What can you dredge up through the neural soup of your mind and qualify as your earliest memory? Mine comes from a time when I was three or four, and it’s of our housekeeper extinguishing a lit match in her mouth to amaze my brother and me. This memory has been so shellacked and recreated over the years that I think only the very core of it is real now, a tiny blip of retrievable data. From the ages of three to six I can only come up with about four or five memories at will. Once, about fifteen years ago I was camping and woke from a brief nap with a sudden and intense memory flashback which may have been my earliest. My mind had recreated a portion of an entry hall in a house I’d lived in when I was no more than three. The striking thing about this dream was the completeness—the dim yellow light coming through shaded windows, the height of furniture to someone only three feet tall, the feel of the flooring, the smell of paint and wood. I woke from the dream with a cry in my throat for having been transported so wholly back to a place I knew was real, a place I’d not been able to visit for twenty years, a place I’ve never been able to visit in my mind since. I marvel at the high fidelity of that dream and despair at the impossibility of accessing it, or any of the other millions of memories buried deep in the electronic impulses in my brain.
I think about this when playing with my kids. We tend to think of life signposted by grand events yet really the movement of our lives is described in small eddies and ripples. I know memory doesn’t place greater value on momentous occasions, or those things we want to remember. Perhaps my parents would want me to remember the extraordinary things we did, camping out on the African plain and seeing giraffes lope by. But no, I remember an extinguished match. So each time I see Child Harbat and Number Two caught up in some seemingly innocuous play, I ask myself, “Is this the moment they’ll remember the rest of their lives?”