Early memories, embarrassment and grey paint - by Rosalie Warren

What’s the earliest birthday of your own that you can remember?

For me, along with quite a few other people, I believe, it’s my fourth. 1959, that would have been (no, please don’t bother to work out how old I am). May 1959 in St Eval, an RAF base near Newquay in Cornwall. I have a number of ‘memory glimpses’ that are clearly linked to this day, though nothing of much consequence happened, looking back. My grandmother – ‘Nana’ – came to stay, catching the train from Pontefract in Yorkshire and changing at Bristol… a long day’s journey which I remember making myself a number of times. It was always fun to have Nana to stay – she was different and exciting. And on this birthday she bought me a doll’s pram, a big one, nearly as big as a real baby’s pram, in my memory at least. It was second-hand – I’m not sure why, as we weren’t well-off but neither were we very poor. Not that its second-handedness bothered me – it made it more fun because it was navy blue and a bit shabby, and Nana got hold of some grey paint and painted it for me. 

I was allowed to help, just a little bit. The smell of paint fills me with excitement to this day. Nana always loved painting – the decorating kind as well as the arty kind – and I was never allowed to help quite as much as I would have liked. But the pram, when finished, was a work of art and I remember waiting impatiently for it to dry so I could put my favourite doll in it. That would have been Mandy, who bleated ‘Mama’ when you turned her on her stomach and had wonderful golden hair which, sadly, had become too knotty to comb.

Nana, me and the pram (in its pre-painted state)
In early July this year my granddaughter Daisy will be celebrating her fourth birthday. I hope her day is as happy as my fourth, and contributes to a lifetime of rich and happy family memories, as mine has done. It’s quite strange to think that, at the age of nearly four (three and five-sixths, as she now proudly tells us), she is already making memories that she may still recall in her sixties and beyond. No doubt she will laugh at the silly primitive videos we made of her back then, while looking fondly at them and acknowledging that they had something special that these latest multi-sensory holograms (or whatever they have by 2078) really don’t.

And just to try to make this post ever so slightly about writing and books… it’s our memories, of course, that make us who we are and give us things to write about, however much we may edit the events and emotions as we form our paragraphs. My very first memory of all, I think, was of another birthday – that of my friend Geraldine, who turned four the previous November. I will never forget her party, because it was the first time (as far as I know) that I experienced embarrassment. The idea of blowing out the candles was a new one to me, but I didn’t realise that only the birthday person was supposed to blow. I took a deep breath and blew, alongside Geraldine, and – oh! The gentle reprimand – from Geraldine’s mum, I think… ‘No, it’s only Geraldine who has to blow the candles out.’ I felt my face burn and I wanted to disappear, be somewhere else, far away, safe at home, away from this scary family with rules I didn’t know about.

First of many times, of course. Uncountable instances of exactly that same feeling. Where did it come from? It was new to me; I’m sure it was. Are we born with the capacity to be embarrassed – are there genes that encode it? Seems unlikely – you would hardly need to experience embarrassment in order to escape the encroaching tiger. But if not, then how had I acquired it at such a young age, with no previous experience as far as I know? 

I’m currently reading a huge neuroscience text book, just from interest and to try to give myself some background to all the popular articles and books I read on memory, sleeping, dreaming, emotions, creativity and the rest. So far, the chapter on emotions hasn’t mentioned embarrassment. I’ll keep looking for an answer. Suggestions welcome. (Is it to stop you suckling from the wrong mother, perhaps??)

Do you remember the first time you felt embarrassment? I’d love to know, if you’re able to share. Or any of the other complex emotions, come to that. Or a birthday that sticks in your mind...

Happy memories!

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Umberto Tosi said…
What a sweet moving family memoir piece. Love the photo. It's easy to tell it's you - having a laugh with your Nana, love being handed forward, as you point out.
Enid Richemont said…
Oh, embarrassment! Our next door neighbours were classified by my family as posh (my dad ran a smallholding - a few cows and some fields, whereas Mr Knight next door did something in Sales, and wore a suit.) I played regularly with their daughter - we were the same age, around 4/5 years old. One day I was invited to their house for high tea. There was soup and some kind of custardy thing, which the posh Knights ate by pushing their spoons away from them. I had never seen anyone do that before, and quickly became aware of being different (how sensitive small children are to this kind of thing). The friendship continued in spite of my obvious vulgarity, only fizzling out when we moved house.

As a matter of curiosity, how do you eat soup? Spoon facing you or away from you?
Rosalie Warren said…
Thanks, Umberto. Enid... love your example of embarrassment. I always thought the posh way to eat soup was the 'away' method. In polite company I usually consume the first few mouthfuls the 'forward' way, then hastily switch when I remember. But I accidentally read something related to the royal wedding recently (I know, I know - embarrassing in itself), where it said that the proper way to eat soup is neither of those - the spoon should come in from the side! I guess that's the poshies trying to second-guess us commoners as usual. Not that I care...
Apparently when I was quite small I used to embarrass my mother more than I did myself... the mention of going out to tea reminded me that (so I've been told) I once scoffed a whole dish of strawberry jam (with a spoon - not sure which direction I zoomed in from) when we were out to tea, thinking it was an individual dessert.
Rosalie Warren said…
Sounds like a good dessert to me! :-)

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