An Essay about the Importance of Unlocking Past Memories

Childhood Memories and Personal Growth: A Journey of Self-Discovery

My earliest years I don’t remember. And there are far more people than I expected who have at least some memories of the first few years of their lives; I have nothing. When I was seven, well maybe eight years old, I was aware that I sat in a small tree outside my house in the base neighborhood at Mather Air Force Base outside of Sacramento, California. I know that I sat in the tree looking at my shadow cast on the ground below, and thinking of it in the same way as one might when getting lost in the reverie of the clouds: I see a young boy sitting in a tree, I see a Leopard and a lifetime of lost memories. I’m aware that I used to drag sets of Japanese futons that we brought back with us from living abroad, out into the driveway of the same house with the small tree in front of it, and then I would climb up to the roof, and then jump or fall off onto the futons below. I’m also aware that there was a punching bag hanging in the garage of the same house, that witnessed only the occasional efforts of a young boy who knew as much as to throw his arms haphazardly at the blue Everlast bag. I’m aware of these things but I don’t remember them. What I remember are my thoughts, and they act as subliminal messages flashing behind my eyes that are triggered by similar feelings, smells, and reflections, I can piece visuals together through the context of my thoughts.

I often wonder why I don’t remember much of my childhood before I was eleven. The earliest strings of memory that unfold sequentially in my mind began when I was eleven, in the fifth grade. We all suffer some degree of trauma during our infancy and adolescence because it is so common, I feel like the connotation that the word trauma carries with it, especially today, is too affecting or triggering (depending, of course, on the circumstances). Our childhoods, for all of us, will, on the other hand, render “upheavals,” that follow and shadow us throughout our lifetimes, and that constitute a “jumping in point” for the emotional and spiritual work that we’ll do as adults; that will give direction to the development and the growth that all of us should be efforting. Not every child that is expected to be independent at too young of age develops telekinesis to cope, like Matilda, and also like Matilda, we age with the subconscious belief that we need to figure things out on our own, rather than that we can.

I have recognized the need to grow through work; emotional work, and passionate work, at a fairly young age, I recognized that work carries meaning, and I will go as far as to insinuate that the work that we do is the meaning—and I’ve come to understand an even greater truth and depth to that notion. I’ve been working to unravel where many of my less admired characteristics have come from and how I reinforced and developed those traits over the years. Recounting memories has been difficult, it’s been less difficult, although still challenging, recounting and exploring my thoughts and my feelings. The memories I do have, until much later in life, feel like they happened to a different person because I am nothing at all like the person I was even in my mid-twenties, I am radically different from the person I was before my teen years.

My dad was in the military, and because of that, my family moved fairly often. I was born outside of Sacramento, California, on an Air Force base, and within six months we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas; I remember nothing about living in Arkansas, but I know that it was there that I took my first steps. My family moved from Arkansas to Charlotte, North Carolina; and I remember nothing about living in North Carolina, but I know that it was there that I was nearly caught in and snuffed out in an all-consuming house fire. My family moved from North Carolina to Fussa, Tokyo, Japan; and I remember nothing about living in Japan, but I know that it was there that my sister was born. And we have more home movies of our time in Japan than anywhere else. My family moved from Fussa, Tokyo, Japan back to the Air Force base outside of Sacramento, California.

Almost every summer consecutively for three years, since my family moved back to California, after having lived overseas for five years, I managed to break a bone in my arm. It started with my right wrist, followed the next summer by my left wrist, and then a couple of summers later, I not only broke my right arm, in multiple places, but I also managed to dislocate my elbow. In those days, and this was a time well before streaming services, social media, and iPhones, we lived for being outdoors: for riding bikes, sitting on curbs, climbing trees, digging holes in China (I don’t know, back then it was always “to China), playing in sprinklers, and disappearing for the entire day, and our parents would have little to no idea where we were until it was time to eat dinner. When you begin your summer breaking a bone and wearing a cast, knowing that you will be wearing it for most of that summer, it’s a real bummer; it almost ruins the entire summer.

