Memory is a strange thing. I wonder why I remember totally useless bits of trivia, but not where I put my keys (instead of the designated place for them) or what the price is for certain grocery items, information that could be useful.
Back in the 1950s, world famous neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield, while working with epileptic patients, demonstrated that stimulation of certain parts of the brain could elicit vivid memories for the patients. This was done during surgery for epilepsy while the patient was under local anesthesia.
Today we have Positron Emission Tomagraphy (PET) scans and functional MRIs that can show what part of one”s brain is activated when the subject is shown certain images. Talk about boggling the mind! The thought of what science reveals today is amazing.
Psychologist Kevin Leman has written of a phenomenon that intrigues me. Some people have “crib memories” from their very earliest years. He says they are usually memories of being lifted up, which is not surprising, considering their early ages. They are also about wanting to be lifted up. I examined my own crib memories and, sure enough, that is true for me.
I have three or four crib memories. I recall being placed on a horse in a Western saddle in front of my Uncle Tom. When I realized that I remembered it, I wondered how I managed to fit in the saddle between him and the horn of the saddle.
Not long ago, my sister and I went to the family cemetery plot in Greenwood, and I saw that Uncle Tom died the day before I was 2 years old. I guess that was my earliest memory, unless it was my memory of being in a play pen, frustrated at not being able to climb out, when a little boy who was older climbed in and out at will.
I also recall jumping up and down on a bed, while my mother was ironing beside it. As I jumped, I would say, “Mama, when will I be 3?”
When she answered, “March third,” I would throw my feet out and fall on the bed, saying, “Whee!”
I did this repeatedly until she became annoyed and told me to hush and to quit jumping on the bed. Leman was right in my case. Each incident involved going up, and two of them were frustrating: not being able to climb out of a restriction and being stopped from having fun.
A colorful episode
This set me to wondering about other memories. Why are some of them so vivid in our minds as opposed to others? At random, I tried to think of some things that seemed more memorable than others, regardless of their importance:
My mother loved the color yellow. Looking back, I see that when something distressed her for a long time, something else might get painted yellow. It was a “happy” color. Once we had a yellow kitchen. Once, when my father had had a heart attack (back when the treatment was prolonged bed rest), Mother decided to paint the bathroom yellow. A friend, Chick Clayton, offered to spray paint it for us.
He carefully covered all the fixtures, mirrors, and window panes with newspaper and taped it securely. He put on his mask, closed the door, and sprayed. And sprayed. And sprayed.
Mother was at work. My grandmother and I were there with my father. We became concerned that it was taking too long. My father walked to the door, asking if Chick were all right. There was a muffled, unintelligible reply. The door was locked. We took turns trying to get him to come out. He would not.
Mother came home for lunch and was horrified that he had been spraying all morning. She managed to unlock the door, I guess with a bobby-pin, and faced an awful sight. Chick”s mask had developed a leak, and he had pulled it partially off. He had gotten drunk on the paint fumes and made no sense. He had pulled off all the protective paper, sprayed everything, and even filled the bathtub with about 2 inches of yellow paint.
The women made Chick, covered with yellow, lie down on an old sheet, then called a doctor. (That was when doctors made house calls.) The doctor came, checked Chick over, and saw that he got plenty of air, and I forget what else — except that his wife, Martha, had to come to take him home. I also forget how long it took to get the bathroom scraped and cleaned of its overdose of yellow paint. I only remember the drama. I guess that”s why.
I recall also that when I visited my grandparents during cotton-picking time, I was allowed to ride on top of the cotton truck from the farm to the gin. It was like having my own private hayride, only soft, not scratchy. The gin was exciting. A huge vacuum tube roared as it sucked up cotton off the truck. I did not have to be told that it could suck up one little girl, too. I never lost time getting off that truck.
It seems to me that after the crib memories, we often remember danger. Of course, that is the way it ought to be, to keep us alive. Everything I remember from childhood is not dangerous, but many are. I wonder how other people experience memory. Somehow, in spite of risk or frustration, we always manage to speak of the “good old days.” And, I guess, on balance, they really were.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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