Once, when I was about four, I tottered over to the phone, picked up the receiver (that’s the handle shaped thing attached by a cord to the phone body: people used to talk into one end and listen from the other) and then dropped it into the fish tank so I could talk to the fish. It didn’t work. We had to get a new phone.
That’s one of my earliest memories. Or at least I think it is.
My childhood is cut neatly in two. There are the young years as an only child that I barely remember. Then after my parents adopted my brother and sister — I think I was six when the process started — I have so many more clear memories. There’s the trip to Hong Kong — roller-coasters, ferries, robot toys and shoe shops — travelling through south west South Korea to get to the orphanage they were living in, visiting the regional church where I had my first remembered experience of being The Other.
But before that? Things are really fuzzy.
It’s not just me. There’s science. Childhood amnesia starts when we’re around seven: by the time we’re eight or nine we only remember 35% of things that happened before we were three. Other research shows adults can only remember back until they’re about six, and that very few experiences we have before that age become lifetime memories.
Do I really remember dropping the phone receiver into the fish tank? I definitely remember my mum telling the story multiple times at family gatherings, and my Aunts laughing and finding it funny. I remember as a young adult telling people the story as an anecdote and getting laughs from it.
It happened, but do I remember it happening?
What about that memory of being shoved into the house through a window? I was around five I think. I walked out the back door and closed it behind me, as a good boy should, not realising that I was locking everyone out. Dad was mad, that steaming fuming silence. He lifted me up roughly and fed me through the laundry window so I could go through and open the door.
This definitely happened, but parts of it are fuzzy. What I remember most is that, as I became a teenager and my relationship with my father deteriorated, I told myself this story in a particular way to help explain a lot of the confusion inside my head. I’m pretty sure it happened differently for him.
In later years I dismantled this story, and a number of others that weren’t doing me any good. Like that memory of being charged by a goose larger than I was at Central Gardens, which made me afraid of animals for a while.
I have photographs of myself from those early years that I look through periodically. I’ve come to realise that some memories I have are derived completely from those photographs, rather than the events themselves.
Like many others I keep photos, artworks and postcards on my walls. I have knick knacks that mean nothing to anyone but me, like a bowling trophy my grandfather won once, a rock from New Zealand that fits nicely in the palm of my hand, a little Buzz Lightyear figurine that reminds me of somebody that I used to know.
I keep these things not to trigger memories but to keep telling myself an important part of my story: my version of who I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
As the years pass and I change I edit the things I keep, shifting the story slightly. Maybe I do the same with memories.
Before I started primary school, I used to tag along (without a lot of choice) when Mum drove Dad to Merrylands station, so he could get the train into the city to work. I would sit in the back seat and listen while Dad read to me from books. I would have been three or four.
I particularly remember listening to the novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back. I remember the shock and the thrill I felt when Darth Vader told Luke he was his father. I remember the burning desire to find out what happened next.
I don’t recall telling this story before. It never seemed to fit a purpose, didn’t mold into a version of myself I needed to navel-gaze at, wasn’t a potential anecdote for a cheap laugh.
A psychoanalyst might tell me that story is the source of conflict with my own father, ex-girlfriends might say it began my obsession with Star Wars, writing mentors could muse it’s where I got hooked on storytelling, character and drama.
I’m not sure. I think I’ll leave that memory clean from function or meaning for a while. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself.