before seat belts were legally required

I don’t know if my first memory is really a memory or if it’s just a patchwork of things I’ve heard and images I’ve created from remnants of conversations and photos and stories. Most of my childhood memories are faded, like I’m stretching out to reach them as much as I can with my arms and my fingers and my tiptoes but I just can’t quite touch them, like a dream you can’t quite hold on to once you wake up.

I think this is partially because we moved around so much. If you live in the same house your entire childhood and you remember the Christmas you got the red bike, you might not specifically remember the fireplace and the windows overlooking the trees and the snow, but you can fill those things in from other memories of being in that same house on other Christmases. You know where the window is because you saw it every day for your entire life. I don’t know if we ever lived in the same place two Christmases in a row. I don’t have spare memories to fill in to make that one moment complete.

My first memory is more like a still photograph. I am sitting in the passenger seat of car, looking out. I’m looking slightly up, which would make sense as if this memory is true, I couldn’t have been much more than a year old, so would have been in a car seat. I’m guessing here on the car seat, since I can’t imagine any other way my parents could have gotten a baby not to fall off the seat onto the floor. I’m pretty sure they never used car seats once we were old enough to sit up, as I don’t remember ever being in one. All of my early memories of riding in cars are of me standing up, holding on to the headrest. (To be fair, car seats weren’t legally required when I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure seat belts weren’t either.)

In fact, when I was four and my mom had remarried and we were living in a duplex not far from my grandparents’ house, we were on our way to visit them when someone ran a stop light and plowed right into the side of our car. At the time, my sisters and I were standing up in the back seat, looking out the back window. Suddenly spinning across the road and being thrown into the roof was the most terrifying thing that had happened to me in my short life. I remember only brief moments after that: we were at a nearby house, calling my grandparents; I was on the couch in my grandparents’ den being told I COULDN’T GO TO SLEEP because maybe I had a concussion and if I went to sleep I would never wake. Which was possibly the second most terrifying moment of my life.

Third was when it was time to go home and my stepdad expected me to get into the truck. I don’t remember the drive from the accident to my grandparents’ house, although I’m sure there was one. But likely I was still too shook up to focus on what was happening. Hours later though, trying desperately to stay awake in order to stay alive, I was more alert. And I knew the terror that getting into a car could bring. My stepdad thought I was being a whiny spoiled brat. Kids did what their parents said. End of story. No matter how terrified they might be. Threat of (or possibly actual) spanking later, and there I was, sitting in the truck, petrified. Still without so much as a seat belt.

In my first memory though, I’m pretty sure I was in a car seat of some kind. I think I was in an old VW bug, although I’m sure that’s just because I know that my (biological) father drove one. The car was parked in an alley in front of our house (I have a vivid memory of scraggly yard and the chain link fence, although I have no idea if those are real) and I was looking up at the back of an apartment building at the end of the alley. It was a stucco building, stacked with windows — no balconies — and the windows I was looking at were lined with aluminum foil. And that’s what I remember: thinking, why is that stuff covering those windows?

I told my mom about this memory, and she said it was accurate. That there was in fact an apartment building like that where we lived and that people covered their windows with aluminum foil to keep out the heat of the sun.

Things I don’t remember but that I’ve been told: that the house didn’t have any screens, but it was so hot, my parents would keep the windows open anyway and I got so covered in mosquito bites that when the landlord came over one day he was horrified and had screens put in; that my (biological) father used to grow pot in the yard and once his brother (my uncle) borrowed his car (the bug) and got pulled over for drinking but my uncle told the cops that he had to return the car so they drove him back to my parents’ house, subsequently found the pot and arrested my (biological) father; that my mom claims they were also going to arrest her (who knows who’s drugs they were, after all), but that she cried, and they let her stay with me and wasn’t I lucky because just like that I would have had to go live in foster care; that the house had no furniture and only a mattress on the floor because my parents were hippies.

That was actually the second house I lived in. I was born in the first. But by the time I was a year and a half, my parents had split up and my mom (and my not-quite born yet sister) and I had moved in with my grandparents. In the house where my sister was later born.

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