Before the age of three or four, say researchers, infants don’t have much use for long-term memories. Physically, they’re unable to survive on their own anyway, so while short-term cognition is important (i.e., "That’s mom. She feeds me. Yay!"), brain power would be wasted on storing longer-term stuff (i.e., knowing how to cook pasta is useless when you can’t walk, much less judge whether or not it’s al dente).
But as babies become toddlers — and more capable and self-sufficient — they start to access the parts of the brain where long-term memories are made and sometimes stored for years.
The question “What’s your earliest memory?” remains a tricky one. While I’ve heard a few folks claim to recollect looking through crib bars as a baby, my guess is they were already toddlers when that memory was first recorded. In fact, probably they’d climbed into the crib to steal their baby sister’s bottle and were checking to make sure no adults noticed. There’s also the question of whether the memory is real or the result of having mom tell the person 8,000 times just how cute they were peering out of their crib.
I have a first-ish memory of my cat, Popcorn (yes, she was yellow and white), having two kittens, one of whom died. I have a picture in my head of the tiny kittens lying against their mother in a cardboard box in our garage. And I remember the feeling of sadness when my mom later told me the little girl kitten died. I’m guessing I was three or four at the time.
I was thinking about childhood memories when I was at the epic final Atlanta Braves baseball game of the season last week with my 12-year-old daughter, my husband and my father. As I’ve mentioned before, my girl is a baseball fanatic. She knows more about the sport and its history than about anyone I know.
When she’s expounding on the game she so adores, I’m often reminded of the scene from the movie, Diner, where the nervous bridegroom insists that his fiancée score 65 or higher on a sports quiz he’s written (Sample question: Who was the American League Rookie of the year in 1953?).
My girl would rock that test.
She’d been excited about going to this game for months. So excited that she couldn’t fall asleep the night before. So excited that she made her dad to take her to Turner Field two-and-a-half hours before gametime. She was the first person in line when the gates to that field of dreams opened. She ran all over the stadium during batting practice with her pink baseball glove and her battered copy of How to Snag Major League Baseballs. She talked trash with some of the Phillies players, one of whom tossed her her first major league ball.
She sat, mesmerized, just behind home plate for eight innings. If we hadn’t gotten a bit nervous about the long drive back to Asheville (school night), she might have sat there for hours longer. When we got in the car, she said, “I’ll never forget this.”
Memories can be unreliable, but they’re there for a reason — to help us maneuver through life. That’s why those events that reflect the highest highs and the lowest lows of our lives are often the most indelible. We remember falling backwards over a waterfall or totaling a car as well as riding a roller coaster or scoring a great grade on a test (well, those are some of my ingrained memories, and except for the waterfall, you probably share similar ones).
I hope it’s true that my girl will recall that baseball game for a long, long time. One of my goals as a parent is to help lay down some memories for my kids — knowing that they won’t all be positive — but also knowing that I can give my kids a few precious ones here and there that they’ll never leave behind. And those are the ones they can lean on as they navigate the tricky waters of life.