We’ve all got conversational ticks, questions we ask to keep the ball rolling—or give it a good kick if it’s stalled. For some people, it’s a “would you rather” question:
“Would you rather eat a living human or be eaten by a living human?”
“Would you rather be able to change the past or see into the future?”
“Would you rather have no fingers or no eyelids?”
Other folks use a more direct approach:
“Whadya wanna talk about?” or “Know any good jokes?”
This second tactic can lead to further silence, followed by one person giving the other a good kick.
My favorite conversational gambit is simple:
“What is your first memory?”
This typically brings a strange, dreamy look into the listener’s face. She then tells a confusing dream-like story that often goes something like this:
“I think I was at my grandmother’s house, along with my big brother. He was seven or so, which would make me about three, and he was teasing my grandma’s cat—maybe tickling her with a feather—and a beam of light came down and bounced off Tabby’s eye.”
“I was five years old, and my little sister choked on a bite of sandwich. Tuna, I think. Then my dad came in, and she was okay.”
“I don’t remember anything about my little-kid childhood. Maybe nothing before I was in like junior-high school. Except—wait a second, I do remember playing with a blue-and-red boat in the bathtub at the house we lived in when I was four. The bubbles in the tub were as thick as meringue and I was able to float the boat on the bubbles for a little while. I remember feeling empty when the bubbles were gone.”
In short, these first memories tend to be snippettes, little pieces of pre-story that have randomly stuck to the brain like sawdust to sneakers. Once folks have answered my question and returned from their fugue states, they often ask me about my first memory. Here’s what I tell them.
“Well, my father was what’s called a ‘mirror twin,’ so he and his brother were physical opposites. That is, they were identical twins except that every physical feature was opposite. For instance, my dad was left-handed and his brother, Roger, was right handed, leading my dad to be a star pitcher and Roger his catcher. Even facially, when my dad looked in the mirror, it was his twin brother who stared back at him. Everything about them was mirrored, down to the whorls of hair on their head and the teeth in their mouth.
“This ‘mirrorness’ is pretty rare, I think, or at least my dad liked to act as though he and Roger were part of this pretty select fraternity—except they were identical not fraternal twins so I guess they’d be part of an identity instead of a fraternity. I know my dad would claim he sometimes knew what his brother was thinking, even when they hadn’t talked in months. As a kid, I had no way of checking this story out, and as an adult I couldn’t imagine calling my Uncle Roger out of the blue to ask if he was thinking about a liverwurst sandwich with raw onions. That would be as weird as the claim itself.
“Anyway, in 1994, when they were both 71, and had not even lived in the same region of the country for 40 years, my uncle died unexpectedly when a blood clot went to his heart, killing him instantly. A few days after my dad and mom returned from my uncle’s funeral in Virginia, my dad was sitting at the kitchen table and felt a pain behind his kneecap that just wouldn’t quit. My mom convinced him to go to the emergency room, and the doctors diagnosed him immediately and amputated his leg above the knee—it was the same exact kind of blood clot that had killed my uncle, except it had migrated south instead of north in my dad. Mirror twins. It’s an amazing thing.”
As I pause to let this sink in, my listener typically gives me a look of sympathy, then wants to know if my first memory took place in 1994, when I was 35 years old.
“No, no, of course not. I was just giving you some background, some way of understanding how my first memory took place. I was about three, I think, and while I may have heard about my dad and my uncle being twins, I’d never met the man and his family, since they lived in Virginia and we lived in New Hampshire. I’m not sure I’d ever met a twin, and at the age of three ‘twinning’ isn’t a concept likely to have arisen organically in your mind.
“One beautiful summer afternoon, though, at our house on Faculty Road in Durham, a man walked through our front door who looked just like my dad. I don’t remember this, of course, because my first memory didn’t come until a little later, but I can imagine this must have confused little Keith greatly. Here was the spitting image of my father, except he had a different wife and three daughters. I expect my mind struggled to make sense of all this, and was still puzzling it out when we had a family reunion cookout in the back yard later that day.
“And that’s my first memory. Not the cookout itself, but playing alone in the middle of the back yard, a bunch of strangers around me. As I recall, I had a large metal spoon in my hand and was digging a hole when I looked up and saw Daddy standing near Mommy by the garden hose faucet on the house. Normal. Then I looked to my other side and saw Daddy talking with my grandfather by the weeping willow tree. That was normal too, but the two normal things couldn’t both be happening at the same time. I don’t know if I’d forgotten about the twin piece or what, but as I sat with dirt all over my hands, the most important thing in the world was for me to go and get a hug from my dad. Except. Except I couldn’t figure out which was my dad, which was his double and, most frightening, how to figure it out.
“At this point, one of the older girl cousins I’d never met before that afternoon looked down at me and must have seen the confusion in my face. She could have come over to her little relative, squatted down and comforted, or at least distracted me. She didn’t. She could have gone over to my dad or her dad—I’m pretty sure she was old enough to tell them apart, or at least remember what clothes her father had been wearing—and told them I looked confused. She didn’t. I don’t blame her for not making either of those choices. Not really. Well, maybe a little.
“I do blame her for the choice she did make. She called out, ‘Look at little Keith! He doesn’t know who his father is!’ At this, my head was on a swivel, going back and forth from one identical man to the other. No doubt it looked so funny no one noticed the terror I felt—or my nervous smile camouflaged it.
“My father and my uncle each squatted down on opposite sides of the backyard and urged me to come to him. They each smiled—I was too little and scared to have noticed my father’s smile rose slightly higher on one side of his mouth and his brother’s on the other. They each reached out their dominant hands in welcome—I didn’t know left from right and would have forgotten in the moment if I had. They each called out my name—I don’t know how ‘mirroring twinness’ affects the vocal cords. Regardless, they sounded identical.
“Terrified of making the wrong choice and, I imagined, bound to live with whatever I chose, I looked at the 20 or so faces in the yard, hoping to get a clue on what to do. Instead, I saw good-hearted, cheerful smiles as though watching three year olds determine their future were as normal a part of backyard cookouts as a game of croquet. At that moment, the universe felt as cruel and cold and as alienating as it ever has for me. Under the vast indifference of heaven, and surrounded by people who claimed to love me but who now made sport of my dread, I froze like a bunny discovered mid-meadow by a hawk shopping above.
“I tasted despair at the age of three. Not to put too fine a point on it—for that last sentence is too sharp by half—but I looked at The Void, gazed into it, and saw it was a hall of mirrors reflecting infinite Voids. If I happened to choose wisely in this backyard, by chance went to my father instead of the identical stranger, life would simply offer me a new choice in a minute or a week or a year. As a barely walking human child, I saw the folly, the necessity and the absurdity of choice.
“Then I cried, and buried my face in my soiled hands.
“It’s said that rabbits can die of Exertional (or Capture) Myopathy, literally scared to death by the appearance of a predator, a very loud noise or, I believe in my heart of hearts, sitting in the middle of a backyard forced to choose between a father and an Imposter. Before I was myopathized, my mother sensed my terror and ran to sweep me into her arms. If she hadn’t carried me to my father at that very moment, I believe I would have been a dead bunny in the form of a little boy.
“Instead, I’ve become a man whose life began when he embraced despair in the form of his father’s arms.”
And that’s my first memory.