My Earliest Memories: What Is Real and What Isn’t?

As we begin the new year, I’ve been looking back at my life. From time to time I try to decide what my earliest memory is. I recently wrote about the first Thanksgiving I remember, in November 1958 when I was two-and-a-half. But I have earlier memories yet.

T 17 mo & M 2 wks

Me at 17 months, and my newborn brother

I might remember my brother’s birth when I was seventeen months old, but I may only be remembering the stories that were told later of what a good big sister I was.

I remember my mother having to feed the furnace in the house we lived in from mid-1957 until August or September 1959. But I can’t pinpoint exactly when those memories took place in that timeframe.

I’m pretty sure I do actually remember many things that happened between December and March 1958, when my mother, brother and I lived with my maternal grandparents in Klamath Falls, Oregon, while my father was taking courses in Corvallis, Oregon, for his master’s degree. I was not yet two during these months.

I have fleeting memories of my great-grandfather visiting during that time, though it might have been a later visit, and I don’t remember the most famous family event of that visit, which was when I pushed my baby brother over—caught on an early home movie for all to see.

I’m fairly certain I remember chasing Kitty, my grandparents’ cat, under the couch. I so wanted to pet Kitty, and Kitty so did not want to be petted. She was a grumpy old thing. But again, that memory could have come from a later visit.


My grandparents’ house in Klamath Falls (you can see the Oldenburgs’ house beyond). My bedroom was on the back of the house, which was over the basement garage.

I remember locking myself in the bedroom during naptime. I was fascinated by the lock in the doorknob—we didn’t have those at our house—and I loved to push the button. The bedroom windows were on the second story above the garage in the back of the house. On a couple of occasions, someone had to climb a ladder to get in through the window to rescue me. I didn’t know I needed rescuing, but I was not able to understand how to unlock the door—or maybe I just didn’t want to. After the second or third “rescue,” my grandmother tied a dishtowel around the knob so I couldn’t push the button anymore. But again, this could have happened on a later trip to Klamath Falls.

However, I have one memory from that winter that is confirmed by newspaper accounts. I researched it online and found references to what happened in the Klamath Falls newspaper for February 10 and 11, 1958, though I’m not certain of the exact date.

In the middle of one night in early February 1858, I woke up in that bedroom in my grandparents’ home where I liked to lock the door. What woke me were bright red lights flashing through the bedroom windows. My mother slept with me, and she was also awake. (I can’t remember if my brother’s crib was there also, but he slept through the whole thing.)

My mother was crying. “Shhh,” she said, when she saw I was awake. “Go back to sleep.”

“What are those lights?” I asked.

“Fire trucks.”

I knew what fire trucks were. But I’d never seen their lights flashing. “Why are the lights blinking?”

“There’s been a fire. At the Oldenburgs’ house. Now go back to sleep.”

I knew Dr. and Mrs. Oldenburg. They lived next door. They were old, even older than my grandparents. Their daughter had been one of my mother’s best friends growing up. I watched the lights for awhile, then slept again.

In the morning I found out both Dr. and Mrs. Oldenburg had died in the fire. My mother and grandparents didn’t want to talk about it when I was around, but I heard them whispering.

From that time on, I didn’t like to look at the Oldenburgs’ house. I could see it was burned for awhile, then it got fixed. Another family moved in, and I played with grandchildren who visited them when I was also visiting. But the memory that someone had died in that house always stayed with me. And that night in February 1958 might be my earliest verifiable memory.

What is your earliest memory?

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  1. That’s pretty remarkable. Probably what made you such a good attorney.I, on the other hand, have always been a dreamer, which, no doubt, has added to my very faulty memory!

    Sent from my Verizon 4G LTE smartphone

  2. When I was twenty-two months in early 1945, my mom wrote a letter to my dad in Germany describing how I fell on a floor furnace on my bare bottom. I remember that apartment. It was a few rooms in the upstairs of a house with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and high windows in a room we used as a living room. The house still stands today in Fort Scott, KS. I’d like to visit it to check my recollections seventy-two years later.

  3. You are almost the same age I am, and I have the same trouble with my memories. I have very very early memories–ones I know are real and can pinpoint dates–but others, not so sure of how old I was. I wrote a post ages ago about a memory I have that I really am not was a true memory or an extremely vivid dream. I was very young then, too.

    • Oops, didn’t mean to send yet. The memory of the fire is horrific, and the fact that two people died in it–people you knew–is even more so. It kind of operates differently than Sven Birkerts involuntary memories in that it is so extreme, but then I can’t imagine not remembering that!

      • The fire was horrific, but as a two-year-old, I didn’t really understand the significance. It was only as I grew older that I realized how awful it must have been and why my mother was crying.

  4. Your memories are much earlier than my own, Theresa. I’ll have vivid flashes of moments from my early childhood, but no details until maybe five-years old or so.
    The fire must have been a frightening memory for your mother…so sad.

  5. Wow! That’s impressive that you remember something so vividly at that age. I wonder if it was because it was such a tragedy or that you witnessed the emotion in your mother. I think seeing your mom cry is unsettling for a child. Do you remember the smell of smoke? “They” say smells are often associated with memories. I’m pretty sure my earliest memories are barely pre-kindergarten!

    • I don’t remember any smell of smoke from that night or the next day. The lights are what I remember most vividly. And I probably remember the incident because of my mother’s emotion. Plus, she and my grandparents would bring it up over the years, so the flashing lights became etched in my mind.

      It’s not like I thought about the tragedy a lot when I was a kid. My grandparents moved out of that house when I was about six. After that, I rarely saw either my grandparents’ home or the Oldenburgs’ house next door to think about the fire. But whenever the incident came to mind, I remembered the fire truck lights and my mother’s distress.

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