My earliest memory is of a pot stand. It is set into a corner with a cupboard on one side and, on the other, a shallow step. This is where my head begins. The step leads to another room, and far on the other side of the room, there is a white-haired woman sitting in a chair.
Discussions with my mother lead to just one pot stand, in a seaside cottage the summer I was eighteen months old. It was, she says, made of black iron and it stood beside a real step and the white-haired woman must be her own mother who died when I was six. This image of her is all that I have, and even then it is not so much an image as a sense. She may have been asleep, but I think she was reading. And there was something very quiet and covert about the pot stand, which was a pyramid affair with shelves for four pots. I can remember a little saucepan on the top shelf. I am tempted to say that there was a big saucepan on the bottom one, but this is pushing things a bit. I would give anything to remember what the lino was like.
At nine months, the baby puts her head in a pot and says, Aaah Aaah Aaah. She says it very gently and listens to the echo. She has discovered this all by herself. By way of celebration, I put my own head into the pot and say, Aaah Aaah Aaah. Then she does it again. Then I do it again. And so on.
The rest of my family don’t believe that I remember the pot stand, on the grounds that it is a stupid memory and, anyway, I was far too young. It is the job of families to reject each other’s memories, even the pleasant ones, and being the youngest I am sometimes forced to fight for the contents of my own head. But my brother broke his elbow that summer. My mother had to take him to hospital in Dublin and my grandmother looked after us while she was away. This was the first time in my life that I was without my mother for any length of time. If she had stayed, then am certain that I would not have remembered anything at all of that house — not the pot stand, and not my grandmother either.
We pilfer our own memories, we steal them from the world and salt them away.
I first left the baby when she was four months old. Some of the days when I was away, she spent with my mother. I wonder what image might remain with her from that time: a colour, a smell, a combination of shapes perhaps, affectless and still — and in the distance, someone. Just that. Someone.
And in the foreground? The carpet perhaps. I hope she remembers my parents’ carpet, the one I remember as a child, with a pattern of green leaves like stepping-stones all the way down the hall.
I have another, possibly earlier, memory of pulling the wallpaper off the wall from between the bars of my cot. My mother is absent from this scene too, but though the Pot Stand Memory is neither happy nor unhappy, this one is quite thrilling. I almost certainly ate the paper. The plaster underneath it was pink and powdery, and I imagine now that I can remember the shivery taste of it. I also remember the shape of the tear on the wall, or I think I do. At any rate, I see it in my mind’s eye — a seam on the left, stunningly straight, with four gammy strips pulled away, like a fat raggedy set of fingers, on the right.
I know this memory is, in some sense, true, but when I try to chase it, it disappears. It exists in peripheral vision, and presents itself only when I focus on something else — like typing, for example. When I stop writing this sentence and look up from the screen to try to see the pattern of the wallpaper — a blank. Memories, by their nature, may not be examined, and the mind’s eye is not the eye we use, for example, to cross the road.
I wonder if this is the way that the baby sees things: vaguely and all at once. I imagine it to be a very emotional way to exist in the world. Perhaps I am being romantic — but the visual world yields nothing but delight to her. There are (it seems) no horrors, no frights. Tiny babies see only in monochrome. I imagine colour leaking into her head like a slowly adjusted screen — tremendously slow, like a vegetable television growing silently in the corner of the room. I imagine her focus becoming sharper and deeper, like some infinitely stoned cameraman adjusting his lens. ‘Oh,’ she says — or something that is the precursor to ‘Oh’, a shallow inhalation, a stillness as she is caught by something, and begins to stalk it: careful, rapt — the most beautiful sound in the world: the sound of a baby’s wondering breath.
Something pulls in me when she is caught like this. For months I am a slave to her attention. The world is all colour, light and texture and I am her proud companion. I have no choice. None of us do. In a café, three women look over to smile at her, and then, as one, they look up. ‘Oh, she likes the light,’ says one, and this fact pleases us all. Immensely.
The light, of course, is horrible, and this is one of the reasons mothers think they are losing their minds: this pride in the baby looking at the light, this pride in the light as they introduce it to the baby, ‘Yes, the light!’ There is a certain zen to it; the world simple and new as we all stop to admire the baby admiring a wrought-iron candelabra with peculiar dangly bits and five — yes, five! — glowing, tulip-shaped bulbs.
She is years away from knowing from what ‘five’ might be, but maybe she already gets the ‘fiveness’ of it. This is the way her eyes move: One, one more! Another one! All of them! The other two. The first one again, another one! Something else.
Sometimes she holds her hand up like the baby Christ, and looks as though she contains everything, and understands it all. I do not ask to be forgiven, but still I feel redemption in the completeness of her gaze. And I feel the redemption in her fat baby wrists and her infinitely fine, fat baby’s hand. The baby is a blessing, but sometimes she does, she must, also bless, which is to say that she simply sees, and lifts her hand, as a sign.
I pick the baby up and we look in the wardrobe mirror, which has always been for her a complicated delight: What is it? It’s a baby! She smiles, it smiles back! (Complication upon complication! It’s me! It’s me! she says, and all her synapses, as I imagine, going ping! ping! ping!) She sees me smiling at her in the mirror; she sees her mother turning to smile at her in the room, and oh, it’s too much, she lunges forwards to examine the knob on the wardrobe door.
