31 December 2004


T.S. asked for my earliest memory.

Memory is a tricky thing. Yesterday I was able to find the way from the Harvard Square T stop to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, someplace I've been only once. But my memory frequently fails me, and what memories I have of anything more than a year ago are, I'm sure, not true memories but fossils, preserved in the other parts of my mind where they leave an impression.

A true memory captures sensory experiences: sights, sounds, smells. Most of my memories consist largely of words, the narrative I made for them at the time or shortly afterwards, thinking about them. Fossils.

My earliest memories include:

  • Sitting at the kitchen table in the house in Stone Mountain, being reprimanded for pointing. This is my earliest memory. (My parents occasionally pointed at me; it meant, “you'd better behave.”)
  • Sobbing in my room, having been admonished by my mother for failing even to have started making my bed. I had gotten sidetracked. I was composing a really stinging rebuke for her which I planned to deliver at the earliest opportunity; needless to say, I never did.
  • Riding MARTA (Atlanta's subway), reading a Discover magazine, trying to figure out the brainteaser on the last page. It had to do with Hercules and a hydra.
  • Riding MARTA again, trying to explain to my father a proof of A = πr2 that I had discovered in my third-grade math textbook. (More on this later.)
  • Being tricked by Aunt Jane. She was asking me math questions: what was it called when you divided something into three parts? Thirds. Six parts? Sixths. Five parts? Fifths. Two parts? I said twoths or maybe even seconds. The correct answer was halves. I felt a little dumb.
  • In first grade, correcting my teacher. She was under the misapprehension that anything with rectangular faces was a cube. I thought it had to have square faces to qualify as a cube. I tried to be as polite as possible but I knew I had made her feel a little awkward, besides which everyone stared at me. It was sort of embarrassing.
  • Horsing around with E.G. and J.G., my closest childhood friends, and accidentally biting E.G. a little too hard. I was pretending to be Pac Man. It was very embarrassing.

In short, my childhood appears to have consisted entirely of math problems and humiliation. This resembles my present existence, of course, in no way whatsoever.

Christmas eve; old age

Grandma seemed in excellent health, which pleased me greatly. It did me good to see her able to move about, step over small children and piano benches with apparent ease, play the piano, cook, do crossword puzzles, and so forth.

Dad hosted his annual Christmas Eve dinner. Before the festivities, CF asked me to put together a game for the night's entertainment. She likes to have a game for Christmas Eve, some sort of puzzle which everyone competes to solve first. Last year SO won, much to the consternation of the more avid puzzlers in the crowd. So I made a puzzle. CF considered my first attempt far too easy, indeed insultingly so. I made it harder; we made copies on card stock and handed them out.

There were just under two dozen guests. CM solved the puzzle in 40 seconds. Grandma didn't stop at that point, though, and she eventually solved most of it. She complained, "you get old, and it makes you slower." But I suspect that of those who competed in good conscience, Grandma got the furthest.

It turns out that Grandma dislikes the sort of puzzle where one must unscramble words, a la Jumble. I wish I had known that.

I wonder how much slower Grandma really is. Her memory probably isn't as quick as it used to be, but then my own memory is very bad already. I can only hope to age so well.

The sing

Dad's mom makes everyone come over to her house on the 23rd for the Christmas Sing. People don't sing much these days. It is an activity ordinarily reserved for those who aren't embarrased by their voice—or for the privacy of one's car. A roomful of ordinary adults belting out "O Come All Ye Faithful" is something rare.

For "The Twelve Days of Christmas" we doled out parts. Dad got stuck singing "and a partridge in a pear tree"—solo. He acquitted himself pretty well, I thought.

It seems likely that when she's gone they won't do it anymore. That would be too bad.