Recently I played with my 6-year-old grandson. He was building a couple of tiny wooden boats from a small kit. The task absorbed him. There was no bother about following directions; he simply put things together as he wanted. I admired how he transformed the kit box into a boat house, and a bed cover into the ocean.
Watching the purity of his play was deeply satisfying. If you wanted to know exactly what he was thinking about, it was in his busy hands. I know it won’t be long before that transparency disappears. And, while I was transfixed watching the imaginative scene take shape, I doubt he will remember it.
It put me in mind of my own childhood. What is my earliest memory?
Right now I am listening to An American Childhood (Harper & Row, 1987) by Annie Dillard. It is a delightful memoir of Dillard’s life growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s. I like the way it begins—describing early memories, one after the other, just as you might talk about them with a friend.
There is a haunting description of a monster in her bedroom that she finally realizes is a car’s headlights moving by her window. She describes an exhilarating snowball fight where a driver leaps out of his car and chases her and another boy all over the neighborhood. Dillard’s description of her young parents is funny. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother’s hand, and how when she pulls it up, it stays in little mounds. I find myself listening to this book from two perspectives: insights into my youth and my old age with its wrinkly skin.
In stark contrast to An American Childhood is The Glass Castle: a Memoir (Scribner, 2005) by Jeannette Walls. Walls’ first memory was when she was three, standing at a stove stirring a pot, and her dress caught fire. And so begins the mesmerizing tale of feckless, vagabond parents and their children. What lifts this book above other stories of bleak childhoods is its even tone. Walls conveys no bitterness–she has come to terms with her parents and her life.
Annie Dillard pinpoints age ten as the moment a person becomes aware of herself, waking up to the life that is already ongoing. This means I have some time left to marvel at my grandson’s view of the world.
These books are available at your local public library and at Parnassus Books, Nashville. The audio book was downloaded free from my public library.