My earliest memories

“I must remember. I must remember,” I murmured to myself as I did what could only be likened to floating, entering into my corporeal vessel. Entering that cocoon of sensation, a world distant and filled with shades and whispers, the mantra persisted, “I must remember,” and indeed I held on to that which needed remembering. I remember this, although the subject of my recall eludes me… oh, what a muddle with all these memories, but it is in itself an extraordinary situation.

The first facet of the world to breach my consciousness was vision. One day, with the sudden clarity of a dream within a dream, I realized I could see. With that revelation, some of my precious memories slipped away. My world was a grey cloud tinged with splashes of colour. It might sound mundane, but to me, it was akin to gazing upon the most fantastical tapestry in all the lands. I would spend hours fixated on this cloud, trying to discern why colours would emerge and dance before my eyes. All the while, the phrase “I must remember” would loop in my mind. Yet, as the days melted into each other, those memories grew fainter and more elusive.

Then, quite out of the blue, the fog parted, and there it was – a face. The peculiar thing about that moment was my innate knowledge of what a face was, despite never having seen one before. There it was, eyes, nose, and mouth arranged just so. The eyes held mine, smiling, though it might also have been that the eyes were what captured my attention the most. “I must remember,” I found myself whispering, for I knew this was important. But the face, oh the face was more important than any memory. I can’t say for sure, but my suspicions point to that being my mother as she held me close.

Time marched on, and other faces began to emerge from the fog, faces that seemed familiar, faces that I thought had appeared before. I suspected they belonged to my mother’s sisters, my father’s sisters, or perhaps my older sister.

Slowly, but surely, I began to discern more features on these faces – the hair, the ears, and the smiles that not only reached their eyes but played upon their lips. And then there was the thing that would cross my field of vision from side to side with no apparent reason. When it appeared, I would observe it closely to see if it did anything of note, but usually it would stop briefly before continuing on its way until it disappeared from view. As ever, “I must remember” was the refrain in my mind, but now I wasn’t sure what it was I was supposed to remember, and eventually, it all slipped away when I made a fantastic discovery that tied together two concepts that had until then been distinct and separate. The thing that had always been there, always distant, was intrinsically linked to the movement of a mouth. Whenever a face would appear and its mouth would move, that strange and wonderful thing would happen. I had discovered the human voice.

I realized they were using these sounds to communicate and that many of them were directed at me. Although I couldn’t comprehend the meaning behind them, they were pleasant to hear, and I started to associate them with ideas and more importantly, with people. I understood that I was “Alex” and that the person I saw as the embodiment of love was “mama”.

In time, my eyes began to discern objects from further afield, and the grey with colours morphed into walls, windows, furniture, and people who appeared and, on occasion, approached to converse with me. I recall becoming acutely aware of my own physical self – the sensation of being washed, a diaper change, the soft press of kisses, or the tickle of playful fingers – and knowing instinctively that these sensations belonged to me, that they were tethered to specific parts of my body. I took delight in the simple act of moving my limbs, be it legs, arms, or fingers, reveling in the sheer fact that I could.

In the midst of all this, those odd entities that had a habit of flitting across my field of vision still made their presence known. When they appeared, I would scrutinise them with great care, aware that nobody else seemed to see them, and quite at a loss as to what they were and why they lingered so close to me. One day, one of these entities paused directly in front of me. I watched it intently, waiting to see what it would do. It remained still, and I grew bored. Acting on a whim, I decided to move my hands. To my astonishment, as if by magic, every time I willed my hand to move, the entity before me mirrored the action. And in that moment, I understood that the entity was, in fact, my own hand. The thing, or rather, the hand, began to move, and I chose to halt its movement. It complied. I tested my newfound revelation on the other hand, which obediently appeared in my field of vision and stopped at my command. There they were, both hands poised before me, awaiting my next instruction. So, I wiggled my fingers, and lo and behold, they danced before my eyes. My hands had become my very first plaything, and I spent countless hours experimenting with this newfound power to command these entities that had crisscrossed my view since time immemorial.

After what felt like an eternity, a fragment of a memory comes to mind – the countless tumbles and the eventual triumph of standing and walking without falling. Yet, one memory from this time is etched clearly in my mind, a memory borne out of sheer frustration.

Walking, as delightful as it was, sometimes brought with it an unpleasant sensation – the drooping of my nappy. We are talking about the early 1960s, and these were cloth nappies with a rather inconvenient habit of growing progressively heavier and, at times, rather malodorous. You can probably guess why. One day, as I was toddling along, one such diaper began its descent. I sought out an adult and could hear voices in the kitchen. I made my way in that direction, unsure if I would reach my destination before the nappy reached my ankles. I just about made it.

I peered through the kitchen door and saw two of my aunts, sisters of my mother. I could hear my mother’s voice, but she was out of sight. So, I addressed the aunt closest to me:

“Can you pull up my nappy, please?”

She looked at me but seemed not to have understood. So, I repeated my request:

“Can you pull up my nappy, please?”

“Ohhh, how adorable!” she exclaimed. I was left pondering what was adorable about a nappy in descent. So, I repeated my plea:

“Can you pull up my nappy, please?”

“Look, look! Alex is trying to talk,” she said, turning to address the interior of the kitchen.

I stood there, nonplussed. Trying to talk? What did she mean trying to talk? Well, she clearly hadn’t understood me, I thought, as my other aunt watched me from inside the kitchen. So, I reiterated:

“Can you pull up my nappy, please?”

“Ahhhhh! How cute! I wonder what he’s trying to say,” said my second aunt. By now, my patience was wearing thin.

“The nappy is falling down, and I can’t pull it up because it just falls down again. Can you pull it up for me, please?”

The only response this elicited was a chorus of “Ahhhh! How adorable! He’s trying to talk!” I was beside myself. I had explained the situation perfectly, and they weren’t grasping it at all. My frustration was at boiling point. I was on the verge of resorting to tears, the only language they seemed to understand, when I heard a little voice ask, “What’s the matter?” I turned and saw my older sister standing at the top of what seemed like an impossibly high staircase of three whole steps, looking down at me.

“My nappy’s slipping off, and the aunts aren’t paying attention; they just laugh at me,” I shared, on the brink of tears.“They act like they don’t understand me.”

“Wait,” said Ximena. She turned on her heel, lowering herself to her knees, then scooted backwards until she reached the edge, letting herself descend. The same sequence followed for the next couple of steps. Once on the ground, she came over, grasped the nappy with both hands and gave it a firm tug upwards. “There you go,” she said before heading towards some toys scattered across the living room.

“Why don’t they understand me, but you do?” I asked her before she got too far away. She stopped and turned to observe them.

“Sometimes adults are a bit silly,” she told me. “Don’t worry. In the end, they’ll realise that you do talk, and they’ll understand you.” With those wise words from a two-year-old, she reassured me. I looked at my aunts and decided I wouldn’t talk to an adult for a long time.

It wasn’t until I was two and a half that I did, and to my relief, I was understood instantly. Apparently, my parents had been rather concerned with my extended silence at that age. Yet when one day at supper I suddenly proclaimed, “I don’t like fish soup. Might we have chicken instead?” their anxieties were put to rest. Though, regrettably, I still couldn’t dodge the fish soup.

Ximena and Alex, aged 4 and 3, respectively.

I have never managed to recall that all-important thing I was meant to remember when I was born. Although, I do harbour some suspicions, which we shall leave for another time.

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Tom Bombadil