My very earliest memory is of the cups swinging from hooks as my parents moved around in the caravan where we lived during my first year. They had little flowers on them and light blue bands. The cups, not my parents. Later the caravan became the servants’ quarters once we moved into a house and I loved sitting on the little fold-down wooden verandah listening to the women chatting away in Zulu, doing each other’s hair or knitting. Their hands were always busy.
One memorable nanny built me an entire hotel out of mud and sticks. The verandah is particularly vivid in my memory. There were dozens of little tables and chairs; I can only assume that it was clay she used, because the detail was amazing. Tragic that in those days someone like that had no opportunity to express herself and have a lucrative creative outlet. If she was around today, she’d probably be a successful interior designer. I remember her with gratitude, as I do the woman who taught me how to draw a tree, some years later. Lost artists but a subject for another blog.
It’s fun asking people about their single earliest memory. One man I asked, said his earliest memory was of looking up his aunt’s skirt. It was so hilarious because his curiosity in that direction was undiminished, and that had been my reason for bringing up a new subject…
Being a very small child is vivid in my mind. Most memories are happy, leading to a feeling of trust in the world. The most bewildering memory is of my brother and me playing outside, and visitors leaving from the front door. One large gentleman looked down at me in outrage and said: ‘And you LAUGH!’ I had no idea what he was talking about, and never did find out. It was my introduction to Mystery. But my mother did her best to prepare me for the world out there, overcoming my fears and making sense of all the data that came streaming in. She was coaching and teaching from the start. I remember sitting on the verandah in the sun, putting together my a, b and c blocks in a nice little row of three. My mother came out of the front door. ‘A-B-C!’ she said, very pleased. ‘And – D, E, F…?’ putting the blocks in place after ABC.
‘NO!’ I screamed, outraged. What’s this ‘D-E-F’ stuff she’s coming with here now? I thought. And there really isn’t much difference between that and any comfort zone that’s suddenly invaded with new information to learn, new circumstances, new software to conquer, new neighbourhoods to explore, people to meet, skills to learn… some are easier than others. I really struggle to learn and retain anything that involves physical sequential movements, like karate, tai chi, ballroom and latin dancing – the latter has had me in floods of tears once or twice. I just cannot surmount this barrier without quite some effort, because (a trusted friend once pointed out) I’m in my head most of the time. So my brain whirrs into high gear, but that doesn’t work. My last dance teacher advised me to trust my body and my muscles would use kinaesthetic memory. I’ll see if it still works, if I ever return to dancing. Dance is said to be the best sport as one gets older – not only does it keep the body fit and supple but it challenges the mind like no other sport, not even squash. Yes thank you – I did get that. In spades…
One’s own discomfort zone is one thing. But to agonise over a child in that situation is perhaps more painful because one feels even more impotent. Chatting to one of my clients this morning, I learned that she’s trying to cope with her youngest child who’s gone to high school for the first time, so he’s changed from being one of the kings of the school (he’s a high achiever) to one of the despised ‘newbies’ in the most junior form. Boarding school is an additional challenge, having to do everything for himself with no-one helping him. He’s having a very tough time, and I remember my own pain and empathy, watching my oldest on his first day at a very large high school, in a new city, dashing back and forth, resplendent in his brand-new cricket gear, not sure where to go, getting confusing instructions (I heard later)… it was awful. I could see anxiety just streaming off him.
In more ancient times, on the playing field in the heady first days at my new school where everything was new in every way, it was P.T. (physical training) and my five-year old self was learning to skip. Two boys were turning the rope and at the crucial moment pulling it tight so that I fell time after time. It isn’t a painful memory for me – I remember it, but it was a matter of fact thing. I was more puzzled than anything else – I thought they were getting it wrong, — that they were doing it deliberately hadn’t occurred to me. But my worried mother was watching from over the road, unbeknown to me. She mentioned it later, asking how my day had been, and saying that she saw me falling on the field and how naughty those boys had been. Then I realised there’d been a bit of a blot on the day, but it didn’t worry me unduly.
Far more painful was the fact that, coming from a German-speaking family, I couldn’t speak a word of English on my first day except ‘no’. Oh, and ‘doll’. When I was around two years old I’d asked my mom what the English word was for ‘eine Puppe.’ She told me, and I was very proud of this new knowledge and full of anticipation that, should an English child happen to visit with her parents, I would be able to walk around outside with her, making important-looking gestures (like I’d seen the men at church do in their weighty discussions,) and using the mighty word ‘Doll.’ I was now equipped to receive English visitors. Bring them on. But none came.
In fact, my two words didn’t help much at all when in assembly every day, the hundred-or-so children around me charged through the Lord’s Prayer at a scary pace in this highly desirable and completely inaccessible new language. Worse, in Afrikaans on alternate days. ‘I can’t keep up with them!’ I sobbed desperately to my mother after school. ‘They go too fast!’ She of course reassured me that by the next year, the new kids would be crying that we’re all going too fast… and of course she was right. My ego enjoyed looking forward to being one of the terrifyingly fast ones, and that put a whole new slant on things.
For the first time, as I write this, I realise that her technique was always to point me to the future, to a vision of myself empowered, more than able with my new skill, shining and confident. Because my mom is long gone, I find it useful to talk to myself when terror looms large, as to a little child. I have even been known to hug myself in the shower and say “I’ll look after you. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine, you’ll see.’ (Hey it works, okay? Very well, even.)
While I’m busy waving some amazing vision at my quavering child-self, I do also expect her not to be a complete baby, to toughen up and step up, but it’s taken a lifetime to quell the critical parent and bring some tenderness and encouragement to the mix. That said, it’s not always easy to face the unknown, whether it’s software (the barrier I face most often), surgery, speaking in public (How will they hate me? Let me count the ways), or my most ferocious bugbear: finding a place in an unfamiliar suburb, in the dark. My sense of direction is never all that reliable, (have I mentioned my noisy brain?) and on a bike, the cell’s GPS is less useful than it used to be. So – one pushes along through that awful state of feeling stupid… really, really stupid… as the mind almost audibly starts pulling down its shutters and getting under a duvet.
It’s worse when the feeling isn’t even articulated as a thought, it’s just this mild irritation, then rising panic which starts pushing up as full-blown fury when the house/building isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I’ve had this fantasy in my head often, of an entire building gathering up its skirts and tearing off around the block and moving itself to another suburb altogether…
That’s when I realise the Child is now present and frightened; I put us both out of our misery, stop wasting petrol and get directions. But how empowering it is when one finds the place, or learns the procedure – when the goal is reached, it was so difficult and now it all looks amazing! Always worth it. Always. Something to add to the mental scrapbook for next time.
That said, I’m still known to be extremely grumpy when I finally arrive at my obscure destination. The gleam of triumph and the party mood has been replaced by high indignation by the time I get to the front door – masked by the polite murmur – ‘There isn’t a very clear number on your gate…’ ‘Hey, did you know there ISN’T a Carl Lemmer turn-off from the N1?’
Next time I’ll add: ‘I’m sorry, my Inner Child was extremely frightened and it needs wine now. And those chips – yes thank you. I’ll just take the bowl. I’m eating for two.’