“It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity—this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. The episode is literally the first thing I can remember about her, and therefore I date the birth of her identity from that day."
- Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
But she doesn't say self-awareness, she says identity. Yes, self awareness, having a personal point of view, implies a singular identity, but Wharton's quote goes beyond this, I think, to include WHAT you remember. What is so important to you that it actually brings into existence that first spark of self-awareness, that first recorded memory? And why is it so important to you?
My first memory is of my older sister reading to me. We are in her room (a rare treat in itself, being allowed inside her room) and she has brought down one of her books from the shelf in her closet, while I wriggled in anticipatory excitement on her bed. Then she is lying on the bed beside me, reading to me. It's a chapter book, Maggie Muggins. No pictures. I lie still while she reads. I am very grown up. I am probably four years old, because we moved out of that house just before I turned five.
Another of my earliest memories is of my sister reading me C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. Once again, we are lying on her bed, side-by-side as she reads. I must be five or six, because this memory takes place in our "new" house. I remember her gravely telling me how lucky I am to be hearing these books for the first time, and that she wished she were reading them for the first time. I remember feeling a little surprised and awed by my unexpected good fortune.
It isn't surprising to me that I remember the attention from my older sister, or even being read to: it's that I remember the books themselves, the titles, the characters, even some of the words ("My goodness, I wonder what will happen tomorrow?" Maggie said at the end of every chapter). As though the very words were crucial, the stories themselves becoming part of me, important enough to make me notice, to make me become aware of myself noticing, to strike that spark of self-awareness in me.
By the time I was seven, I was writing very short stories, and bad but rhyming poems, myself. But I was a writer before that. I was a writer the day I became aware that I was in love with words. Our first memory is our identity.
What's your first memory? Why do you think that's the first thing you remember? What does it say about who you are?