My earliest memories are supposedly from when I was about 2 1/2. However, I do not entirely trust that they are solely my memories and are instead a scramble of photographic evidence of the period and my parents reminiscences. I guess that's how memories begin though. They start in someone else's head and then take root in your own like a tangled garden grows around long forgotten toys.
I have a picture in my mind of my mom pointing out water leaking down through the dining room ceiling from an over flowing bathtub, I remember peering up some attic steps and thinking that the back of an old TV set in an empty room was a chicken coop. However, these snapshots are an amalgam of snippets of the shared memories of others and a malleable baby imagination. It was a time when I heard many words each day, but had not yet been spoken any of them. The words chicken coop and stairs and overflowing were incubating in my mind, awaiting the day of their birth into the infancy stage of sentences.
As a young child, I probably dreamt too, which means part of what I remember now might also just be half remembered dreams. Many a feverish childhood dream now stands in for what I now call a memory.
There are many possibilities, but the other day, as I ate lunch with my parents, I suddenly started to see me through their eyes. They had brought a picture of me from grade five that had a striking resemblance to my son. I had seen the photograph before obviously, but it was the first time that I had seen it since he had been born and could now see clearly my son's mouth and the line drawn by his eyes on my young face. My parents see similarities between me as a child and my young children in a way that I simply cannot. They learned my face before I could.
I realized that just as what my husband and I know to be true about our own children, during that murky memory-less slumber of their early babyhood, my parents had been doing the same for me. They were witnesses to my emerging personality and preferences and fears. Just like my husband and I were observers of the funny things our kids said and were our childrens' reluctant companions on the nights when they were throwing up or unable to sleep. Parents report to their children their memories of that time and their versions indelibly shape theirs.
I will never really be sure what my toddler memories constitute because they are entangled in theirs. Even though many of those bad nights and even the really sweet things of the first days of parenthood have become a blur, we carry with us knowledge about my kids' early days that they can't know, not really, not in the same way that they can remember memories now. It doesn't mean we own them or can lord this over them, no of course not, but it does mean I am known by my parents, just as my kids are known by us in an unspoken, only-in-my-dreams, kind of way.
There is a ledge off of which my memories tumble into a fog shrouded ocean. My parents tended me while I slept and dreamt about chicken coops and were there when I woke up to see the world, being readied for memories to germinate in my head. Perhaps the same thing will happen as my life winds down. Hopefully, it will be my kids' turn to tangle their memories in the thicket of my passed down memories and half remembered dreams.