Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Going Home Again

My earliest memories date to, I think, 1955, and those are scattershot. This is in keeping with research showing that that adults remember little from before age 3 and nothing (or virtually nothing) from before age 2.  If you think you remember something earlier than that, you are probably wrong. Far more likely it is a manufactured memory, something common enough even when adults try to recall recent events, which is one reason why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.  People regularly “remember” things that didn’t happen or that happened differently than they believe. That’s not to say it is altogether impossible to have an earlier memory. My sister always insisted she could remember her first birthday. Perhaps she did. But one would not be unreasonable to suspect it might have been the second, maybe the third. The reasons for so-called “childhood amnesia” are fundamentally biological, not psychological; the growth and development of the brain in first few years physically alters the way long-term memories are stored and retrieved, and this causes early ones to be lost.

Young children (4-7) commonly do retain some very early memories, but they lose them as they age; by age 10, like adults, they have lost pretty much everything before age 3 or even 4. After 10 the loss stops – or, at least, the rate of  loss after 10 is no greater than for more recent memories. Dr. Carole Peterson and her associates at Memorial University of Newfoundland asked 4 to 10-year-olds about their earliest memories; she re-interviewed the same kids after two years. (She also double-checked with parents to be sure the memories from the first interviews were real.) The kids continuously lost preschool memories up to age 10. Peterson told WebMD, “Even when we repeated what they had told us two years before, many of the younger children would tell us that it didn’t happen to them.” Again, the basic reasons are biological, but, as ever in matters involving the mind, environmental influences cannot be discounted entirely; variations in personal experiences can affect how far back one remembers, but not by very much.

Many of my own memories from 1955 and from the next four years were formed at my parents’ house of the time on Woodcrest Road in Whippany NJ. They had built it for themselves in 1949, two years after they married. It was on an oversized partly wooded lot at the end of what in those days still was called a “dead end street” instead of the currently favored “cul-de-sac” or “no exit.” (“No exit” frankly strikes me as scarier – I’ve read the Sartre play.) The 1950s were the height of the Baby Boom, so the street abounded with children ranging from few years older to a few years younger than myself. We all roamed to and around each other’s homes and yards with an absence of parental supervision that today probably would lead to intervention by social services – possibly to arrests. It is possible, though, that the absence was more apparent than real. Example: Starting in kindergarten, my sister instructed my mom not to accompany her (or, later, us) to the intersection with Troy Hills Road to wait for the school bus in the morning with the other kids who also walked there sans parents. “You don’t come!” were Sharon’s exact words. So, she didn’t. However, my mother told me years later that all along the street the adults monitored our progress to the bus stop from their windows and kept the phone handy.

My family moved into another house in another town in 1959. So, since 1959 there hasn’t been a lot of reason to revisit Woodcrest Road, and I haven’t much. According to maps.google.com, Woodcrest Road is only 19 miles and 32 minutes from my current home. Frequently, for any number of reasons, I am a mere 4 or 5 minutes away on Route 10. Yet, decades passed between the last time I visited Woodcrest and last Saturday. Last Saturday I was in Morristown, which is about midway, when the notion to go see the old place seemed suddenly like a good idea. About fifteen minutes later I turned into Woodcrest. It still felt very familiar despite the intervening years; I could remember walking along it to and from the bus stop. I knew where the topsoil pile had been where the Woodcrest kids played King of the Hill. I knew where the climbing tree had been. The climbing tree was an oak with branches perfectly spaced for clambering kids. (As an example of reconfigured memory, my recollection of a very real fall out of that tree is not from the perspective of my own eyes but from some disembodied perspective higher up in the tree.) I remembered playing in the basement recreation room of our home and putting toy cars on the record player turntable so they would go around when I turned it on.

The climbing tree is gone and the street is no longer a dead end, or even a cul-de-sac; the street has been extended to connect with another road. The house is sort-of there; it has been subsumed into a much larger two-story home. I stopped for a moment, smiled, turned the car around and drove home – my current home. I’m glad I made the visit, though I’m at a loss to explain exactly why. There was no intense emotion attached to it, just a mild nostalgia and sense of reconnection. Yet, it was somehow satisfying. It also was enough. I don’t think I need to go back again. At least it was only 19 miles away. I have a photo of one of my grandparents standing in 1963 at a childhood home outside Bratislava for what I presume was the same reason. That revisit took more than 32 minutes.

1949: My parents working on their home on Woodcrest

The house as I remember it

Sharon and I sitting on the porch at Halloween. I don't remember this.

Beach Boys – Back Home


  1. My brother always had a better memory than me. He could remember details from our youth or something that happened to him in childhood that I could not. Only on occasions could I out-remember him. We grew up 30 miles from where I'm at now. What seemed like a huge neighborhood, going back to it, seems smaller in comparison. It's a weird deja vu experience. Sometimes it surprises me that some of the places are still there.

    We moved from east to west Texas in '66, and I'm rather glad we did for odd reasons. West Texas seemed more hip or progressive in comparison though really they're about the same. I think the timeframe of the 60's has more to do with it than anything, plus you seem to experience more growth or independence around that age.

    1. I don't know the age difference between you and your brother, but a year or two makes a world of difference at that age. My sister Sharon was 2 1/2 years older than I, so she recalled quite a lot about my first few years even though I remember nothing.

      One never knows what will change over the years and what won't. A couple of my grandparent's former houses look much as they did 50 (or, for that matter, 80) years ago, while my own house that I sold in 2000 was torn down a year later.