Our Earliest Family Memories

Episode 4 of American Butterfly: Foundational Memories

Most of us grow up with stories about ourselves as young children. Some are of events so early in life that they are unlikely to be truly remembered. Nonetheless, these stories become foundational memories because we hear them told so often and so vividly.

JT, my little brother, always heard the tale of his birth: “You were so small when you came out of your Momma, I could hold you in one hand. Like a floppy little bird!”

He was born extremely premature. Mom told us the doctors said he was sure to die. The hospital had never seen such a preemie survive before.

My first foundational memory is of me and the geese. I was barely walking, just over a year old. Mom and Dad were still young and beautiful and having fun together. Our threesome was sitting next to a pond where I spotted a gaggle of geese. I toddled over and began chasing them with the joy inspired by newfound mobility. Once the geese understood the weakness of the attack upon them, they, like any self-respecting group, turned the tables and started chasing me. My giddy joy transformed into terror.

When Mom tells the story, even today, she emphasizes how funny it was, watching me waddling away as fast as I could, pursued by giant birds. Dad would rise to the moment and declare, “Do you know what those geese would do to a baby? If I hadn’t run to catch him up, they would have killed him!” Dad saw and feared the hurtful nature of groups far more than Mom.

Mom’s style was quite her own. I wondered if it was because she grew up dearly loving her older brother. Stan was born deaf. When you watched Mom talk with him, you saw her sit close. To get his attention she would grab his shoulder or tug on his shirt. She would make certain he could see her lips move with explicit precision. Sometimes she spoke in normal tones, sometimes without much sound at all, and sometimes like she was yelling across a field.

Mom’s sense of humor was larger than life. The jokes she told were tailored to two audience types, those that were hearing and those that were deaf but able to see. She kept the gestures big and the punch-lines accentuated.

Mom found the occasional practical joke horribly funny. I loved milk and would gulp it down at dinner. One hot, summer night, she had prepared a great trick. Knowing that buttermilk is closer in taste to vinegar than to butter or milk, she had poured it into my glass. The plot played out perfectly when I took a big gulp and then spit the buttermilk involuntarily all over JT. The mess covering our half of the table was disastrous, but she laughed joyfully as she cleaned it up.

It was not so hilarious for my brother or me. And it would not be the last time I had to carefully clean his face and neck.

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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love and life in the modern world.

It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.

All through the arc of a family story — different and similar to yours and to mine.

J. Andrew Shelley is a veteran of startups, a student of group behavior, and an author. Despite some lessons, he still has hope that we can listen and grow.