If That Is Your Earliest Memory, Then…

I have been thinking of starting a blog for a while, and finally decided to do it. I have also thought of starting a book: sort of a memoir of thoughts and growth experiences. Thus, I have lit upon the solution of beginning both undertakings at once, in a blog called Random Anxious Thoughts on Life, Parenting, and Current Plots.   This first post is based on my earliest memory. I was almost done writing it out a couple of years ago when I realized that if this was my earliest memory, then that could actually explain a lot about me, dreams, anxiety, parenting style, my thoughts on education, and so much more. This is a very long, first post, and I can assure you future posts will be more concise.

I have always had vivid and memorable dreams, and have long been actively able to sporadically ‘adjust’ them in my sleep, or awaken myself if changes were not happening as I had attempted. I think I was about five when I really developed the ability to change running to flying, to change hiding into popping out and confronting the nightmare, or to remind myself ‘aloud’ in my dream that it was just a dream and I could wake up. This has led many times to an uncertainty of memory: did I dream this incidence of dej’a vu, or is it a real memory? I have asked myself that incalculably many times. This event was one of those memory or dream incidents of mine, for years…..

Struggling up a long set of cool-grey, concrete stairs, my arm stretched up, shivery, tiny hand engulfed in warmth. I can feel slight crackling shifts of arthritic knuckles, here in the secure grasp of a protective hand covered with the whisper-thin, papery skin of old age. Somehow I know she is leading me the right way, but she is not strong enough to carry me. There is a bright yellow-orange filter of sorts to this image: a warm energy and untainted trust. So many stairs! My tiny, determined  legs carry on: one leg stretches forward onto the next step, other leg tags along, its foot catching up with the first leg on that next step. The pattern begins again: one leg forward, second leg catches up, one leg forward: repeating over and over. Do these stairs ever end? Wait… there’s my brother! Lavender relief radiates from my lower legs to rise and surround my torso and all the way to the tips of my hair. I’m so tired, and he will pick me up. I know it. 

Not quite in exactly these words, I try to explain the dream to my older brother, expressing in my early twenties how much his kindness and care meant to me even when I was very young. He could make bad dreams go away; the power of mean kids quietly receded and vanished when my eyes caught sight of him; his arms were sturdy and comforting; his softly shining brown eyes could emanate a palpable, warm affection from several feet away, just when I needed it. Those same sparkling brown eyes now reveal disbelief. “No way,” he responds wonderingly. “You can’t possibly remember that.”

I have felt the tug of these images as a vaguely remembered dream for as long as I can remember. They come back to me when I touch the soft, thin skin of the very old, or when I walk up the long concrete stairs that cut a corner short between my brother’s house (the same one I grew up in) and my sister’s house around the block. I have always assumed that the dream was set on those stairs for the same reason I still today dream of flying through the trees, into and out of the houses, on the block where I lived 35 years ago – familiarity brings comfort in these dreams: even with unseen amorphous threats goading me from behind, along my uncertain path ahead. I often find myself here as part of dream scenes not quite “bad dreams”, but certainly not happy ones either. I remember a great number of my dreams, and some of the repeated or serial dreams comprise themes or locations that go back to young childhood.

“One day when you were very young – the Summer before you turned two, I’d guess – you were playing in the front yard, and I was keeping an eye on you. You were pretty focused on whatever you were doing at the top of the front steps, so I went inside to do something for a quick minute. When I came back out to check on you, you were gone.”

I am swept back to memories of drawing with chalk, watching the ants, or just listening to the ground at the top of our ten-step staircase in front of the house. It was nice there: calm and warm with sun soaked up by the concrete sidewalk; a fascinating series of anthills and tunnels; a good place to watch cottony white clouds in a sky so blue you felt you could touch its color; even the grass on either side of the landing was complicated, with wispy dry blades of struggling bluegrass interspersed with chunky and raspy crabgrass.

“I panicked, of course,” he continues. “I ran down the hill towards Como, sure that you had wandered down to the store, and hoping you hadn’t decided to go to Miller’s across Como, instead of Speedy Market on this side.”

We lived almost at the top of a good-sized St Paul hill, longer and steeper down the West side than the East side. This physical feature made the stores and busy-ness of the East side of the hill even more attractive to youngsters, because it was easier to walk up and down that side. At the bottom though, was busy Como Avenue, extending for 7 ½ miles from 10th Avenue SE near downtown Minneapolis on one end, deep into the heart of St Paul, curving and winding all the way to the State Capitol Building on the other. Though Como was always heavily traveled and St Anthony Park’s “Main Street”, it was not until 1982 that a traffic light was finally installed to slow traffic and allow pedestrians safe crossing at Doswell and Como. Busy still now, 35 years ago, the intersection was then even more dangerous for children in both directions off of Como:  with Miller Drugs on the other side and its extensive array of candy and comic books, Speedy Market inhabited “our” side, with its candy, sugary cereals, pop, ice cream, baked goods, and a full complement of less kid-friendly groceries.

“I ran down that way and couldn’t find you. No one had seen a brown-haired toddler girl, so I ran back up the hill and started down the other side. Then I saw you on the stairs with Mrs Jensen leading you up by the hand, and rushed over.

