Content disclaimer: None.
I’m in a room with some other people. Kids, I think. Grownups too. I don’t remember many details, but I have my favorite stuffed animal, a beaver, with me. I know that because back then I didn’t let him out of my sight.
The front door opens, or maybe the phone rings, but in retrospect it must be the door, because I hear Papa’s voice and in those days we didn’t have a speaker on our home phone.
He’s saying that he’s lost his job.
For a long time I didn’t know that was my first memory. I thought another one was. In the other memory, I’m probably four. I’m at preschool with my friend Thalia, and we’re playing in the snow. They’ve given us water tinted with food coloring in spray bottles, and I’m coloring the snow rainbow, pretending that the big chunks of ice are crystals and that I’m a miner, hauling them up the mine shaft which is really the play structure.
For a long time I thought my father lost his job a few years after I played with ice on the preschool playground. I thought he lost it when I was six and in kindergarten.
When it came up once and I told my mom I thought that, she looked at me funny and told me Papa lost that job when I was two.
This is not a sad story, okay? It’s sad in parts, but it doesn’t really begin sad, and it definitely doesn’t end sad. Papa might’ve lost that job, but he got one soon after that he’s had ever since. He’s a software engineer. My mother is a teacher, although recently she’s quit teaching to go back and get a Masters in chemistry, which will be her third degree. And it’s a funny thing, I’m her daughter but it’s almost like watching a kid go off to school and I’m proud of her in a certain way, though I’ve never told her.
Both of my parents went to Princeton. I got rejected. It was a tiny bit by design, because I really didn’t want to go to Princeton. So I didn’t submit any portfolio, and I would’ve managed to bail on my interview had my parents not intervened. I’m pretty sure the lady who called my mother heard me screaming in the background that I didn’t want to do the goddamn interview, and I’m pretty sure that if she heard that it didn’t make quite the right impression.
But all that comes later.
Early memories are funny little things. You’re never quite sure of them. Like after I found out that Papa had lost that job when I was two, I began to doubt that the memory was true. I’d never doubted it before. But, after all, my mind had tricked me: made me think I’d been six when really I’d been two. And why did I have that particular memory? Why didn’t I remember the arrival of my brother, which had happened a few months later? And a couple months after that, 9/11. Why didn’t I remember 9/11, if I did remember my father losing his job?
I guess it was personal. I was already really attached to my father, even though my mother was my primary caregiver. Heck, she sacrificed a lot of things to care for me and the three other children to come. I know I never recognized it at the time, though. None of us did. The younger ones probably still don’t. Someday, if they think about things the way I do, they’ll realize.
Early memories are just that — the things that resonate with you and inside of you, the things you repeat enough to remind yourself of them, until at last they become ingrained into your psyche, stored somewhere in the back of your mind, only to pop up from time to time. For some, it’s an early injury; for others, the birth of a sibling; for yet others, some perfectly mundane moment. And the moments you remember don’t always have a meaning.
I can’t tell you the significance of my earliest memory.
A memory that probably has more significance is one that I’ll call the Bickford’s memory. You might know Bickford’s — the chain restaurant, serving up classic all-American fare. Like Krafts Mac and Cheese, which was the only thing I’d eat there. The Bickford’s was up the hill from my house, and we always walked there. I didn’t really like walking, and I was pretty young besides, so Papa usually carried me on his shoulders. That made it fun. I liked going to Bickford’s.
One day, they were out of Mac and Cheese. I remember this distinctly. The waitress took our order, only to return a couple minutes later to tell my parents that there was no Mac and Cheese and to ask what I would like instead. Instead? My puny little fists tightened with rage. My tiny, cherubic face probably went red with anger. And I started to scream and cry. I wanted Mac and Cheese and nothing else.
I don’t remember what my parents ordered me instead, nor how they placated me, but I do remember we didn’t go back to Bickford’s very much after that.
