I recently started reading The Nervous Breakdown, a literary blog with tons of great writing. On Facebook they pose daily three word “challenges, “ for instance, “In exactly three words, please describe how you handle change.” Responses range from sincere to raunchy to smart-ass to hilarious.
One of my favorites of their three word challenges was, “In exactly three words, describe your earliest memory.” Mine was, “Lifesavers on subway.”
I was born right here in the Bay Area, but we moved to the East Coast when I was two and my dad got a job at Memorial Sloan Kettering. We lived in an apartment in Queens, which was so close to a factory, every day the furniture ended up covered in black soot. Like true clueless immigrants, my parents broke their lease without telling their landlord, and for months he chased after them, demanding the $300 they still owed.
When we talk about our short time in New York, my mother always mentions how I loved running up and down the long hallway of our new apartment – “Back and forth, back and forth,” which probably drove our downstairs neighbors crazy – and how bringing home groceries without an elevator and with toddler me in tow was so tough.
“I had to leave the groceries downstairs,” she says. “And bring you upstairs, otherwise you’d run off. Then I had to go up and down the stairs, again and again.” She also likes to tell the story of how we were riding in an elevator and a very smelly man walked on.
“That guy stinks!” I said very loudly, and, luckily, in Chinese.
In my Lifesavers memory, we’re riding the subway when someone hands me a peppermint Lifesaver. Did this really happen? I’m not sure, but I see it clearly. I’m standing holding onto the pole while an adult – who? my mother? my aunt? – gives me the candy. (It’s a good thing I didn’t choke on it.) Aside from that, I have one other clear recollection. My parents came home with groceries. In one bag was a long loaf of French bread, which I promptly pulled out and started to eat.
“Don’t do that!” one of my parents said. “It’s not for you.”
To my mother and father, neither of these memories is familiar.
In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes about “waking up” into consciousness as a small child. One moment you’re in “dim and watery oblivion,” and the next you’re snapped awake. As you get older, those awake moments happen more and more often till they’re stitched closed, and the oblivious moments are gone.
It wasn’t till we moved to New Jersey that my conscious moments overtook the blank ones. At four I was fully alive: there was our tiny backyard where I hung upside down on the swingset and swam in a kiddy pool, the living room where my dad gave me chocolates on Valentine’s Day, the stairs where my mom came down, belly first, to go to hospital to have my brother.
Once I started school, there was no escaping myself. I remembered everything now: playing Farmer in the Dell in nursery school, excited that cute David picked me to be his wife; giving my best friend Kristin my marshmallow prize when she cried at losing Simon Says; showing some kids my Easter eggs and saying, “Now these are rotten eggs!” when one of the claimed, “Last one in is a rotten egg.”
As a writer, I love reliving and retelling memories, whether or not they’re 100% true. But part of me misses those blank spots, those moments of dim and watery oblivion when, one could argue, you’re so alive, you don’t even notice life.