“She explained that you had reached the bottom of the hill and started along that side of the block. She was out front doing some yardwork, heard something, and glanced up, surprised to see you trotting alone down the sidewalk. A car slowed next to you and the man in the car leaned across the front seat and said something she couldn’t hear. You looked over, and took a few steps towards the car, so she called out, ‘Millie?!’ You stopped and turned to look at her, as the man shot a glance up at her, and then sped off in his car before she could quite process what had just happened. You walked right up to her and took her hand, so she was leading you back up the stairs towards home.”

It is my turn now, to look at him wide-eyed and quiet, at his story. In other words, it seems, living in St Anthony Park over 20 years before, where people watched each other’s children, and older adults even knew the babies around their block, could be what saved me from that rare but terrifying specter: a stranger abduction. My mind flits immediately to Jacob Wetterling, stolen by a stranger, from among friends and bikes, on a ride home from the video store, in 1989.  [1]

Even now, in 2017, I remember Mrs Jensen though. She was quiet and kind, and someone I rarely thought of, unless I was delivering her paper or “collecting” – a now-archaic word coined when it was common to go door-to-door gathering the money for a month’s worth of the papers that I delivered daily for several years. She was just your average elderly neighbor: Never a mean old lady, nor a sweet doting type to give you cookies. She was just there, from time immemorial it seemed to us, and a little hard to understand with her old world Scandinavian accent. She tipped us paper delivery kids with buffalo-head nickels and Mercury dimes. I had wondered many times from ages ten to thirteen, if she was completely aware of giving away these coins of higher-than-face-value. Around 1990, when my brother told me this was a real memory, and not a dream, I wondered  if she remembered this incident with a neighbor’s toddler, and recognized me eight-plus years after, as her paper carrier.

“I thanked her profusely, of course, picked you up, and walked you back home. I don’t remember yelling at you, but I do remember thinking about the horrible things that could have happened to you. I spent a long time that afternoon practicing with you in the front yard, what to do and say if a stranger tried to get you to go in his car, or to come help him look for a lost pet, or anything. It was not even 1970, and I had never given much thought to ‘stranger danger’ and kidnapping and such before that day. I watched all four of you little kids more closely after that, though I don’t know if you knew that.”

This incident I had dreamt about over and over had really happened? I couldn’t believe it around 1990, and hardly can now. With his recall, I was flooded by thoughts of other events I assumed were dreams, and now I could simply not say were or were not so. I also knew with certainty why the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling in St Joseph, and other children before him, seemed so terrifying and real to me. I still remember the images they showed of a still-baby-faced Jacob during the searches for him, and the worry I felt for so many children over the years, while babysitting, or just observing them. At that moment when Glenn shared that this was a true memory, I honestly did not know if I was glad to know that some of my anxieties had a basis in reality, or if it frightened me more.

No wonder I don’t remember not knowing: to find an adult with a nametag or uniform if you get lost in a store; never to walk up to a car you don’t know when the driver tries to get your attention; not to trustingly walk away from a group in a park to help someone catch their lost dog; to doubt immediately any adult who asks for a child’s help alone, or who tells you that you don’t have to ask or tell a trusted adult first. I don’t know that Glenn taught me all of those strategies that day. I find it hard to believe he could have, since I was likely not even quite two. Still, enough of it obviously stuck with me the rest of my childhood to make it all sound familiar when there were “safety talks” in school, or abduction stories in the news. 

I sincerely appreciate Glenn (and my other siblings) being there over the years to protect me, care for me, and teach me to protect myself. Yet, I also wonder at times if this long-ago incident and its effects, marked the beginning of my deep-set, sometimes debilitating, anxiety. I simply can’t recall ever feeling secure enough to just walk away by myself like that, even when I was four or five years old. It was rare that I even felt safe enough as a school-age child to relax around other children without at least one adult around whom I knew and trusted. Sure, once we were a month or two into Kindergarten (for example) and I knew the teacher wouldn’t let anything happen to me, I started to make friends. Still, it was almost impossible for me to walk up to another person my age, and start a conversation, or find out if I could play what they were playing. I had very few close friends before I was 20, although I had enough acquaintances to typically cover up this fact. Real friends were hard for me to recognize, and impossible for me to seek out. Social anxiety was a simple fact for me, all my conscious life.


[1] Of course, stranger abductions, or stereotypical kidnappings, are relatively rare. In fact, according to the Jacob Wetterling Foundation website through Gundersen Health in 2014 (see gundersenhealth.org for the National Child Protection Center): “Jacob’s case has resulted in over 50,000 leads and has been studied by staff and trainees at the FBI academy in Quantico, Va. The case is highly unusual in a number of ways. Rarely are children abducted, especially by non-family members or while playing in groups. There are only 115 cases of long-term, non-family abduction called stereotypical kidnappings each year.”  The web address for the foundation, where I found this quote, was http://www.gundersenhealth.org/ncptc/jacob-wetterling-resource-center. The foundation was established only four months after Jacob was taken, in January, 1990. However, after I first wrote this memory down, Jacob’s case was finally closed in late 2016, with a tragic if not wholly unexpected end. This is part of what spurred me to finally edit and post this memory.  Please, if you care to find out more, go to the above link and find more information also about the #11forJacobMovement. We want children to be aware and safe, but also not afraid of every person they have not yet met!