All it takes to jar loose some of these memories is a stimulus of some kind. That can be anything, like hearing an oldie on the radio, or even some random object, but nothing is more compelling than a photograph. For some time now, I've been meaning to digitize a collection of old 35mm slides my father took between 1950 and 1978, the bulk of which were taken before 1962: my childhood. As I went through them, I found a lot of images that pulled out long-lost memories of my youth, of my long-dead parents and grandparents, of beloved pets, of things I did and places I went. Some made me smile, some made me sad. Of all of them, none were more evocative than this one:
The dopey-looking kid with the Dumbo ears, the red underwear, and a clothespin holding up his pants, is me, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 8. The absolutely adorable little girl in the foreground is Barbara. Her family owned a tidy lakefront cabin nextdoor to the little house trailer my family used as a summer place. Here is another one of us taken a few minutes earlier or later:
I look a little less dopey here, and Barbara looks no less adorable, but it's important that she and I were the only kids in the pictures. We were something to one another. I was much too dopey to realize it at the time, but the power of the feelings that washed over me when I saw these made me realize that I loved her.
My daughter came into my office while I was scanning these. I asked her if she recognized anyone, and she picked me out immediately. She asked about the girl, and I told her, "That's Barbara. She was my first girlfriend."
When she asked how old I was here, I said I was 7 or 8. I don't remember the year, and until I saw the photographs, I didn't remember the occurrence. There's a plastic tablecloth on the picnic table in front of our trailer, so there must have been something important going on. It might have been my birthday, or hers, or my sister's, or something else entirely. Whatever it was, it was a time that Barbara and I were together, and that made it special no matter what day it was. Even if I didn't understand it.
My daughter asked me how I could have a girlfriend at that age. I told her that even when you're a child, you can have attractions, you can have feelings for someone – even if you're too dopey to get it. I was a little surprised I had to explain that to her, as girls are more mature than boys at that age. Did Barbara have feelings for me? She at least liked me enough to be hanging out there at the picnic table with me, whatever the occasion was. She's standing close enough to me that maybe, just maybe, she felt something for me, too.
In my novel Joshua, my young protagonist develops feelings for a pretty little girl in his 3rd grade class, but in Joshua's mind, it's an unrequited attraction that has nowhere to go. I was far ahead of him here. I think that if I hadn't been so dopey, or if I could somehow return to my childhood to set some things right, I would ask Barbara to sit out on the dock with me after dark to look at the stars. What a memory that could have been.