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Emus and Egyptology

I was eighteen months old when advertisements came out for a major exhibition in London. The image on the station wall beguiled me: a gigantic burial mask, two wide eyes in frames of kohl, a gentle smile of gold and a collar of precious stones.

My very earliest memory is of a railway platform. I was eighteen months old when advertisements came out for a major exhibition in London. The image on the station wall beguiled me: a gigantic burial mask, two wide eyes in frames of kohl, a gentle smile of gold and a collar of precious stones. My father taught me to pronounce the name in grand, deliberate syllables. I had barely mastered the mechanics of walking, and a waddle was all anyone could have managed in underwear so heftily frilled and reinforced, but I was keen to share my word with anyone who would listen. Tottering towards an old lady, I thrust a newsreaderly “Tutankhamun,” and a pudgy pointed forefinger. I probably hoped more for a discourse on Egyptology than the start of silence she gave in response. I had yet to realise I was not an adult like everyone else.

We allowed extra time for getting anywhere, partly so I could button my own coat at an age when it would have been much faster for someone to do it for me. We also needed time to look at things along the way, and for me to request explanations. Everything, without exception, was important.

Animals fascinated me more than anything – in books and in the world – so my parents took me to London Zoo. Of all the creatures the emus are the only ones who lodged in my memory, because they taught me something permanent. Older children were gathering particular leaves and posting them under the barrier. The birds found them irresistible and unfolded their necks to receive them, much to the children’s delight. I did not see them eating leaves, I thought they were giving kisses, so I waddled over to join in and had my little pink fingers mistaken for greenery. I was quite sure I was about to be eaten whole, but once my mother had placated me and explained, I knew for good that blindly copying people is not wise. It is worth taking a moment to gather the facts (and leaves in this case), also to assess any risks particular to one’s own size and circumstances.

What are your earliest memories?

16 replies on “Emus and Egyptology”

We were waiting at Lewes Station in Sussex waiting for my mother to arrive from Eastbourne. What is more amazing from the event is the response of the lady in question. In a somewhat haughty and disbelieving voice she said”Did that child say Tutankhamun?” My response was to point to the poster and ask Sumangali (she had another name at the time), who it was in the poster. Of course, she repeated Tutankhamun perfectly, leaving a somewhat bewildered lady wondering what the world had come to.

My earliest memory is bicycle related.
It was to be the day my bicycle’s stabilisers were to be removed!
My father and I made our way to Hilly Fields Park at the top of our road and found a suitable spot to remove the stabilisers.

Pumped full of adrenaline and anticipation of very soon being able fly around corners at impossible to imagine speeds my body hovering just inches from the speeding tarmac.
My first tentative attempts failed. Unable to find the sweet spot, I clumsily lost my balance time and again!

My father suggested I needed to go quicker and he agreed to hold on to the back of the saddle and push me up to speed where balancing would be easier he assured me.
The strict order that under no circumstances was my dad allowed to let go until I gave the OK that I had it all under control, dad agreed and off we went.

Dad was a very good runner in those days, he even used to compete in the Battersea Park Self Transcendence races. Needless to say, we soon reached terminal velocity and I glanced over my shoulder to check dad was paying attention as he had to let go at exactly the right point.

Daaaaaddddddd I hollered at the top of my lungs to the distant figure on the horizon!
Looking forward again I wobbled and abandoned all attempts at controlling the bike, accepting the inevitable! CRASH. I landed on the soft grass skidded to a halt and lay there my subconscious accessing what response to give.

Was I hurt, or did I need to be cuddled and comforted. Either of those conclusions would have resulted in weeping and wailing at the top of my lungs. However the realisation dawned in my mind that I had indeed been cycling all alone and before I could even dust myself down I was back on the bike and never looked back.

We all make mistakes and the willingness to get back up off the ground and back on the bike has always stayed with me thank goodness.

