Our first three years are usually a blur and we don’t remember much before age seven. What are we hiding from ourselves?
I’m the youngest by far of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, so chagrined by this chronological indiscretion that she tried to hide the pregnancy from her sister. My mortified oldest brother didn’t want to tell his high-school friends that a new baby was on the way, but it was a small town. Word spread.
My mother’s age and my late arrival in the family felt burdensome to me too, especially when I started school in 1957 and met my classmates’ mothers. They were still having babies! Still piling their children into cars and heading off to picnics at the river or hikes into the lava-capped, wild flower-rampant plateau outside town. They still had to mediate hair-pulling and toy-snatching. But by the time I started first grade, my siblings were gone, the oldest three to college and the youngest to a residential school four hours away, and we went from a very noisy household to a very quiet one.
My family has told me stories about those years before everything changed. How my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘Ubangi’ because my hair grew in tight fat curls close to my head. How my other brother liked to ambush me around corners with a toy crocodile because it never failed to make me shriek in terror. How my oldest sister carried me around like a kangaroo with her joey. But I can offer very few stories of my own from those early years.
My strongest recollection is a constant straining to be with my brothers and sisters. I remember having to go to bed when it was still light out, kicking at the sheets as I listened for their voices coming down the hall or through the windows from the back yard. Sometimes I could smell popcorn. The next morning, I’d search the living room rug for their leftovers and roll the unpopped kernels around in my mouth. I do remember that, probably because it was something that played out night after night – our father loved popcorn.
Several years ago, I thought I might have the chance to recover that lost past when we were all tightly clustered together in one house. My brothers had driven to Bucks Lake up in the Sierras of northeastern California where, until I was around three years old, our family had leased a house every summer to escape the Sacramento Valley heat. They found our old cabin unchanged. Even a table built by a local sawmill was still in the living room. They knocked on the door and, weirdly enough, my younger brother knew the current lessee. He invited them in and then invited the rest of us back for a look.
With our father, we set off a few months later, up highways that narrowed into dusty roads through dark pines and past bright stony summits. When we got to the cabin, my siblings scattered to claim their favourite outdoor spots, but I was rooted near the car, struck by how much this place differed from what I thought I remembered.
I recalled that the water was a long walk across a sandy beach from the house; I had an image of my mother standing on that wide beach, her dress whipped by the wind, her hand cupped near her mouth. But the pebbled shoreline was just a few feet away. I recalled the spine of a dam jutting from the water not far from the house, a perilous and sudden cliff at the edge of the lake that my siblings had once ventured too close to. But even though the lake is a man-made one, the dam wasn’t visible from the house. I followed my father inside, where the tininess of the kitchen fascinated him. He kept opening cabinet doors and laughing as they banged each other in the narrow aisle. ‘Mother just hated this kitchen!’ he said. ‘She always made big breakfasts – eggs and sausage and pancakes – and as soon as she finished cleaning up, you kids would come running back in the house wanting lunch.’