First Memories | Sarah Wyland

First Memories

Have you ever thought about what your first memories are? Especially what your very first actually is? 

I tried to pinpoint mine recently while listening to a guided meditation. I settled on playing in a pile of gravel at the first home I ever lived in. 

I vividly remember that pile of gravel. To a toddler, it felt like a mountain. It was “nice” gravel – smooth stones, shades of browns and grays. It called to me like a beacon, probably because my mom constantly told me I couldn’t play in it. I don’t know why she was so against it. My best guess is that there “could be a snake in it.” That was a popular reason for being told I couldn’t do things as a child. To her credit, we lived in the country, surrounded by woods. There really could have been a snake in it. It will surprise no one that my dad let me play in that pile of gravel to my heart’s content when she wasn’t home. 

I dug through the pile with plastic shovels and pushed around a couple of metal Tonka trucks that had once belonged to my dad. I could play in that pile for hours if allowed, probably because it wasn’t typically allowed. 

That memory opened the door for other memories. 

My grandparents gave me a plastic Sesame Street playhouse. I loved that thing. It had a slide on one side, a door with a mail slot. I abandoned the rock pile in favor of that playhouse. Then, a strong thunderstorm came along and blew it through the woods. There was no salvaging it. I was devastated. 

Never fear, Papa Jim was there. 

Not one to do anything halfway – a trait he passed on to my dad who, for better or worse, passed it right along to me – Papa Jim enlisted my dad and they set to work building me a playhouse out of 2x4s. By the time they were done, I had a house with an A-frame roof that was neatly shingled. They added a porch and set up lawn chairs. I had shutters that opened and closed, a neat little window box with fresh flowers planted, and while my door – salvaged from the Big Bird wreckage – had a mail slot, they built me my own mailbox. It did, of course, have an address. Inside, I had a built-in table and a stove. 

The best part? They saved the slide, too. I rarely used the door. 

It was my own little backyard retreat and the scene of many elaborate games of make believe. Papa Jim stopped by often enough and put their junkmail in my mailbox. I didn’t know it was junk, of course. I just knew the mailman knew my address.  

I remembered the tupperware cups, too. Looking back, I wonder if I was a bit “slow” to learn certain things. I didn’t go to preschool, but I remember my mom taking the set of six plastic sippy cups out of the cabinet every morning and grilling me on what colors they were. Same with writing my name – I wrote my ‘S’ backwards for ages. All of these seemed to have happened during the months before kindergarten, but that memory is hazy.

But then I went to kindergarten and while my classmates played at the various centers before class started, I sat at my desk and copied the posters on the wall or got a book from the shelf and copied the words onto whatever piece of paper I could find. I think I taught myself how to read and write by doing that. 

There’s beach trips with Granny and Papa Clark, too. I used crayons to decorate the back of both front seats of my parents’ Chevy Nova during one drive down to Nags Head. I can’t quite remember for sure, but I think my cousin Zach helped. I do know that was the same summer he got really excited about Kentucky Fried Chicken. He couldn’t pronounce ‘Kentucky’ though, and replaced the “kentuck” part of “Kentucky” with a word that starts with ‘F’ and rhymes with ‘duck.’ 

Papa and Granny also had the swimming pool. Papa “babysat” us often, but wasn’t too keen on sitting by the pool for hours, so he put us in floaties and made us a deal: every time he came out on the back deck and called out for us, we had to wave at him to let him know we were okay. 

The house was at least a hundred yards from the pool and Zach and I were toddlers that could only kind of swim, but we survived. Our mothers would have lost their minds if they had known we were in the pool for hours unsupervised. They didn’t know until Zach and I were talking about it when Papa died in 2012. They were appropriately horrified, but again, we were raised in the country and things were a little more, for better or worse, lax.

I also got pretty hip to how to circumvent Papa’s system. I figured out he only needed to see two hands to account for Zach and I. So if one of us was busy doing whatever four years olds do in swimming pools, the other would raise both hands. Papa would call out ‘Aight!” and head back into the house. 

Probably to watch a baseball game. 

That’s another thing about Papa and Granny. They had satellite. We could watch cartoons anytime, not just on Saturday mornings. Just don’t touch the remote – Papa was sure you would mess it up and it would take him forever to get it just right. 

That one attempt at identifying my first memory opened my mind up to so many more, and they keep coming. My childhood wasn’t perfect, but it was still pretty good. I know we weren’t all so fortunate, so if it’s triggering, maybe don’t try to recall those earliest memories. But if you’re willing to try, go for it. 

I bet it will surprise you – and open you up to many more memories, too. 

Those memories are part of us. They helped define us, even the not so great ones. I think they are worth remembering.

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