My family enjoys watching home movies. I think because we’re not all often together, and watching old home videos creates an air of cohesion. Some of our favorites include a few videos recorded throughout the holidays, my sister and I would build things using our gifts, like a throne and forts; I don’t know that my sister enjoyed that work, but she did it because I seemed to enjoy it. I watched myself show interest in my sisters’ gifts, sometimes more than mine. And although I don’t remember, I do know that it was never because she was getting what she was getting, and I wasn’t. But rather it was because I wanted my sister to be happy with whatever she got. I believed or hoped that if I showed an interest in her gifts, my interest would make her appreciate her gifts more.

          The first summer that I broke my arm, we were still in California. I have tried to remember the layout of our house, but I can’t—I can’t remember the floorplan of any home we lived in before we moved into the home my parents still live in today. I think the kitchen was in the rear of the house, in California, there was a row of windows in the kitchen facing the backyard. And I think what we called “the backyard” was a shared park several families used as a “backyard.” I think there was a glass sliding door from the kitchen to the park at the back of the house, but I don’t know. None of that is relevant to the story, it’s just a fun memory experiment.

There was something in a kitchen cabinet that my sister and I desperately wanted, but we weren’t supposed to have—I’m speculating. Regardless, I found myself standing on the kitchen counter (that’s a testament to how old I must have been), to find myself standing on the kitchen counter to reach for something from a cabinet—doing all the dirty work—and my sister was standing on the floor, behind me. And I managed, somehow, to trip over my sister’s head, and I fell backward to the kitchen floor. That was a frantic, hurried trip to the emergency room, but it would be one of many, eventually, I’m sure, we would start stopping for take-out on the way.

After moving back to California I was old enough to start school, and I was in the first grade; I would ride my bike to school every day. I’m aware that one afternoon, after school had ended, I walked to the bike rack where I would leave my bike, and my bike wasn’t there—in fact, all the bikes were gone. I remember thinking—I remember the thought and have since built the context around it, as is the case with all of these stories—that the school must have moved the bikes for some reason, so I started walking home. There are a few things about growing up, and going to school on military bases, that are different than in most places, and that you would never consider until your experience changed. 1.) the diversity on the base, and in the classroom, it’s remarkable, albeit sensical how much more diverse life on base is, and 2.) that $hit just doesn’t get stolen, such as a bike. It never occurred to me that my bike was stolen, I genuinely figured that it would either be where I left it in the morning, or that after visiting the office tomorrow, it would be returned unharmed. Homeward bound, I saw my blue Huffy leaning on the side of someone’s house, so I grabbed my bike and rode it home. And that was that. I don’t remember the experience per se, I am aware of it.

          The following summer, when I broke my arm, was our last in California. We were moving to Texas, and when I say we were moving to Texas, I mean that the green semi—[moving]—the truck was right outside our house and was being loaded in real-time. I was in the park in the backyard, climbing a tree, as we did before technology ruined everything, and I think I slipped but caught myself, and found myself dangling upside down from the tree, with my arms and legs wrapped desperately around a wide limb. And unable to pull myself up, although I tried, I couldn’t hold on any longer, and I slipped again, and fell twenty feet to the ground below, breaking my left wrist. I can’t remember the experience exactly—I am aware of it. So, we had to take a detour to the emergency room before our long drive through America’s Southwest.

My family moved from California to Abilene, Texas, and just like the rest of my life before, in Abilene, I remember my thoughts and feelings that are not attributed to visual memory, and I’m left with filling in the context. We lived in an apartment complex and there are some broken and misshapen thoughts and feelings that I can’t recount. We bought a house in Abilene. Our house was in a cul-de-sac, and our neighbors had kids of varying ages, a man was living on the corner of the cul-de-sac that kept ice cream sandwiches in his freezer, and the neighborhood kids would all go over in the summers and make off with his ice cream. I started second grade at Allie Ward Elementary School. There we had to sit single file in line on the floor in the cafeteria with our classes before school every day, I know that I liked it, because we never had an alternative, and we were allowed to talk to one another. 

We rented our house in Abilene to a young couple and moved to the edge of downtown Boerne, Texas, off Roeder Street. There were kids my age on the block (some were older), and we played street hockey, basketball, and baseball, and we even started a garage band. When we played in the street we would yell, “Car!” when it meant we needed to haul everything off the street and stand on the side of the road, while a car passed. I know that I played with Pogs on the street, and while sitting on the curb—I spent a lot of time sitting on curbs next to streets in those days—I never enjoyed playing with Pogs, but I did enjoy collecting them. I also collected basketball cards.

