My Mother Went Out for Lemons

maryjanesWhat is your earliest memory?

Mine is from when I was somewhere between two and three years old. I’ve heard that it’s unusual to remember anything that early. So I’m unusual: when my mother was still alive I asked her if the following thing ever happened and (subject to the Rashomon effect of her recollection being different from mine) I can say that it did.

As a small child my family lived in the top two floors (or more properly, the top floor and an attic) of a brownstone on 11th Street in New York City. Four years after this story we moved to another brownstone, also on 11th Street, where we lived in the bottom two floors.  But that’s neither here nor there in terms of this memory.

My brother would have been about six months old–I know this because it was spring (and both my brother and I were December babies, but it wasn’t swelteringly hot the way that summer in New York City so often is). I would have been about two and a half. And my mother was making dinner and realized that she needed a lemon. Rather than waking the baby and packing us both into the stroller and going down to the corner to fetch a lemon, Mom made a different call: she sat me down on the couch, told me not to move, and went out to buy a lemon.

Nowadays this sounds like something that would bring the judgement of Child Protective Services rocketing down on her, but this was the early-mid 50s, a less obsessive time. My brother was asleep upstairs in his crib. I was a good kid and would follow orders. And she’d only be gone, what? Five minutes? So Mom chanced it.

Why do I remember this? First, I was a tiny little kid, and sitting on the couch, my feet didn’t even reach the edge of the seat to hang over it. I was wearing a corduroy romper and red mary janes, and for the first few minutes all I did was stare at the toes of my shoes. This was a new game, and I suspect I meant to play it properly. But then my brother woke up and began to cry.

As a parent, there were certain things I meant to learn from the way I was parented, and one thing was to try not to say “null word” things. The sorts of things that adults say to children that they don’t mean to be taken seriously. In my mother’s case, the “null words” she said to me were: “Stay very still. Don’t move a muscle. Take care of your brother.”

Now, if she’d stopped after “muscle,” I’d probably have forgotten the whole incident. But she didn’t. And I had been co-opted early on as Assistant Parent, the way that oldest children often are. So when Mom said “Take care of your brother,” I accepted it as an instruction to be followed.

The problem was that she’d already given me a contradictory instruction: “Stay very still. Don’t move a muscle.” How could I fulfill that directive and still take care of my wailing six-month-old brother? What I remember is looking at the toes of my mary janes, then toward the stairs to the attic, then back at my mary janes, and back to the stairs, like a tiny computer in a corduroy romper and red shoes trying to reconcile two opposing directives. Back and forth: stay very still– take care of your brother– stay very still take–care of your brother. I remember wale of the corduroy on my back, and that my white socks had slipped into the heels of my shoes as they always did, and that I did not know what I was supposed to do.

Fortunately, before I succumbed to directive-related psychosis my mother returned with the lemons. Probably she was gone ten minutes or less. Mom charged into the house and upstairs, got my brother, and then released me from my stasis on the couch. All was well.  But the memory? There’s the physical component of what it felt like, sitting there on the couch. And there’s the emotional component of trying at a very young age to sort out what was required of me, what directive was more important, what my responsibility was.

I suspect that this has some larger metaphoric thing to say about the person I became. I do know that when my kids were small I tried really hard not to put them into a position where they didn’t know which instruction to follow. I doubtless failed in many other ways; it’s the nature of parenthood to be full of failures. And while my mother put me in red mary janes for a number more years, I never really liked them much.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books
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15 Responses to My Mother Went Out for Lemons

  1. Tuppence says:

    My earliest memory is from when I was in diapers. I was standing up. My mother must have had some sort of womens group over for lunch or tea. I knew I needed to be changed and all I could see were a lot of womens shoes legs and skirt hems. I distinctly recall the moment when realising I could not ‘see’ my mother I decided to wail. Which produced her instantly! I also recall the immediate feeling of security restored.

  2. Yvette says:

    My first memory is from when I was probably 3 or 4. We lived in a rented house, but what I remember the most clearly is the bathroom. Bright red sink in an otherwise very blue bathroom. (I’ve confirmed this with my parents). I also recall the layout of my room, and how I hated looking out the windows of my room. They faced the back of the property. My dad had dug a hole at the tree line, and every time I looked in that direction I thought I saw something dark climbing out of the hole. I also had a lot of bad dreams about bat-like monsters too. I really didn’t like that house as a tot.

    We moved when I was 4 I’d say (it was right before I started school). They bought a house with 20+ acres of forest and field and I would constantly wander the woods with nary a concern. It was just something about that first house and those woods.

  3. Mary says:

    My second day of kindergarden, when I got a treat I had earned the first day.

