On memories of childhood

I’ll be honest, I really don’t remember many specifics from my life as a kid. I have vague memories of the houses I grew up in, names of some of the friends I played with, vacations we went on as a family, etc. The more distinct memories I have of my life, even through recent years, are the ones that have some sensory association, like the smell of popcorn we used to pop before my mother’s concerts in the park as a flutist with the Naperville Municipal Band, or emotional association, like how excited I was when I found out we were going on a “Big Red Boat” (Premiere Cruise Line) cruise to the Bahamas and Disney World. It seems, though, that emotion extreme enough to trigger these memories didn’t come very often, and there are vast stretches of my life I just don’t have access to anymore.

I remember being happy when I used to race around our cul-de-sac with my friends on our big wheels, playing Indy 500 by driving endlessly around the circle or Dukes of Hazzard by jamming the pedals, turning the handlebars, and letting the plastic rear wheels slip and skid across the pavement. I remember being nervous when I let homework assignments go and having to face teachers the next day in English class. I remember being so scared to take the trash cans through the clump of trees near the street that I would drag them, running, twice as far as I had to just to avoid the serial killer who was undoubtedly lurking in the dark.

I remember being so ashamed of my bad acne that I learned to get ready in the morning without having to look at my face in the mirror. I remember feeling lonely when, despite my mother assuring me they really did like me, none of the people I considered friends ever called just to hang out. I remember the embarrassment on one occasion of showing up at a movie theater after being invited to meet some friends to discover they’d met earlier and went to see a different movie instead (it was thus the first time I saw a movie by myself in the theater, because I was too embarrassed to admit to my family that I’d missed them).

I remember the terror I felt when I was walking down a street in Muncie, IN, talking to a camp counselor when we realized we were being followed by some local kids who intended to beat the shit out of us because they suspected we were gay. The irony was that I didn’t even know for sure that I was gay–I was still trying to figure it out for myself. I remember thinking later that those who believe being gay is a choice should ask themselves if they can really believe someone would choose a life that would put him on the receiving end of a barrage of punches and kicks that left him broken, crying, and helpless in the middle of a street, too scared to get up for fear that his attackers would come back to finish the job. My attack wasn’t even that bad–at least I was able to stand and limp back to the dorm instead of being killed or tied to a fence post and left to die.

Despite these darker memories and events, my collective impression of my childhood is generally bright, because I was surrounded by such an amazing, loving family. I had parents who provided me with everything I could have ever wanted, who let me try every sport or activity I wanted to, and who supported me when I ultimately chose to study music in college (one of the least practical degrees one can ever attempt to earn, even when it comes from a top school like Eastman). My sisters played with me and there was never a time when any of us were made to think we couldn’t do something because of our gender, whether it was me wanting to be a “Cupcake” when they joined Brownies, playing with their toys, or my younger sister playing little league baseball with the boys. We all ate meals and played games together, and made each other laugh until we cried.

My parents succeeded in convincing me that being ahead of other kids my age in school didn’t make me a nerd, it made me special, and that intelligence was a trait to embrace, not wish away just to avoid being outcast by my peers. They taught me that it was up to me to choose whether being alone meant I would be lonely or become independent. They allowed me to bite off as much as I wanted to chew as long as I took responsibility for my actions and decisions. My parents taught me to stand up for myself, and if I got knocked down to pick myself up, dust myself off, and move forward as a stronger person. That’s how I eventually got up that night in Muncie–laying there all night wasn’t going to solve anything, and staying down meant the bad guys won.

I suppose it’s not terribly important that I remember other specifics from all those years ago. In many cases, it’s probably for the better. The important thing is that those experiences have made me the man I am today. Every time I picked myself up and moved forward, I became a little more sure of where I was going, more secure in my ability to get where I wanted to go, and stronger than before. Perhaps although we don’t always remember exactly how we got here, the fact that we’re here means that we’ve managed to do the most important thing of all: survive.

Author: Matthew

U.S. Marine Corps officer living in North Carolina. The views expressed here are my own, and are in no way intended to represent the United States Marine Corps, Department of Defense or any of its components.

13 thoughts on “On memories of childhood”

  1. Seems to me you remember the right things from your childhood, the things you needed so as to become the really remarkable person you are now. Contact with your stories has enriched my life, and for that I am grateful.

  2. Great post. I’ve often wondered if I was the only one that didn’t have a lot of childhood memories. I can remember all the answers from the original Trivial Pursuit game and tell you which actors played which characters on all the 70s classics, but I can’t tell you the names of any of my teachers, etc. it’s like I only remember the really bad stuff and the really good stuff and little else in between.

  3. Even the nightmares can give us a better understanding of who we are. I’m so terribly sorry for what you went through. But in the end you turned out pretty excellent and we’re all the better for it.

  4. Thank you, for putting into words what some people have lived but don’t talk about, and what we all need to understand. You’re right. Sometimes surviving is both progress and the victory!

  5. Hi Michael! What you’ve written here reminds me that my Gram – as usual – was right. “Some folks wade through life bitching about the mud… other folks pan for gold.” Keep hunting for the nuggets.

    1. Dammit! Sorry Matthew. That’s what I get for trying to read your post, reply to it, and deal with one of my manic coworkers at the same time. My apologies! Now I have to beat my coworker on Monday… LOL!

  6. I’m so sorry that you had to suffer this attack. It’s real ‘big’ and ‘brave’ of that crowd of kids to beat you up, real brave. It makes me so angry to think that some people victimise others and do so when they’re in a big group. Very angry.

    Re remembering. I find that I often don’t remember the same things my siblings remember – it is only when we talk about specific things that stuff starts to come back me. Some of those recovered, or maybe rediscovered, memories are then so clear that I’m astonished that I didn’t have access to them for a while.
    I just came across this article that talks mainly about learning/studying, but the reference to memory and memory retrieval was very interesting I thought:

  7. I can relate to much you have to say about memory and association with the senses.
    I regret not having the courage to join the army because of my homosexuality.I was more worried by not being able to control arousal than the rigours of training.
    I was always prepared as a kid to stand and fight the toughest opponent but the thought of entering the showers with an erection checked any ambition I had to serve.Also , homosexual activity in 1980’s England was illegal and discharge automatic for anyone found to be gay and serving.I am now in my mid 40’s and I truly feel failing to enlist has influenced and hindered my life choices to this very day.
    Thank goodness DADT has been repealed in the USA ,following on from lifting the ban on homosexuals serving in HM Forces.I wish I were 18 again and I would enlist and achieve all I know I have missed.

  8. “The irony was that I didn’t even know for sure that I was gay–I was still trying to figure it out for myself. I remember thinking later that those who believe being gay is a choice should ask themselves if they can really believe someone would choose a life that would put him on the receiving end of a barrage of punches and kicks that left him broken, crying, and helpless in the middle of a street, too scared to get up for fear that his attackers would come back to finish the job.” Great post. This quote is what I say to all those I debate online.

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