Thanks so much for sending your earliest memory, Dave! I can imagine that being a signal point in life – your first set of independent wheels. And it’s a great metaphor for life itself. Children seem to understand that mistakes are an unavoidable part of learning. The hurt and embarrassment doesn’t last long for them – they’re too busy trying again, or enjoying the fruits of their efforts. It’s such a healthy and practical approach! Thanks for the reminder. And that’s amazing your Dad used to Run the Battersea Park Self-Transcendence races 🙂

I like this quote from Sri Chinmoy: ‘When you experience low moments of fear, of doubt, of lack of aspiration, you should feel that this won’t last forever. Like a child who has fallen, you must try to stand up again. Some day you will be able to walk, then run, and finally run the fastest without falling. What is of paramount importance in such cases is to have faith in one’s own sincere attempt. No matter how many times you fall, if you are more than ready and eager to stand up again, these so-called failures are no failures at all. As they say “Failures are the pillars of success.” This is absolutely true. In the beginning, everybody is bound to meet with failures.’
– Sri Chinmoy, Problems! Problems! Are They Really Problems? Part 1, Agni Press, 1974.

My earliest memory is food-related.
I was a worryingly fussy eater and drove my mother to desperation by refusing to open my mouth to any of the spoonfuls of different baby food she tried to entice me with. Doctors repeatedly told her in an accusatory tone “You must make her eat!” Still my mouth stayed closed.
I remember sitting in my high chair, a spoonful of something brown and lumpy hovering in front of my face. Somehow some of it made its way in and it seems I liked it. I found out later it was chocolate tapioca pudding.
What makes the memory so vivid is my mother’s delighted face as she eagerly refilled the spoon. Eyes wide with surprise and achievement she asked, perhaps for the first time “More?”
I kicked my legs and waved my fists, mirroring her excitement, and opened my mouth again.

Bhashini, that conjures up such a cute image! And so sweet you were reacting more to your mother’s joy than to the chocolate tapioca pudding. I guess of all the things that could have been on a baby’s spoon, that’s one of the more likely things to pass security in the taste-bud world though!

I found a website where people record their earliest memories. They seem pretty random on the face of it, but I suppose they must all be emotionally symbolic in some way. They range from “Eating cereal out of a red plastic bowl.” to “My sister cut off my left toe and fed it to my dog.” The cutest one I thought was “Not being able to talk, but understanding my mom.” [Source]

There’s a lot going on inside when you’re little, isn’t there? It’s easy to forget that when you “grow up” and see children trying to make sense of the world.

What lovely images, Sumangali! It’s amazing that you can remember so far back and in such detail. You write in a very evocative way; I can really see the emus with their folded back necks and your little fingers reaching out towards them.

I was trying to think of my earliest memories, but I can never really be sure that I haven’t seen a photo or made something up. I swear I can remember the cries of the peacocks in the garden next door, but who knows? I have no idea why there should be peacocks in a little terraced house, but apparently there were. My first visual memory is the underside of a huge dark wood table that I was crawling under; I was trying to get over the cross bar, I think. The next one is of the Penguin edition of ‘Rapunzel.’ And I really, really think I can remember bouncing in one of those contraptions you attach to the top of a door and the baby swings or bounces in. But who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I invented all that! As for words, well, nothing as grand as ‘Tutankhamun’; I’m told that early on I developed a tedious attachment to the phrase, ‘That’s very irritating.’ Which probably tells you everything you need to know about what I was like as a child!

Oh I love to hear your memories, Hita! Thanks so much for writing them down. For some reason I like the underside of the table the best – the perspectives on ordinary things are so different when you’re small. And I laughed out loud at “that’s very irritating” – how ironic and endearing!

I wonder what makes particular early memories lodge in the mind. I know in some cases it’s getting into big trouble, at least that was my experience. Like on my mother’s 27th birthday – myself aged two – reaching up to the dining table for a plate of bread, licking the honey off as many slices as I could and putting them back again as neatly as possible. That did not go down so well, but I can still remember the taste.

That’s a shame you got caught; it makes perfect sense that if you put them back neatly no-one would notice!

I also remember tastes, but only of desserts. My mother made both lemon mousse and chocolate mousse extremely well, and I have vivid memories of both flavours. I also remember illustrating the little cardboard lids for the ones she made to be frozen and eaten later. It felt like an important job…

Mothers have a special knack of making us feel indispensable don’t they? In your case though, Hita, this was important, as you were practising to become the great illustrator you are today!