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  5. JRLawrence says:

    Being lifted into my grandmother’s arms. She is sitting up against white pillows in a big, bright brass bed. The room is white-washed plaster, the floor is bare, grey boards. Muslin curtains blow in the sunshine and there are red geraniums on the sill outside.

    I recall that room so vividly, and have recreated it several times over in my homes.

    When I asked my father about it, he said it was a hotel room in France, on the first holiday my family took after my birth. I was eight months old.

  6. David says:

    My earliest memory is off me looking down a staircase at the back of a woman who was in an open doorway at the top of a hill, looking out at a couple who was getting in to an old timey looking car. I can bring that image up pretty easily and I once asked my mom (when the was still speaking to her) when that would have been. I figured for a long time that she was the woman In the doorway. She told me that it was one of her sisters, and that the couple was another sister and her husband. It was about a month or two before I was born.

  7. I always loved the Asimov story “Runaround” in I, Robot. I can imagine Speedy feeling just as conflicted, just as lonely, and ultimately so relieved when the conflicting orders are resolved by Mom coming home.

    That is a new take for me about the essential humanity and child-like-ness of the Asimov robot.

  8. Veronica says:

    I was sitting in a crib (?) in my sister’s bedroom. The room was fairly dark, perhaps at twilight or early morning. I must have been waving my arms and hands in front of my face, but what I thought I was doing was somehow physically transferring each hand so that it was attached to the opposite wrist and then switching them back. I don’t know how old I was, but I must have been very, very young to not realize that each hand is permanently attached to its wrist.

    I think I remember it so well because for some years afterwards, I used to worry that I had stopped with each hand on the wrong wrist, and therefore my thumbs might be on the wrong side of my hands. (Obviously, this would have been easy to check, by comparing my hands to anyone else’s hands, but I never thought to do it.) I think that I was seven or eight before I realized I could not possibly have done what I remembered doing.

  9. sherwood says:

    My first birthday. Someone was holding my hands back so I couldn’t get at the cake sitting on my high chair tray (while someone took pix). I didn’t want the cake–I didn’t know what it was–I wanted the cardboard carousel on top of it. Then a neighborhood kid popped a balloon in my face. I’ve loathed balloons ever since.

  10. Cat Kimbriel says:

    My first memory is rather traumatic. I think it might be a blog post in itself, as it’s a perfect example of a parent misunderstanding a tiny child’s terror. I suspect it had long term effects, too. Will try to figure out how to summarize…

  11. Zena says:

    I was lying in a room with yellowish institution-like walls and bright lights, looking up at people bending over me. My father came through a set of swinging double doors to the left and walked towards me. He was wearing dark pants, a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a tie (his usual work or out-of-the-house attire).

    I asked my mother about it once, and we concluded it must have been at the hospital just after I was born, when they were collecting me to take me home. There was no other time that I would have been in clinical surroundings like that.

    I have a number of very early memories when I was still in diapers. It always struck me as odd when my friends said they couldn’t remember that far back. It never occurred to me that I was, in fact, the odd one.

  12. Beth says:

    I had cracked my jaw during naptime and needed to get x-rays. My mom wasn’t allowed in the room with me, which is how I date this — she must have been pregnant with my younger brother, so I was somewhere around three years old. I had to rest on a bed with a pillow, and the pillow was harder than the bed. I remember a flash of a black machine over me (the x-ray?) but more clearly I remember wondering if you still called it a pillow if it was so hard. Pillows were supposed to be softer than the bed. It bothered me that I didn’t know if I needed a different word for this rock-hard pillow-like thing.

    Pedantry in a time of crisis is apparently set at a very young age…

    • Pedantry in a time of crisis is one of the best coping mechanisms I know of. “What’s that machine? Really? How does it work? Uh-huh. How about that thing with the needle?”

    • Zena says:

      That must’ve been some kind of dream you were having if you cracked your jaw while napping! Either that, or you pillow was harder than the one in the x-ray room…

      • Beth says:

        Well, I said it was naptime, not that I was napping. I was one of those kids who give their parents many opportunities to say “I told you so.”

        I don’t remember how I got hurt, but my mom says I was climbing on a wooden bean bag target and fell, so she came up and yelled at me and I was sent back to bed with an ice cube. After a while it became apparent that something was not right.

        I do remember that while I was recovering I had to eat through a straw, and my mom wrenched my brother’s crazy-straw from him and let me use it. I have a distinct memory of sitting at the table, looking at him while sucking on HIS straw and feeling smug. So all my memories of this are rather pleasant; the pain didn’t seem to make much of an impression.