Excavating Memory: It All Began at the Dump

January 14, 2010

I’d reached the age of thirty-eight and wanted to assess my life–figure out what had gone wrong, what had gone right. I started at the beginning: I started with my first memory. As soon as I remembered the first memory of my life, everything started to flow.
• Sting

My first memories are of my grandpa. He was a bad influence, at least that’s what grandma used to say, shaking her head about the scary radio shows he let me listen to, but still letting him take me with him wherever he went. She probably wanted some peace and quiet. I asked a lot of questions. I have always wondered why about just about everything, and I’ve never been very good at doing something just because someone told me too. I was mouthy. I still am.

Grandma never knew about the places grandpa took me when we were supposed to be going to the hardware store or the grocery store or out to glean in the fields. We did the errands, but we did them quickly. “In and out,” grandpa used to say, “In and out.” And then we were off on adventures that I learned very early to keep my mouth shut about. I can keep my mouth shut when it matters.

Grandpa was a pool player; in fact, my grandparents ended up staying in Springfield, Illinois, because they couldn’t afford to travel back to Indiana after he lost their travel money on a pool hall bet. He met his political cronies at the tavern and played pool while figuring out what candidate to back in the next election. I didn’t pay much attention to what he was doing. All my attention was focused on practicing my tap dancing on the tavern’s bar. It was heavy wood, with shelves beneath, and the tapping echoed, a sound I loved and haven’t been able to recreate since. I still marvel that no one seemed to mind the ruckus I was making.

Our other secret forays were to the dump where grandpa’s best friend Whitey lived in the Shantytown that had grown up around the looming mounds of trash. There were many treasures to be found in the heaped-up leavings edged with the carefully-stacked discards of post-Depression sensibility. The denizens of the dump crafted colorful homes from broken-but-still-useable mirrors, picture frames, wooden crates, and other detritus. Flattened tin cans, their labels tattering in the wind, protected many roofs, and the mosaics of discards delighted me.

“Keep a sharp eye out—you never know what you’ll see.” With these words, grandpa deposited me at the edge of the dump while he and Whitey searched its landscape, scavenging for things to barter. I was five years old. I read books with broken backs, rescued dolls with missing limbs, and combined this with that to make something else, always encouraged by grandpa who fixed cars and appliances, crafted furniture, revived houses, and supported grandma and me with his finds.

Not all of our education happens in school. I learned my lessons well at the dump. I am the woman of the sharp eye. I take this; I make that. I recycle, repurpose, reuse. I thrift shop and create outfits I love. I stretch one chicken into four meals. I decorate with discards, make art with the leavings of other lives. I am a bricoleur—a patchworker—always re-viewing what I have collected with the imaginative eye of possibility.

Our memories—our stories—are inextricably linked to who we become and to what we value. How do you learn? How do you prefer to share what you’ve learned? Why? What might you learn about yourself and your preferences and your direction in life from excavating your earliest memories?

What are your first memories and what can you learn about yourself from them?

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order. . .the continuous thread of revelation.
• Eudora Welty



  1. I don’t think about my earliest memories. I can remember wading through grass with seven cats surrounding me. I can remember begging my mother to let me go to pre-school. (I just wanted to play with the toys) I don’t know what came first, when, or why. They’re just there.

    • I love the image of wading with cats–great title for a poem or memoir! Z

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