There are actually two knobs on the wardrobe. One is wooden and the other, for some reason, is an amber-coloured plastic. The baby goes from one to the other and back again. One of the first confusions in her young life was when myself and Martin both looked at her at the same time: ‘Oh no, there’s two of them.’ It almost felt unfair.
As she grew older, there was nothing she liked more than to be held by one of us and to look at the other, in a somewhat haughty way. Older still, she is completely content when the two of us are with her, quietly in a room. She has travelled from one, to two, perhaps to many. I think of this as she goes from the wooden knob to the amber one — a fairy tale of sameness and difference. This one. That one.
Of course, the first difference between this and the other is not between mother and father, or even between baby and ‘baby in the mirror’, but between one breast and . . . the other! If women had five teats, then mankind might, by now, be living on the moon.
Yesterday, it was warm, and I took off her socks and stood her on the grass. She loved this, but maybe not so much as I did — her first experience of grass. For her, this green stuff was just as different and as delicious as everything else — the ‘first’ was all mine. Sometimes, I feel as though I am introducing her to my own nostalgia for the world.
In the meantime, grass is green and springy and amazingly multiple and just itself. It might even be edible. Everything goes into her mouth. This is the taste of yellow. This is the taste of blue. Since she started moving about she has also experienced the taste of turf, of yesterday’s toast, and probably of mouse droppings, because it was weeks before I realised we were not alone in the house. Paper remains her ultimate goal, and she looks over her shoulder now to check if I am around. That wallpaper looks nice.
I really do wish I could remember my own wallpaper, instead of just the tear I made in it. The baby sleeps in my cot now — the one my father made over forty years ago with some half-inch dowel, and a fairly ingenious sliding mechanism for the side to be let down. I sat beside it one night, feeding her, and I tried to remember what it was like to be inside; the view between the bars and the ripped wallpaper on the wall. Someone, over the years, had painted it nursery blue, but I remembered a green colour, I could almost recall chewing the cross bar at the top. The baby sucked, her eyelashes batting slowly over a drunken, surrendered gaze, and as my attention wandered I saw, under a chip in the blue paint, the very green I ate as a child. A strong and distant emotion washed briefly over me and was gone.
My mother, or someone, pulled the cot away from the wall and, in time, the wallpaper I do not remember was replaced with wallpaper that I do remember (flowers of blue, block-printed on white). Babies love pattern so much I have begun to regret my own attempts at tastefulness. Not a single curlicued carpet for her to crawl over, not a single flower on the wall. Even her toys are in primary colours and her mobile is from the Tate, cut-out shapes, like a Mondrian floating free.
Once I stop trying, I seem to remember my mother giving out to me about the ripped-up wall. She would have been upset about the wallpaper. Perhaps this is why I remember it. It was my first real experience of ‘NO!’
My own child thinks No! is a game. I say it once and she pauses. I say it twice and she looks at me. I say it three times and she laughs. The punch-line!
Tasteful as it is, she loves the mobile. It has a big red circle that spins slowly to blue, and a little square that goes from black to white. There are various rectangles that don’t particularly obsess her but, taken all in all, it is the thing she likes most in the world.
We moved when she was nearly eight months old, and it was another two weeks before I got round to stringing up the mobile for her again. When it was done, she shuddered with delight. It happened to her all in spasm. She realised, not only that the mobile was there, but also that it had once been gone. She remembered it. In order to do this she needed to see three things: the mobile in the old flat, the new room without the mobile, the new room with the mobile. Memory is not a single thing.
Martin says that his first memory, which is of one brother breaking a blue plastic jug over another brother’s head, is false. His mother tells him that they never did have a slender, pale blue plastic jug. He thinks he dreamt about the jug, and that the dream also contained the idea that this was his first memory, as he dreamt a subsequent ‘first memory’ of people waving to him from a plane while he stood in the garden below. He was convinced for years that this was real. This makes me think that we are very young when we search for our first memory — that single moment when we entered the stream of time.
My own mother, who is curator and container of many things, among them the memory of my pot stand, worries that she is getting forgetful. The distant past is closer all the time, she says. If this is true, then the memory of her own mother is getting stronger now; sitting in a house by the sea, surrounded by children who are variously delighted, or worried, or concentrating on other things.
When you think about it, the pots can’t have stayed there for long. I would have pulled them down. There would have been noise, though my memory of them is notably, and utterly, silent. Perhaps what I remember is the calm before a chaos of sound and recrimination. That delicious, slow moment, when a baby goes very, very quiet, knowing it is about to be found out.
The other morning, the baby (silently) reached the seedlings I have under the window, and she filled her mouth with a handful of hardy annuals and potting compost. I tried to prise her mouth open to get the stuff out. She clamped it shut. She bit me (by accident). She started to cry. When she cried, her mouth opened. She was undone by her own distress and this seemed so unfair to me that I left her to it. I hadn’t the heart. Besides, it said on the pack that the compost was sterilised.
But she will not let my finger into her mouth, now, even to check for a tooth (she is very proud of her teeth), and when she clamps it shut and turns away she is saying, ‘Me,’ loud and clear. ‘Oh,’ a friend said, when she started to crawl, ‘it’s the beginning of the end,’ and I knew what she meant. It is the beginning of the end of a romance between a woman who has forgotten who she is and a child who does not yet know.
Until one day there will come a moment, delightful or banal, ordinary or strange, that she will remember for the rest of her life.
Anne Enright, 'Time' in Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, London: Vintage, 2005, 65-72.