          My third, and most drastic break skipped a year, maybe two: we moved to Boerne so that we could help care for my grandmother who was suffering from ALS. A year or so after moving to Boerne, my family moved in with my grandparents, my grandmother and grandfather moved into the guest house while my family lived in the “big house.” Eventually, my grandmother had to move to a facility where she could get around-the-clock professional care, and my grandfather lived alone in the guest house. That summer, I was playing in the yard—we had six acres, and differentiating between the front and back yards was rather subjective—there was a wire fence that surrounded the property, for some reason, I was climbing that wire fence, and wearing a pair of plastic sandals, the sole and pads of the shoes were beginning to separate, and I managed to get one of the thick metal wires wedged in the flap in between.

The upheavals that shadow us throughout our lives are responsible for the unconscious dynamics that occur when we interact with people, mostly our parents, at a very young age. Those of us who think better through movement or feel and express things with greater emotion are shut down and told to stop moving or being so sensitive (maybe not in those words exactly), and as a child, we couldn’t possibly understand the reason for that, as it might have been intended; and into adulthood, making the connection between being limited in our adolescence and how it affects us later in life, is a very difficult one to make.

Most people don’t give the nuances of their childhood a second thought. Even something as simple as being exposed to regular adult conversations, as a child can warp our grasp of adult concepts later in life. I sometimes wonder, if I could remember and reconcile my thoughts and actions as a child, would that help me to understand myself better now? On one hand, our immediate thought might be, well, of course, but in reality, It shouldn’t make a difference, because we’re doing the work. I have a few deeply rooted behaviors that have been considerably more difficult to resolve than most, and I don’t know why. But I want to.

Still on the wire fence, I started to yank my foot backward to get it loose. I was unprepared, and when it finally did come loose, I fell down and forward, very hard, and hit the ground with my elbow. After collecting myself I walked inside our house, someone looked at my arm and noticed that my elbow was not at all where it should have been, and so we made that all-too-familiar trip to the emergency room again. I learned that I had broken my bone in several places and dislocated my elbow. The doctors performed minor surgery. I was put under, and they stuck a wooden skewer into my arm and popped my elbow back into place. I woke up several hours later none the wiser. And I was forced to wear a pretty gnarly cast for a long time. I still have trouble with the motion in my right arm. The hole where the skewer went is still noticeable, to me.

          Do you ever wonder if a memory isn’t your own? I don’t mean, like, you were cloned or programmed with another person’s memories, but rather how much of our memories are pieced together with context—our context, or our subconscious brain’s context—and the way that we remember a thing happening, and how it might have happened, are dramatically different. “You mean like when we get wasted, and everything’s all blurry, messed up, and awesome!?” No, that’s not what I mean. I mean memories with a foundation in the development of our character, in how we remember a particular incident, and how an integral part of who we have become might have been established solely by how we remember an event, but not necessarily how the event may have happened.

          As a young adult, I cataloged my memories as everything up to fifth grade, then everything after. I have rearranged the “everything after” collection quite a bit, but everything before remains mostly the same. Most of my memories before fifth grade are of me watching myself living my life. My mother went everywhere with a video recorder, and a heavy camcorder planted on her shoulder. And because of that, I know that with platinum hair hanging over my eyes, I ran around outside endlessly, it may as well have been in circles, with a chain around my neck, attached to a wire staunch between two trees, because I was insane. I have no idea what the hell I was talking about in those recordings and how I imagine myself thinking, the way that I see myself behaving does not correlate at all. That’s a strange thing to reunite.

We go through a basic chain of circumstances that can easily be overlooked when parenting, yet each can seriously affect our understanding of the world as we age. Memory can be a strange thing when it comes to how even the slightest consternation is when we’re young, and how that might stunt or redirect our growth, the way we develop, and why, even before adulthood, well before the jumping off point, becomes too clear to us, develops un-, and subconsciously. 

How we remember a thing might have more of an impact on our development than the thing that happened, because the memory of the event, and the story that we tell ourselves about the event, can be hugely different. I have badly wanted to articulate things that I was never able to, I struggled desperately to voice the things that I thought and felt, and it surprised me when I couldn’t. In ways, I feel like I’m still trying desperately to articulate something that I can’t, or at least, that I am expressing myself differently than I believe I am, somehow my intentions are still getting lost in translation.

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