When I was six years old, within a few short months, I went from having perfect vision to being extremely nearsighted. I was discussing that fact with a friend today, and noted that I have no memory of ever having seen well without help from glasses or contacts.
This comment made me realize how little of our childhood sticks with us. As adults, we have few large and coherent memories of our first five years. From the years between six and ten, our memories expand, but they’re still spotty and they’re bounded by the limitations of our child-world, which boils down to school-life, home-life, and the occasional memorable vacation.
I grew up during a time of tremendous social and political upheaval (it was the 1960s and early 1970s, after all), but have only the most limited recollection of that time. What I remember are my teachers (some of them), my school friends (some of them), the continuity of my home life (same mom, same dad, same sister, same house), and the highlights of my life (summers in Tahoe, a Renaissance Faire, my first trip to Disneyland). For me, the Vietnam War boiled down to Walter Cronkite announcing the day’s dead and wounded on the news. The Chicago Democratic Convention, which happened when I was 8, didn’t make it to my radar at all. The hippies, who were a far-reaching social phenomenon, were simply smelly people to me.
I also had such a limited frame of reference that, when I heard information that fell outside my knowledge, I manipulated the information that so that it would mesh with my mental furniture. My favorite example of this is the story of my Dad’s brother; or, rather, how I completely misinterpreted the story of my Dad’s brother. My uncle was, apparently, a genius amongst geniuses. In the years leading up to WWI, many of his teachers at Berlin’s Jewish gymnasium considered him to be the most brilliant student the school had ever produced. Considering that this was a school that, for more than a hundred years had taught the academic Jewish students living in an academic German nation, that was saying a lot.
My uncle lacked drive however and made nothing of his brilliance. Indeed, as I often told my friends, he ended up life as a janitor! One day, when I was already in junior high school, my parents heard me telling this story and were, to say the least, perplexed. It turned out he wasn’t a janitor at all. Instead, he was a low level civil servant in the Danish government. My confusion stemmed from the fact that my parents had given me his job title: “Custodian of Foreign Property” or something like that. In my youthful world, a “custodian” was a “janitor” — and so a story was born.
I wasn’t unique in that I really didn’t “get” what was going on around me, or that I put my own child-like spin on things. The other night, when my husband went to kiss our 11 year old son goodnight, he found him punching himself in the stomach. In response to a query from my husband, my son announced that Mom had told him that, if he wanted to get good stomach muscles, he should sock himself in the stomach. My husband came to me to investigate this peculiar piece of body-building advice, and learned what I had really said: “One of the good ways to improve your muscle tone (and get the six pack abs my son so desperately desires), is to suck in your stomach when you walk around.”