My first memory: 1959, Santiago, Chile. (My father worked for the U.N., stationed in Santiago.)
I am 3 ½, out for a walk on the city sidewalk with the maid and my brother, 1 ½. The maid holds my brother’s hand, but I walk free. I am a big girl.
Up ahead in the street, just beside the sidewalk, lies an open cesspool, a concrete bordered square filled with black water: shiny and flat and fascinating and dangerous, with a gagging stink that intensifies as we approach it.
Cars rumble by, people bustle and chatter, kids yell. It is sweaty hot. A slight breeze ripples the surface of the water making it look like wrinkled skin. A feather, downy and pure white, drifts down over the blackness— very, very slowly.
My brother gasps, transfixed. I know, with absolute certainty, what will happen next. He breaks free of the maid’s hand, and runs full tilt towards the cesspool, hands reaching. Silence descends. Everything slows down. I need to stop him, he will get hurt, but my feet are stuck to the sidewalk…. He stumbles on the lip, and arms still out stretched, tumbles into the dark stench.
Noise rushes in. People shout and mill. I stick close to the maid, who crouches on the concrete edge, screaming his name over and over. She leans out and grabs his shirt, dragging him in. He is a big, chubby little boy. A man helps her pull him out. He just lies there, soaked and kaka-stinky. His face is bloody and strange and he is not crying. She swings him up on her hip, grabs my wrist tight, and yanks me into running to keep up.
I’ve been hurtled back into this memory countless times just by glimpsing the long vertical scar splitting my brother’s hairline. When I saw it the day my son turned four— Why! He’s a baby! And at 3 ½— so was I!
Yet I-of-the-memory am a big girl. And, given that was the oldest and most experienced I had ever been, I was a big girl. How fully I grasped the situation!
Now, more than half a century later, finally, I solve the problem that’s troubled me-of-the-memory, the way a tongue probes a sore tooth: I predicted what would happen, knew what to do to prevent it, felt the responsibility to enact it, but couldn’t.
I looked at my four year old with new eyes. It’s out of the birth canal and into the fire: packing amazing gear, willing and able to use it, questing to use it better.