In my May 1 post (COVID-19, infant memories & straw bale gardening), I talked about a few memories I have from just after I was born.
Some readers wrote to ask what other sorts of memories I might have from my infancy. So . . . here’s one:
I’m lying on my back in my crib. (I know it was a crib, because mine was . . . exactly the view you’d have looking straight up from the mattress of a crib with white and baby-blue slats.)
What I’m most intensely aware of—what’s freaking me out, basically—is how utterly incapable I am of lifting off the mattress behind me my massive dead weight of a head. The thing feels like a bowling ball that’s barely connected to my shoulders at all. And I’m just . . . stuck with it.
I’m sure I can roll my watermelon head to one side or the other; its roundness makes it already want to move like that. But I’m equally sure that letting my head fall to either side means leaving it that way; I’d never have the strength to pull it back up again. Which would mean being stuck seeing only half of everything. And (basically) screw that.
So I just lie there, looking up at the line of the black shadow cutting diagonally across half the room’s white plaster ceiling.
I remember actually watching that line move across the ceiling.
Babies have a lot of time on their hands.
The thing was, I really wanted to lift my head, so that I might see at least some of what I could hear happening down the short hallway from the room in which I was alone.
I could hear my mother, busy in the kitchen, passive-aggressively banging pots and pans together as she made dinner. I can hear my dad angrily complaining about something (which today I’d guess was his job). Though I’m very much listening for her, I cannot hear my sister. She sometimes sneaks unseen into the room, pinches some flesh somewhere on me, squeezes hard, and twists. So I tend to be acutely aware of where she is.
As I grew older, my head remained pretty dang gargantuan. So much so that, as a Little League baseball player, I had to purchase my hat from the part of the uniform catalog that was for coaches.
In staying with our recent playwriting mode, here’s about how it went one afternoon during my team’s Little League team’s practice:
COACH CRETIN: Everybody shut-up! It’s time for us to order our team uniforms. Shore, what size hat do you wear? Triple large?
ME: I dunno, Coach. Sounds about right.
COACH CRETIN: I’ll say. You got a noggin’ on ya’ like a planet. I should put you out in left field, and just let fly balls go into orbit around your head. Okay, you, Smith. You got an extra-large head. Shore, try on Smith’s hat. [Smith hands me his hat; I try it on.] Jesus H. Christ! You can barely get that hat to balance on your head. What are we gonna do for a cap for you, Shore? Staple one onto your head? Well, give Smith his hat back, before you blow out all of its seams. So what the hell are we supposed do for a hat for you, Shore?”
ME: I dunno, Coach.
COACH CRETIN: You know what we’re gonna have to do? Order you an adult size hat, that’s what. But that’s gonna cost you extra, Shore. Make sure your mother knows that. You make sure she knows your cap is gonna cost extra, on account of you having a head that looks like it escaped from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. You tell her that, okay?
ME: You bet, coach. I’ll let her know. Say, why you’re at it, why don’t you also order my jockstrap and cup through the managers catalog? My head’s not the only thing on me that’s adult-size. And you tell your mother that I’ll see her tonight.
Okay, I didn’t say that last part. But almost!
Anyway, that’s one of my first memories: lying face up in my crib, staring at the shadow on the ceiling and listening to my family, all while being helplessly oppressed by my medicine ball of a head.
At some point, my mother’s head came looming at me from over the walls of my crib.
Now that was a head. I was completely blown away by the sheer control she had over the thing. She moved her head around just as easily as I spastically flapped my arms and legs around. It was just wondrous to me.
Also extremely noteworthy was my mom’s jet-black hair. She wore it in a 1950’s helmet-like bouffant that to me looked unimaginably heavy. I was genuinely fearful that it was going to drop right off her head and kill me.
I know it sounds like a weird and terrible thing to say, but as an infant I was extremely afraid of my mother. She was a profoundly angry woman, constantly and deeply seething. I can definitely attest to the fact that babies feel that vibe coming off their mother like you might feel the throbbing of a nuclear power plant.
One of the things my mother always said about me is that when I was a baby I never, ever cried. But that was no fluke of nature. I did that on purpose. I never cried because I never wanted to give my mom even the slightest reason to have any more of a problem with me than I knew she already had.
As a baby, my motto was: Stay cute, stay silent, stay alive.
As my mother stared down at me, I looked into her enormous brown eyes, and burbled something that amounted to “Goo-goo.”
She smiled at me.
“Goo-goo!” I said, hopefully.