What song was playing when you got your first kiss.
How it felt to have your heart broken.
Who was pitching when you hit your first home run.
The first book you can remember your mother or father reading to you.
Your first car.
But in all this time weíve spent together, I donít think Iíve ever tried to describe my absolute first memory.
That changes now.
And I think I know why itís so important to document it, once and for all.
Because for all its magical durability, memory is fleeting, ephemeral and fragile.
Sometimes, that can be a good thing and the human tendency to blot out that bad stuff can come in mighty handy, car crashes and the like.
Folks just have no memory of the cataclysm that changed everything.
Iím not like that.
ďHow can you remember all that?Ē is a question Iíve been asked more times than I can, well, recall. Itís not anything I intentionally developed and maintained, not as if I go to the Memory Gym three times a week the way some people keep their aging bodies in shape.
Itís just all in my head, the way junk accumulates in your garage or basement or attic. Whether I like it or not, my memoryís strong and crowded and built to last.
Hereís a quick aside.
A job for which Iím being considered required me to memorize a list of the rules and principles upon which the company is based.
Thirty regulations and definitions, with sets and subsets of definition.
I found it easy.
ďHow can you remember all that?Ē my wife asked.
ďThe same way I can remember what you said when you called me up and asked me out,Ē I replied.
ďI didnít ask you out,Ē she protested.
ďWhatever,Ē I said, remembering the conversation on that Saturday afternoon the fall of 1987 as if it had just happened yesterday.
THE FIRST MEMORY I can trust has to do with my father, car trouble and a girlie calendar.
OK, letís drift back in time ...
Iím sitting in the passenger seat of a Plymouth, riding shotgun next to my Dad. I canít be more than four years old and, back then, thereís no such thing as a child safety seat let alone seat belts. But I feel safe and secure.
I remember the steering wheel vividly. It looked like polished wood, but it couldnít have been wooden, more likely some simulated polymer designed to give that impression. But how it shone, burnished and beautiful, and my father turned it precisely. Heíd been a glider pilot in World War II -- this wasnít knowledge I had then -- and his hands on the wheel were steady and calm.
And then, something happened.
Iím aware that the car is no longer moving, but I feel no fear, only confusion. The wide city street seems to condense, to shrink, and itís as if my father and I are on an island, a place of temporary refuge.
It could have been a tire had blown.
It could have been a thousand things.
But the next thing I remember, after having felt no panic, is a big, darkened, busy place, a repair garage, I assume now. Iím sitting next to Dad and heís talking with a man behind a wire-mesh screen, a barrier that allows sounds to pass but nothing else.
And behind that manís left shoulder, tacked to a board on the wall, is a calendar.
I know what a calendar is ... itís the way we know when one day has ended and another has started.
I will be taught this in school, but now, this afternoon, that kind of instruction is a couple of years away.
But the picture on the calendar is immediate, right now, and the lady isnít wearing very many clothes. Her body is parts I recognize (face, arms, legs) and parts I donít.
I stare at her, gobsmacked.
In the reptilian part of my consciousness, I suppose, I had been visited by the human desire to procreate, to ensure the survival of the species.
In the immediate and undeniably center of my pleasure zone, however, I was scared.
The big city didnít frighten me, the car breakdown was of no huge concern, the alien garage was OK ... but that woman in the flannel shirt and the cutoff jeans, oh, yes, that put the fear of God -- and something more primal -- in me.
IN A COUPLE OF YEARS, the nuns made sure that I understood precisely that my reaction to the garage pinup calendar woman was hideous and wrong and could threaten my immortal soul.
I think they called it ďa near occasion of sin.Ē
I might use those words for the title of the novel thatís been incubating in me for decades.
ďA Near Occasion of Sin,Ē subtitled, ďHow a Catholic Boy Finally Grew Up.Ē
Ah, yes. I remember it all.
And thatís my curse and my blessing.
Youíre probably wired the same way, remembering things that wouldnít matter to anyone else except that they do. Itís the connection we share, all of us, shambling and stumbling though a world that eschews fairness and order in deference to cruelty and ambiguous chance.
My wife and I were watching the video disc from our wedding weekend the other night. Itís something we just do, occasionally, reliving what to my mind, anyway, was the best time of my life.
Itís all there -- the friends and family gathered on the beach, the drama, the happiness, the consummation of promises made and vows exchanged.
Those images are precious and Iím so grateful that they exist.
ďSomeone should be filming this weekend,Ē a friendís wife said and, soon, someone was. Itís a miracle.
A few days before that, a reader had emailed me, striking up a friendship that had lain dormant for half-a-century. And he included a photograph taken in his driveway when our families lived across the street from one another.
Again, I was gobsmacked.
There I was, 50 years younger and standing with him and another friend. I could see the house where I grew up in the background.
And the memories flooded back, washing me in their purity and innocence and wonder.
It was a gift, a restorative gesture, a gateway into a world that still exists, so long as my memory does its thing.
Immediately, of course, I wrote back to offer sincere thanks and share a few names of kids weíd grown up with, and I was surprised at how many I remembered.
But I shouldnít have been.
Iím good at memories.
Always have been.
And the best part of that has been having readers like my old friend -- and you -- along for the ride.
Just hope we donít break down.
Published: June 25, 2012