My first memory: climbing out of my crib.
I couldn’t have been even two years old, but people tell me no one has memories of being that young. The idea of someone invalidating my very first memory, probably when I first told the story around age 8, explains a lot about my psychological makeup. I’ve had a rich fantasy life since I first learned truth from fiction, but I made up magical, fantastical stories, mostly about being in a more interesting place with a creative, eccentric family. Why would I make up something as pedestrian as clambering out of a baby bed?
To be fair, my memories of traumatic events, and of events that occurred during and after my heavy drinking days, can be hazy, but I have a clear picture of this episode in my head. As a toddler, my brain was fresh and absorbent, untouched by anything more innocuous than cow’s milk and the occasional sip of Coke. I know this happened.
I remember waking up in the morning and hearing Mama in the kitchen talking to a neighbor. I knew they were sitting at the robin’s egg blue formica table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes because that’s what she and most mothers who didn’t work outside the home did in 1973 to unwind. Normally, I’d cry for her to come lift me out of the crib, but I didn’t that time. My grown-up mind tells me that I once and for all decided to stop crying unless there was something to cry about. I wasn’t hurt or scared, so why start wailing like a baby? And I didn’t want to yell out to her. Yelling felt like a vulgar bid for attention, but did my child’s mind already grasp the concept of suffering through life with a quiet dignity? It’s hard to say, but that was the first instance of my consciously deciding to do something my damn self that I can recall, and it became a lifelong trend.
The crib mattress was set as low as it could go. I grabbed the top of the railing with both hands, hoisted myself up, and slung my right leg over the top. Now, how to get the rest of my body over the edge? I hung there, sideways, willing my weak upper body to maintain its grip while I moved my chubby left leg around to feel for something to give me a boost. Finally, my foot landed on a toy (my Jack-in-the-Box?), and I pushed on it hard enough to throw my whole body onto the other side. I clung to the top of the rails desperately and looked down over my shoulder at how far I was from the floor. I may as well have been dangling from the top of a skyscraper. Years later, I would remember this feeling when watching Harold Lloyd’s silent film Safety Last with Daddy, who laughed like crazy at the character’s predicament of hanging from the hands of a giant clock on the side of a building. I didn’t laugh. Instead, my stomach lurched with empathy for that poor fool.
I had no choice but to let go. Maybe I landed on my feet. Maybe it was my hands and knees. I can’t remember, but falling is one of those things that happens thousands of times when you’re a kid with rubbery bones. The pain is short-lived and forgettable and feels nothing like falling as an adult.
I shook it off and walked into the kitchen. I must have stood in front of my mother for a full minute before she noticed me standing there. She jumped, because why would she expect me to not still be in the confines of my baby bed?
“How did you get out?” She took one last drag on her cigarette and stubbed it out. I’d like to say she waved her arms to clear out the smoke, but parents didn’t much care about their children’s virgin lungs back then.
In my ideal version of the story, I told her, “I climbed out. It wasn’t so hard. You can put me in a normal bed now,” but I’m sure I wasn’t that articulate. I probably just shrugged and asked her to turn on Sesame Street, or maybe I went and turned the TV on my damn self.