That memory does have significance, to this day. When I want something, I want it. I usually find a way to get it, because the alternative doesn’t look good. What I set my mind to, I usually get done. The question, of course, has always been about wanting the right things, setting my mind to the right tasks. Unfortunately, I’m not a whiz at that, which is (maybe) the reason why I couldn’t set my mind on going to Princeton, or want to go on all those church mission trips my parents insisted would be good for me. They were, but the story’s longer than that. It’s not a simple cause and effect. Not simply that you can go on a mission trip and become a better person. More that you can go on a mission trip and think about yourself and the world.
I’ve structured this early episode about my life in this way because this is how my mind works. It bounces from place to place. It won’t sit still. It likes to connect things that don’t necessarily scream to be connected. Sometimes, it works a little too hard.
I grew up as part of the last generation without smartphone-touting parents overseeing their childhood, YouTube videos filling every second of their spare time, sound machines blanketing their bad dreams in the rush of the wind and the crash of ocean waves. In my childhood home, we didn’t have a TV. And I hated it. I hated that all the other kids in the class had watched Nickelodeon and SpongeBob and all these cartoons that seemed then to be windows into what was important in life, to the hot conversation topics of the first and second and third grades. Every time someone asked me what my favorite TV show was, I’d get quiet. “Don’t you remember?” someone else would usually say, coming to my defense. “Laura doesn’t have a TV.”
Eventually, I learned to wear it as a mark of pride, a badge of honor.
And then, suddenly, it didn’t matter. The advent of Netflix and the spread of smartphones as powerful as computers rendered it a moot point. Families started throwing out their TVs. Streaming became the name of the game. Looking back on it, it feels as if it happened suddenly, but in truth it was a gradual process. I stopped using my non-TV ownership as a mark of pride because enough people pointed out that probably my parents used Netflix on the computer. And we’d had DVDs all along, though we hadn’t watched them regularly until I was most of the way through elementary school.
What was my childhood, then, if not saturated with Nickelodeon shows and cartoons and sugary cereal and Heely shoes and sports paraphernalia and all the things that made kids cool? More than anything else, my childhood was made of two things: books and imagination. Only imagination from years 0-6, since I didn’t learn to read until I was six and a half, late in kindergarten or perhaps early in first grade. I don’t remember when exactly when it was, but I remember the moment I learned to read. I also remember going home and reading The Hobbit that same day, since out of all the books my father had read to me it was my absolute favorite.
My parents tell me that’s also how I learned to talk. That I spoke in monosyllables until one day, around two and a half, I began to speak like an adult human being.
So I wasn’t exactly a precocious child. More of a stubborn one. And a surprising one, sometimes.
Way back. I’m two now. This isn’t my memory, it’s one my parents have told me. I’m snuggling with them in their bed. Earlier it was bath time. Sometime on the fringe of my memory it was breakfast time, in the midday lunch time, in all the places in between play time with Mama. It’s not bed time for me yet. I pull the blanket up over my mother’s face. She pushes it down.
“Mask time, Mama,” I say, and pull it over her face again.
She pushes it down again.
“Mask time, Mama!”
Those were the years before trouble intruded on my life, before I was old enough to see the darkness ahead, the danger in the cards I’d been dealt at birth. My memories of those first years are hazy. Sometimes I think that’s for the better. After all, it’s when memory becomes clear that problems become amplified.
Whatever you do, wherever you go from here, remember to hang tight to your past. It’s what’s brought you to where you are now. And, in the end, it’s all that you have.
“Papa’s white. Mama’s Asian. That makes me half-Asian. I didn’t really understand this until kindergarten. One little girl kept asking me if I was Chinese. The first time she asked, I didn’t know what to say. I went home and asked my parents what I was. They looked at me kind of funny. I guess they hadn’t expected the question… As for the girl, the next time she called me Chinese I shoved her and screamed, “I’m Korean!” in her face.” — Episode Two.
Note: In the first picture, I’m about one. I don’t look very happy about the camera. I still don’t like when people take pictures of me. In the second photo, I’m a couple months over two, and I’m pretending to read. I used to do that a lot. I would even recite the books my parents had read to me the most (having memorized them). I was a big pretender, because like I said above I didn’t actually learn to read until I was six.