A Week’s Worth of Journaling Prompts: First Memories

by Amber Lea Starfire on February 6, 2012

What’s the first thing you remember? Do you wonder, Why do I remember that event, out of all the possible events in my early life?

In my first memory, I am in a strange bedroom with sleek, blonde furniture instead of the familiar, warm cherry bedroom set my parents own. I am standing on a chair looking out a picture window into a dark night sky. My mother is behind me, one palm warm against my back, her other hand set firmly on my hip so that I won’t fall. The sky suddenly explodes in bursts of color, like giant dandelions made of light, accompanied by deep popping noises in the distance. I begin jumping up and down on my chair, pointing, but my mother steadies me and I settle down, watching the dance of lights in a state of awe.

That’s it in its entirety. I don’t know how old I was, though I can guess, and I don’t where we were, though I can guess at that too. I have only this moment of vivid clarity framed by vague images and sounds. And yet, I also remember feeling safe and secure, not frightened, by the experience. That moment was the first time I remember feeling awe and wonder. In fact, it was such a profound moment for my little child self, that it has remained with me for over fifty years.

Why do some memories stay with us while others disappear in the sea foam of the past?

I believe that our memories—both positive and negative—are important, because they are associated with emotion and with profound moments of learning. And those moments embed themselves in our minds using emotion and sensory details. Uncovering and delving into memories, particularly those fragile, first ones can be enlightening. It can also be an important part of understanding how you formed your story of life—that is the story you tell yourself and others about your life, including where you’re from and who you’ve become.

This week’s journal writing prompts are designed to help you reveal more about these fragmented and elusive early memories:

  1. What is your earliest memory? Write a quick descriptive sketch of the event, describing everything you can remember, including who was with you, what happened, your feelings, responses of others, and any sensory details, such as shapes, colors, sounds, scents, and touch.
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  2. What do you not know about this event? (Age, circumstances, place, etc.) Make some educated guesses that might fill in the blanks. Then list some possible ways to research the facts. For example, if older family members were present, you could ask them what they remember. Or family albums might reveal some of the facts.
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  3. Why do you think you remember this particular event? In what ways did that experience affect your life or, more accurately, your perceptions of life?
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  4. If you were to write your life story, would you include this memory? Why or why not?
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  5. Close your eyes and, thinking back to that moment, try to expand your memory’s sensory awareness. What else was in the room or place? Were there other sounds or smells? What was happening in the periphery of the event? Open your eyes and write everything down, however “sketchy” it seems to be.
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  6. Perform word association exercises with the emotions you associated with your memory. Using my first memory as an example, I would use the words awe, wonder, safety, and excitement.
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  7. What is your second earliest memory? Repeat prompt #1 with this memory and then freewrite about how the two memories are related to one another.

Leave a comment—I would love to hear about your first memories and what you discovered by writing about them.

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Image Credit: Eddy Van
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Lippincott February 6, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I tell of my first memory in a memoir of my preschool years. I was playing house on the front porch, sweeping the floor and taking care of my baby doll, “just like Mommy.” I couldn’t wait to grow and be a mommy, wearing pin curls in my hair and having my husband come home and kiss me like Daddy kissed her when he came home in the evening and spit seeds into my mouth that would grow into a baby in my tummy, like she had. I was barely past two at the time.

That seed spitting stuff sounded kind of gross, but … she seemed to like it.

Another memory from the same time frame is sitting on the floor next to Mommy’s sewing machine. I had a scrap of fabric and a needle and thread. I knew I was only making tangles, but I also knew that soon I’d get the hang of it and be able to sew as well as she did. … And so I did, though it took far longer to sew as well as she did.

This makes a strong case for early cultural expectations and gender role programming!

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Amber Lea Starfire February 6, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Oh, so cute. We all idolized our mothers, didn’t we? (Boys, included!). I do have to wonder who told you that story about the seed spitting … do you have an older brother or sister who might have ‘splained things to you?

