It seems to me that babies face steep odds in crafting memories. They have only crude tools to chisel with, their neural substrate is limited, and they spend most of their lives sleeping, shut off from external stimuli. But developmental neurologists take a more respectful perspective. They think that infants simply do not have the language capacity to encode memories in such a way that their language-based adult selves can interpret correctly. It is grown-ups that are limited. So I nuzzle and inhale my sons when they let me, lay down with them at night, eat their toes and feed their whims, hoping to encode something deeply enough for them to feel in their bones, even in the dimness of adulthood.
I wonder about the conditions required for language to bind the sensory and emotional assaults of long ago more tightly to the future. Did I build it in layers, gradually securing a memory fossil record as the sediment deepened? What if there had been a seismic disruption, an onslaught of new grammar or alien idioms or blankness where words could not keep up with what the heart felt? Would the sediment have shifted and settled misaligned, or settled not at all? And then what would history look like but a mad jumble of rubble and vague imprints in the mud?
At my exclusive private school in Saigon, education was trilingual. In first grade, I learned to write Vietnamese in cursive, to pronounce a handful of nouns in English, and recite common phrases in French. I sat sentry on the ground at our front door (I am told), refusing entry or exit until the traveler greeted me and asked about my well-being in French. I spoke my demands loudly. I had the Franco-Indochine creole for piano, clothing, vehicles, zoo animals, banh mi (bread), ca phe (coffee), xe ga (garage), bo (butter), and other favorite foodstuffs. I knew most of the designations for Other in Vietnamese, the honorifics that get affixed to names and root every person to their specific, proper place in the Confucian hierarchy, and hence situate me in mine:
Co – aunt younger than my parent, wife of an uncle younger than my parent, Miss
Ba – woman of my grandparents’ generation, Madam
Ong, man of my grandparents’ generation, Sir
Chu – uncle younger than my parent, husband of an aunt younger than my parent, Mister
Bac – aunt or uncle older than my parent, Sir or Madam older than my parent but younger than my grandparents
Chi – older sister, older girl cousin, older unrelated girl of my generation
Anh – older brother, older boy cousin, older unrelated boy of my generation
Em – younger sibling, younger cousin, younger unrelated boy or girl of my generation
Cau – my mother’s younger brother
Mo – aunt married to my mother’s younger brother
But I had no access to or use yet for the vocabulary of emotions; mine were so concentrated at the contented end of the spectrum. When we left Vietnam, this diminished one source of stress for my parents; I could report little and asked few questions.
We had barely sorted ourselves in the Ross’ attic bedrooms and learned the essential components of the household, when my father took me one morning to a very large building, looming atop three dozen steps, made of red brick and windows the height of small trees. Inside the double wide metal front doors, children, very dark and very light, most bigger than me, pounded on green diamond tile floors.
Then my father was gone. I stood affixed in the center of the first floor hallway. Bodies passed in every direction and the din of their spoken gibberish was deafening. Through sobbing and terror, I saw a man’s hands reaching down to cup under my arms. His skin was pink and he made soft, shushing noises. Blue made that sound at me once, something for me to focus on when my innards were spinning. The man let my head fall on his shoulder and carried me down the length of this hallway then that one, until I was spent and quiet. Two weeks of this before school let out for summer vacation. I did not want to leave the Ross’ house.