Memories are a hiding place. All kinds of information is packed away in them that the brain that stored them was not yet equipped to understand. Fortunately life sometimes gives us enough distance from some of them that we can begin to understand their many layers.
My family lived in an apartment building until I was four years old. Sometime before that, and after I learned to walk, my father and I were walking hand-in-hand along the network of sidewalks that wound around the buildings in that complex. One and only one of them featured an elaborate balcony hanging off the back: Florence's apartment. My dad and I would walk there once a month to pay the rent in person, in cash. This day was not rent day; we just happened to pass by there. Little did we expect to see Florence gracing her balcony, or the invitation that would follow.
Florence was the landlady that some writer would invent for a sitcom. She had what must have been translucent white hair, dyed into a poof of orange that she would wear piled on her head in some bewitching manner that was capable of acting like a light catcher on sunny afternoons. And so it was-- sunny, mid-day, perhaps spring. Perhaps a day like today.
I don't remember any of the words she and my father exchanged. But I do remember the textures, the emotions. Florence stood on the balcony engaging my father in a conversation he would rather not be having, but which he felt obliged to carry on. I remember feeling like we were fish and she was up in her big boat casting her line, willing to reel in anything that would bite. She invited us inside and we went. It was the only time I remember being inside her living room and not just the rent office. She had an ornate golden couch, on either side of which stood two stone lions. She smoked a cigarette out of a holder until it became hard to breathe. Everything intimidated. Eventually we left, apparently, because I am not still there.
My mind has traveled back to that memory numerous times over the years, and I think the reason that it stuck was because I knew there was more to it than what I could understand at the time- the feeling of being on the underside of a class difference, the person above us barely at the top of our own class but striving to feel higher, and needing us in order to do so; the feeling of my father's reluctance to engage in the charade, perhaps not perceiving all of its elements himself, but feeling inexplicably shier than usual. My 3 or 4 year old self could not possibly have comprehended those aspects of the scene, yet there they are in my memory-- my early observations seared into my brain as images and textures of emotion, without words, and dubbed over by my more mature mind. It's hard to tell whether I perceived what was going on at the time without having the words to convey it, or whether I perceived those things only later, like someone watching a silent movie. Either way, the memory is laid over by a part of my mind and spirit that developed much, much later.
I observed a similar phenomenon with my oldest daughter, whose every development I had the pleasure of observing without distraction. The most mystifying part of her growth, to me, was that brief period where she was just on the cusp of language. There were a few occasions where she would talk about something that I realized had happened before she could talk. I found it hard to wrap my mind around the idea of describing a pre-lingual experience.
But we do this all the time. And as we age, we do it even more. We can even force it sometimes. Once you realize that your brain is storing things you can't yet decode, you can try to focus on experiences that your brain hooks on, that you know hold more than you can yet comprehend- a look on someone's face, the way someone reacts to information, a dream that seems to hold meaning. Your soul can learn to act as a scale for the weight of moments. It can alert you when there's something worth paying attention to.
But largely, this process is passive. Our minds bring us back memories when we are ready for them, when we are capable of understanding everything that they hold. Time does bear some wonderful gifts.