, probably above mine, I had the bottom bunk.
Other memories of my father’s, that may have been his first memories but ones he cannot place in time: while sleeping somewhere that is not his bed, being lifted up and carried by my grandmother, his mother; or being carried by my grandfather, his father, to the place which is his bed.
Other memories of my mother’s, that may have been her first memories but ones she cannot place in time: while sleeping somewhere that is not her bed, being lifted up and carried by her mother, my grandmother; or being carried by her father, my grandfather, to the place which is her bed, and this is where the memory fades back into dream, and the dream takes over, the same dream that she has been dreaming for her whole life, the same dream she will dream for the rest of it, the same dream I will ask her about again tomorrow.