Memories of Childhood and Beyond
Reflections on setting out to write my memoir
Some years ago, I fell upon page 1 of a memoir written by my great great grandfather. Reading it was startling. Although only one page, I felt he was touching me. I knew him and he was speaking to me, knowing me. Looking at his writing, I learned far more about him than the page contained. He died in 1912, one hundred and ten years ago. I became hungry to know him better and for some years I combed archives for his letters and stories of him. He remains very close to me.
Along the way of learning more about my great great grandfather, I unearthed a manuscript written by an even older forebear, James, who had died in the second half of the nineteenth century. The manuscript had lain buried in an archive of the National library in Canberra, among a collection of papers that the library had bought decades earlier. After acquisition, the library had catalogued the collection and sealed it up again. What a find!
By chance I had combed Jame's tomb in County Clare a year or so before. The tomb had been opened and robbed a few days earlier and his remains lay still on a stone in a partly closed chamber, his great sword lying grasped across his chest, his heavy keys still attached to his belt.
In the manuscript, James described his boyhood, a dreamer and non achiever, who had neither ambition nor interests beyond the things he would find in field and forest.
He had then been taken up by an uncle by marriage, who happened to be the chairman of the East India Company. As a gift to his mother, James was sent to a private school in England for his correct preparation. At age fourteen he was then sent to Maccau to learn the arts of international trade, buying tea and silks in exchange for opium he purchased in India. By the end of the 1700s, before he was 16, he was earning £50,000 a year. He went on to become fabulously wealthy and returned to Ireland where he used his wealth to build roads across his native Co Clare and work with Daniel O’Connell to liberate Ireland from its colonial yoke.
I know (and he of course didn’t) how the opium trade that the western nations imposed on China then, under the menace of their gunboats, has gone on to produce the China we have today. With its massive navy and fierce determination to prevent any future western assault on its country and people, China is having the last word. Meanwhile, the wealth elicited from China, still has not achieved an Ireland free of its old colonial yoke or helped to make my life sweeter. Bugger twice.
Nevertheless, reading his story I was struck again by the same feeling of family connection. Again, I perceived myself in that long chain of transmission whereby an old Y chromosome travels from father to son, father to son, father to son… perpetuating not only a specific set of biological matter, but also a …. what is the word … a “self” that embodies code for decision making, forming judgments, valuing, self worth, Nature. Whatever it is, it just keeps propagating and though we find ourselves in different epochs and exposed to different forces, the old Y chromosome is the gift that never stops giving and, in the end, son to great great great great grandfather and all in between, the male bit of us is the same, we feel the same and walk the same, we are the same one.
My own kids live far from me and since they are mostly late starters in the family renewal business, I’ve decided to write a memoir too. By the time I drop off, it’s quite likely I won’t get to bump many grand kids around on my knee and tell my “once upon a time” stories. I’d like them to have them though, when they eventually come along and grow old enough to imbibe what I imbibed reading those old stories from my grandfathers.
Now here’s the thing, and it’s why I started this scrawl here.
I started. I started my memoir. I started with my birth. See, I remember it. I didn’t know what it was that I remembered, not for years, not until I stood at the birth of my own first son. Then all those memories fell into place, the memory of being crushed again and again, wave after towering wave of compression, the sound of a beating heart rising, rising, rising to crisis in volume and pace; then it falling away to quiet. Again I felt fear waiting for the next onset and the inexplicable terror that would come over me as I would remember the first tiny pulse that signalled it starting all over again.
As I began telling my story, my memory raced back. I remember visits to post natal clinic with my mum. Me swaddled in cloth, she in what I now recognise as a floral frock, summer sleeves and cut a short way beneath her knee. I remember the creaky old bus grinding its way up the steep climb to the hospital, alighting early coming back down, to visit a friend of mums, an older lady who lived on the eastern side of the road up to the hospital. I remember the small yellow bird in a cage inside her front door and she pouring tea. I was in swaddling cloth and I know these memories are that old because we left there and moved far away before I was a year old.
Before I was one, my parents bought a house by the Georges River at Taren Point, then on the remote southern perimeter of Sydney. Years later, despite a big bridge and a freeway being built, I recognised that house by chance, passing it one day. We were there less than a year, before my father’s work took him away again and the house was sold. I could not speak but began to crawl there. I can draw a floor plan of that house and its garden and draw the modifications my grandfather made to it, moving walls around.
I can also draw a floor plan of my grandfather’s house and garden including the layout of his workshop where he used to sit me on his bench. I was not yet talking last time I saw that house.
I find I can describe the path my mother used to take, to bathe me in the river, yet I was barely 1. I have colours and detail. It goes on ...
Perhaps you can remember similar things. And yet, according to modern Vision Science you can’t. See, vision depends on lots of things coming together and human development takes around six years before reliable vision forms across near and far, in most children. It isn’t just a matter of optics of the eye. The spacing between the eyes must achieve a necessary geometry with each eye and nose. That is, the face has to grow, the nose has to reach its shape. Each eye has to perform remarkable things, receive light at the retina, turn it upside down and back the front and then stitch it to the light data being manipulated by the other eye so that two eyes see one thing and not two things. The eye itself has to grow sufficiently that it can bend light so it achieves correct focus at the optic nerve. The eye is too small, then light at the optic nerve is out of focus. Then there’s all the muscle growth and development than is necessary to synchronise both eyes so they are pointing at the right place, they have to draw nearer to each other as they look closer and they have to move apart to see further away, but the movements have to be precisely synchronised or double vision arises, creating blurred images. There is more, because light data, even while all this is happening, still has to be interpreted as Meaning. Meaning involves all kinds of sensory data acquisition and synchronisation.
With all this in mind we can understand why toddlers are clumsy and become frustrated.
So, even if an infant could see a tree for instance, it should not be able to identify it as a tree. When I remember that old bus grinding its way up to the hospital, my current mind looking at the image can identify the bus as a Reo, however my infant mind should not even recognise a bus. What is a bus? In fact, it should not recognise more than my mother's face. Everything else should be out of focus. Clearly however, memories are not dependent on physical data collation. And even were they, what manner of infant brain could classify them, post them to useful storage bins, properly labelled for future recovery?
There is more to Memory and therefore Mind than even eminent scientists dare think about. Trust me. I know some of them. Examining self evident data is frightening for many professionals who’ve built careers, borrowed money, made promises to their kids.
Pity them, because the joy of being alive is the freedom to contemplate the inexplicable wonder of what is REALLY real.
All of the above leads me back to my old puzzlement about what consciousness is. Mike and I kicked this about a bit over a few coffees the other day. Geez, its good to be so old you’re scared you won’t die in time and you’ll forget your questions for God.
Speaking of time.
Time is an ancient norse concept for measuring circular distance. Like a multiplier, it might best be described as a rate of change, not itself anything. It operates in Consciousness, not in matter.
In fact Time might only be a kind of grammar used by Consciousness for purposes of making human language and constructing an apparition of matter.
One of the great purges in the 21st century is shaping up to be abandonment of the ideas belonging to 19th and 20th centuries, that Consciousness is an output of brain. More and more, research is revealing that while Consciousness is conducted in brain and interpreted in brain, it emanates from outside brain. Like Time, which Consciousness devises and employs, Consciousness may not be contingent on the presence of matter.
About the author
As I child I would sit at my grandmother's table, among aunts and neighbours, perhaps a postman, a travelling salesman or two, all of them laughing riotously at their tall tales of absent husbands and children and others. It begins there.