A theory floated at the time I first started teaching creative writing workshops at St. John’s College, claimed that your first memory is a paradigm for your life. I doubt this is true, but it made a good writing prompt, and it got me to thinking about my own earliest recollections. Now I’m curious about yours.
When my mother’s mother was dying, Mom left my two older sisters with my father in Maryland and took me, then 2 or barely 3, back to Illinois to say goodbye.
We flew from BWI to Chicago, and somewhere over Ohio, I fell asleep. When I awoke, my mother lifted me to the window and said, “Look, Laura! We flew right through the clouds while you were sleeping.” She must have been enchanted despite our sad mission. She was barely 35. It was her first time on a plane.
As instructed, I gazed out the window as the engines droned westward. Snowy-white, cotton ball clouds solid enough to walk on floated beneath us. Flew right through them? Not possible. So, my earliest memory is of trying to process a contradiction—someone I totally trusted, someone holding me in her arms 38,000 feet above the earth, was telling me something that could not be true.
We had flown from Baltimore but returned by rail. My second memory is of a porter offering my mother a pillow for me to sleep on. I remember lying there with my eyes closed but not asleep. The porter returned and I heard him say, “I’m sorry to bother you, but there’s an elderly lady in the back who needs a pillow. Since your baby is asleep, do you think we could slip the pillow out from under her and let this woman have it?”
I heard and understood every word. And I wanted to help! I wanted the old lady to have the pillow! But I was a baby. And when they lifted me up and took the cushion away, I wailed. Sobbed. I was inconsolable. Even while I was crying, I was thinking, Why am I doing this? The spirit was willing, the baby body was on autopilot.
Looking back, I wonder who the tears were for. Hours before, my mother had left her mother dying of a slow paralysis in a hospital ward. Had she yet cried for the loss that was coming? What is repressed in one is expressed in other. Grief by osmosis. Grief by proxy.
Eventually a flustered porter brought the pillow back.
These two memories have taught me something about myself and something better about you.
In the first, someone I totally believed told me something that could not be true, but I didn’t trust her less nor doubt myself. This was my introduction to the mystery of contradiction, when two things that can’t both be true, must be true.
Case in point: how does a puffy white, 500-ton cloud float in a crystal-blue sky? And for that matter how is it that air weighs anything at all?
Some people call the acceptance of a paradox faith—but maybe it’s closer to humility. The recognition that try as I might to puzzle things out, I won’t, and the world neither requires nor longs for my understanding of it.
And in the second memory? Innocence gives way quickly to so many emotions— judgment, criticism—I’ve experienced and expressed them all. So, I like remembering that there was a time in my life when I sincerely wanted to give all I possessed to someone in need in the back of the train. This still seems like an excellent plan.
I like thinking, “Ah, that’s the you who came into this world.” The blank slate wasn’t blank! It was kind. And you know what? You were kind, too. Research shows we’re all born with compassionate hearts.
Harvard Professor Felix Warneken designed an experiment where babies observe an adult appearing to struggle with a task. Without training, prompting or rewards, eighteen-month-olds gallantly retrieved his dropped teaspoons, stacked his books, and pried open stuck cabinet doors so he could reach inside. They would even sacrifice something they wanted in order to help those in distress, the very definition of altruism.
If we erased all we regret, if we distilled our life experiences back to our pure point of arrival into the world, who would each of us be?
As unlikely as it seems, 500 tons of water can float like smoke in the air.
And there is only love, indivisible, at the heart of you.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.r