That’s so sweet of you, Sumangali. I think I’m still at the practising part, though. I remember a Tagore poem that talks about spending your life stringing and unstringing your musical instrument; practising and practising and then realising that the time to perform in is ebbing away, or as our guru used to say, ‘Bela chale jai.’ He always used to try to get us to remember all the good things we’ve done rather than our missed opportunities, didn’t he? So I choose to think of the unseen acts I’ve performed as a kind of art as well, instead of thinking that I should have been producing more work. It’s a struggle I’ve had this year, but the conclusion I’ve come to, for good or bad, is that our art is made of the cumulative consciousness of the acts of our life so far, plus the particular state we’re in at the time. Like GCSEs rather than O levels; coursework matters as much as exams. So, everything I do is affected by the good things I’ve done, not in a moral way, but just because my actions and choices have led me to where I am today, and each piece of art, however rarely it actually appears, is miles better than the last one because it’s full of all the stuff I’ve been doing. It feels like that to me, anyway. So I’ve reconciled my choices now, more or less. And as one good friend told me long ago when I was concerned that I didn’t have enough time to make art, all creative things can be excelled in as much in the second part of one’s life as the first, perhaps even more so, as a measure of wisdom might have arrived.

Hita, that is all so full of hope and truth and wisdom, thank you so much! I feel like I could write a whole page in response to each point. Instead I will let it stand as its own work of art, and maybe my responses can be unseen acts – participating in their potential forms…

I well remember the visit to Lewes Station with the Tutankhamun poster, and the look of incredulity on the elderly lady confronted by this precocious prodigy, gesticulating at a poster of a dead, boy king. I suppose it does not count that I can remember you earliest memory too? Mine is a series of memory flashes, the first of which I was no older than you with your Tutankhamun poster memory. I recall being on train with my Mother (hopefully that completes the circle with my mother and trains together!), the train which was somewhere near Banbury, was apparently being bombed or straffed and my mother bundled me under the seat in the rail carriage – I recall seing all of the cigarette butts. I can remember seeing V1 flying bombs (Doodlebugs), on their way overhead at Eastbourne to bombing London. I also remember my mother pushing me in a pushchair, a contraption of flat steel bars and solid tyres, a far cry from today’s high tech baby carriages. The reason for this memory was that Wilson’s furniture store, a local landmark, had just been bombed and was on fire. I recall my mother stripping the paper tape from the windows following VE Day in May 1945 when I was 2 1/2. I also recall the VE Day party in our street when we sat at long trestle tables in the street – no I cannot remember what we ate, but I am secretly sure that ice cream and jelly was some how involved! I also remember sitting in the cockpit of a Spitfire on the bombed site of where Marks and Spencer was, and phoenix like again on the same site in Eastbourne. Wartime breeds vivid memories of dramatic events. Fortunately for me they were all personally benign: like the vapour trails in the sky and “pop pop pop” of the engines of a V1 flying bomb. I was removed from the death and destruction which they rained down.

Clearly, the early memories that we can recall are the vivid, and sometimes on occasion the threatening ones like your encounter with the emu. The common place events by definition blur into an insignificant background noise from which these extraordinary events stand out. Tutankhamun, perhaps with a bit of “brain washing” from your father the memory stands out like a talisman, a punctuation in a life hopefully, not yet half lived. Memory is such a precious gift, it is one of the fears of growing older that you might be robbed of the memories of the past, and like Ground Hog Day, forced to remember the same things over and over again.

Stay well!
With my love

Your memories are sobering and fascinating, thank you so much for writing them down. How different the world has become in that tiny gap between two generations. I cannot imagine what it was like to live through wartime, so strange and terrible. I love your descriptions though, the detail is something only a child is likely to remember – the cigarette butts under the railway seat. I love that your first memory is of trains too, that is rather a coincidence, although yours was born of mortal danger, and mine… your patient repetition. I think of it as a quaint curiosity, an eccentricity, rather than casting myself as the precocious prodigy – although I am happy for you to think so, you are perhaps a little biased 🙂 I do remember trying very hard with words, preferring silence to a compromise in pronunciation. I’m sure I left the elderly lady with an impression of early genius, but you and I both know how long it took me to master my own name – simple and two-syllabled as it was back then!

Much love

Excellent recollections of a not at all ordinary childhood Sumangali. You remind me of scenes and haunting impressions from a Proust novel, or a Wordsworth poem. Thank you for sharing!

Thanks so much for the visit, Jaitra. Not sure I deserve to rub shoulders with such luminaries as Proust or Wordsworth, but am certainly honoured to be mentioned in the same breath.

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