Painting and Prose by Janet Whittle Freedman


First Memory

My first memory is of my toddler self, still somewhat unsteady on my feet and alone in a small dirt-floored room in the back section of our basement. I am searching for a lost treasure; it is something I have felt a strong attachment to. I think this may have been my first experience of loss and it is jarring.

The room is dimly lit, the only natural light coming from a small and grubby window high in the wall. In the murky light I perceive a large dark shape against the far wall. I will learn later that it is a coal burning furnace, but it gives no heat on this warm summer morning. I stare at its imposing shape and fear that my unnamed missing has rolled away into that large darkness and will never be found.

To my right is a doorway through which I can see the cheerful yellow walls of our kitchen, but my distress keeps me here. I cannot tell you what I am looking for because I do not yet have words.  It could be a small toy or some tiny and intriguing object I have picked up from the floor.  Whatever it is, I have adored it, thought it important, have found its loss significant and my need to find it pressing.  But someone – my mother, I expect – shadows the doorway, enters the room, picks me up and carries me away.  I want to scream “wait”; I want to explain that I cannot leave but having no words I am powerless to express the importance of the missing thing.

As an adult I have observed young children who are not yet speakers demonstrate with tears and bodily contortions their unwillingness to be moved from a place they want to be. I feel their frustration at not being able to explain, and their upset at being moved against their will. As I grew older, I would sometimes stand in that same dim room, wondering what I had lost, what I had felt so desperate to retrieve, once even searching the corners and behind the furnace expecting to find some small shiny object that would verify my experience and the accompanying unexplainable and troubling sense of loss.  But what if what was lost wasn’t an actual object but something abstract, a thought, an assumption, a connection that drifted away.  When I have watched young children sleep,  I’ve often felt a sense of their connection to some other place or way of being, as though their soul had an intangible tie to the space from which it travelled, a palpable holiness that on earth slowly ebbs away, a gossamer thread that dims over time. Perhaps that was what left me that day. Whatever it was I mourned it. At some level I think I still do.