And yes, we do learn very young about gender roles and expectations. :-)

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Susan Godwin September 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm

My earliest memory is an event that occurred when I was about four years old. We lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a drugstore was nearby. I walked over there, went in, and grabbed several suckers that were on a low shelf. I returned home and sat on our swingset eating them. My dad came outside and asked where they came from and how did I pay for them. The tone of his voice told me I had done something REALLY naughty, though I wasn’t sure what. We went to my piggybank and removed enough pennies to pay for them and then walked back to the drugstore where he told me to go in and tell the druggist that I was paying for what I had taken. This is my first memory of shame and embarrassment.

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Amber Lea Starfire September 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Susan, I felt sad reading your story. As adults, we often assume that kids know when they’re doing the wrong thing when, in fact, they are acting on innocent impulse as you did. In attempting to correct children, we can leave them with shame and embarrassment for a lifetime, as yours did.

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Susan Godwin December 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Those are the feelings I remember experiencing at that time. Upon, reflection, I believe my dad helped teach me a valuable lesson in an appropriate manner. I NEVER shoplifted again in my life!

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Amber Lea Starfire December 26, 2012 at 5:56 am

Well, there is that … shame does work as a deterrent. And works as a teaching tool, if balanced with love and “redemptive” love. As a parent, it’s hard to know where that balance is, though. And you never really know what your children are going to carry away from an experience. (I’m generalizing here, of course.)

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Margarett Meyers January 29, 2013 at 8:29 pm

I may have been four when it happened. I remember standing on a white stool–the gentle hand of a silver-haired woman steadying me as I reached into a cupboard. I saw a set of brightly-colored Pyrex bowls–yellow, green, red, and blue. They were nestled together, the largest to the smallest, and I was mesmerized by the brilliant colors.

The woman must have been my step-grandmother–one of Grandpa’s four wives. (It is interesting to note that Grandpa married four times, my mother married four times, and I followed suit and married four times. Hereditary??)

I don’t remember whether my mother was in the room, and I don’t remember doing anything in the cupboard or retrieving anything. I just remember standing on the stool with a gentle hand on my back, a window with yellow gingham curtains to the left of me, and the Pyrex bowls–exactly like a set I would own much later. I remember that the kitchen window was fogged with steam and the room smelled of freshly baked apple pie–tart and spicy.

And, I remember that I felt safe and comfortable for a rare moment in my life.

As for the “seed spitting,” when I asked my mother where babies come from, she told me that “the man gives the woman an injection.”

I thought for years that the man gave the woman a shot!

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Amber Lea Starfire January 29, 2013 at 8:45 pm

What a lovely memory, and lovely description of it! I was right there with you, that warm hand on my back, and the comfort of cinnamon and warm kitchen smells. — So like my own first memory.

And the shot! Hilarious! Thank you for sharing.

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Sande Bihlmaier December 19, 2013 at 9:08 am

I’m just now reading through your suggestions. Anyway, my first memory is of when my brother died. I was not quite 2 and I asked my mom where he was. She told me he was sleeping and I went to his bed to see. He was not there. I was very confused. I remember feeling afraid and confused, because I could not find him.

I also have a memory of walking along a dirt road with my brother and picking wildflowers for my mom. I always have associated this with that brother, the one who died, but I think it could have been another brother because it seems I was around 3 or 4. At this point in time, the only ones who would be able to confirm this are dead so I have no idea. I know that the feelings associated with that are joy and happiness, and feeling carefree. I remember my mom’s face when I gave her the flowers and how they were put in a juice cup and set on the kitchen table.

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Amber Lea Starfire December 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Sande, thank you for sharing your first memories with us. You were so young when your brother died, and confusion and fear made that memory stick with you.

It’s interesting, too, how those young memories can compress, so that the association of the flowers with the brother who died may or may not match the actual event (because you were older). But the memory and the feelings are lovely, and it’s likely that you did pick flowers with the brother who passed away — or saw him do it — so that association is there. You might be interested in exploring those feelings of joy and happiness and how those feelings are attached to your brother through freewriting or word association.

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