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Random Childhood Memory: My Earliest Memory

May 25, 2006

When trying to dredge up my earliest childhood memory, I think it’s Mamaw and the fan. Mamaw was my Dad’s mother and grew up a country woman. We lived a stone’s throw away from Mamaw and Papaw and occasionally when Mom and Dad were out and about, Mamaw would keep an eye on us kids. On this particular day, or actually this particular few seconds of memory, I’ve no idea where my parents were or where my older brother might have been. What I remember was being at Mamaw’s house, her sitting in a rocker and me squatting on the floor in front of an old, metal, oscillating fan. AC, while available, was still some thirty years from making it into this house, and the fan was strategically placed to swing back and forth and provide Mamaw’s rocker with a nice little breeze.

I was squatting in front of the fan, the breeze swinging back and forth, hitting me then swinging away, then swinging back across and hitting me again, then swinging away in the other direction. The fan had a round metal cage front and back, metal base, and metal blades, and stood about two feet tall. While squatting there, I stuck my finger out and started it toward the fan, whose cage easily permitted entry of a toddler’s finger.

  • I remember Mamaw saying “Don’t stick your finger in the fan.”
  • I remember that I continued to stick my finger in the fan.
  • I remember the rapid thp-thp-thp-thp-thp of those metal blades making drumming sounds on my finger.
  • I remember jerking my finger back and starting to cry.
  • I remember Mamaw saying, while continuing to calmly rock back and forth, “I told you not to stick your finger in the fan.”

I wonder about the differences in then and now. If I picture that scene played out today, 1) as soon as the child approached, the mother would have jumped up and dragged the child away; 2) the fan would be placed so as never to be allowed in the child’s reach again; 3) the parents would have tested (with fan off, and child asleep to avoid emotional trauma) to see if the finger would have gone through the cage; 4) there would have been a lawsuit because of the Mom’s sleepless nights from knowing that the possibility existed that the child could have or might one day get his finger thp’ed; 5) the child would have ended up overdosing on heroin from growing up overprotected (okay, perhaps a stretch on that one).

I have often thought through the years that folks, including SWMBO and I, overprotect our children. I’m not suggesting we throw the babies on the back windshield of the car anymore (though as a toddler I remember it as a great place for a nap while traveling), but I didn’t grow up with knee pads and helmets while riding a bicycle or skateboard, and didn’t expire from the skinned knees. I climbed trees to dangerous heights, swam in lakes and streams, built unmoterized go-carts and crashed them, and on and on. I wonder sometimes if the seeming lack of a recognition of consequences some kids have these days stems from being overprotected as they grow up. Who knows. But I can say, on the day of my earliest childhood memory, I learned something I never forgot: don’t stick your finger in a fan. Haven’t done it since.

I also learned, or at least had the seeds of the idea planted, that actions have consequences. We’ve tried to include that lesson in various ways with our kids over the years, and so far it seems to have taken root. But in seeing what some kids do, and seeing the reaction of the parents in blaming everybody possible besides their kids, I think a lot of young adults grew up missing that lesson. If every kid spent a couple of months with a Mamaw like mine — assuming they survived — they would have a much better idea of how the world really works . . . and you know, that would probably be a good thing.

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