Last Tuesday there was an award ceremony for a student poetry competition at Homerton. I am on the jury and thus participated also in agreeing on the theme, which this year was “An early memory”. If you are around twenty, which the students are, their early memories are still quite fresh, and we deliberately made it “An early memory” rather than “The earliest memory”. The earliest memory may not be the one you'd like to extract form the dark cellars of your mind.
My earliest memory is very easy to identify in time and space: summer when I was two, in a vast Kazakhstan steppe where we went to visit our deported relatives. I have a photo of me, running around naked except for a little cap to protect my head from the sun (I guess nobody had heard about skin cancer at that time). I don't remember it, but I was told afterwards how I tried to escape and run as fast as I could right toward the faraway horizon, accompanied by the dog of unidentifiable race, Kutka. To catch me was hopeless, so Granny would call Kutka instead, and he would turn and run back, and I followed. That's what they told me later, I have no memory of it.
What I do remember is me and another little girl playing in a shallow rivulet beside a large river, while the grownups chatted nearby or perhaps prepared a picnic. “Now let's run into the big river”, my companion challenged me. We held hands and ran. She let my hand go. I kept on running.
This is a typical out-of-the-body memory, because I remember running and then I saw the scene from outside and above, Granny jumping into the river with her clothes on, a light silk dress with small flowers, groping frantically in the water below the floating white cap.
I don't remember any spanking for being a bad girl.
As I am writing now, I suddenly realise why I have never learned to swim and have always been terrified by deep water.