I call it my earliest childhood memory, but to be honest I have no means to prove it. I say I’m three and my sister, Renee, is seven, but those ages were arbitrarily attached some time later. Perhaps we were older.
The place is my grandparent’s house in Eight Mile, Alabama, just outside of Mobile on the sandy, humid Gulf Coast — which is in equal parts antebellum aristocracy and impoverished backwoods.
We’re outside playing. It must be summer. Renee’s skinny suntanned legs are poking out from blue jeans cut off to make shorts. Her hair is almost white. We are searchers — hunters for roly-polies and caterpillars and centipedes and grasshoppers. We turn up brick and concrete slabs and look under garbage can lids for our prey. We hold them captive for a while in an empty Folger’s can Grandmother gave us, and then let them all go free.
The images are gray and grainy, like fading black-and-white photographs. But the memory of the cool, moist Alabama earth between my fingers is clear. Black dirt under fingernails. Curiosity emerges as we carefully pass a snail back and forth between little hands, its slimy body retreating into a delicate shell. Renee instructs me on bits and pieces of knowledge she has gained during her one year of elementary school and lifetime of exploration. Everything she tells me is indisputably truthful, as in my mind her wisdom is unquestionable.
Dusk settles in. Lightning bugs and bats fill the sky. Aunt Clista and Uncle Fred in their tiny house across the street call out our names. There is a smell of frying chicken in the muggy air, which mingles with a perfume-sweet fragrance — honeysuckle maybe, or mimosa. There’s another man. Who is that man? His face I see, but time has taken his name from me forever. Gospel music plays from a white radio on Aunt Clista’s kitchen table.
I’ve wondered why this memory stuck. What characteristics of this typical afternoon experience caused it to be etched into my brain for all these years, while other more significant events have fallen into the vast void of lost memory?
Perhaps that’s just the random nature of the human brain. I would like to believe, though, that somewhere in my subconscious I recognized this moment as special. And chose to store it away as representative of a boy’s first wanderings outside the close guard of his parent’s eyes — tasting freedom in the front yard of his grandmother’s house, yet secure within the parameters of his family’s call and older sister’s guidance. Knowing that it might somehow come in handy, as I try to figure out who I am and where I come from.