Madeleine Robins

My Mother Went Out for Lemons

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What is your earliest memory?

Mine is from when I was somewhere between two and three years old. I’ve heard that it’s unusual to remember anything that early. So I’m unusual: when my mother was still alive I asked her if the following thing ever happened and (subject to the Rashomon effect of her recollection being different from mine) I can say that it did.

As a small child my family lived in the top two floors (or more properly, the top floor and an attic) of a brownstone on 11th Street in New York City. Four years after this story we moved to another brownstone, also on 11th Street, where we lived in the bottom two floors.  But that’s neither here nor there in terms of this memory.

My brother would have been about six months old–I know this because it was spring (and both my brother and I were December babies, but it wasn’t swelteringly hot the way that summer in New York City so often is). I would have been about two and a half. And my mother was making dinner and realized that she needed a lemon. Rather than waking the baby and packing us both into the stroller and going down to the corner to fetch a lemon, Mom made a different call: she sat me down on the couch, told me not to move, and went out to buy a lemon.

Nowadays this sounds like something that would bring the judgement of Child Protective Services rocketing down on her, but this was the early-mid 50s, a less obsessive time. My brother was asleep upstairs in his crib. I was a good kid and would follow orders. And she’d only be gone, what? Five minutes? So Mom chanced it.

Why do I remember this? First, I was a tiny little kid, and sitting on the couch, my feet didn’t even reach the edge of the seat to hang over it. I was wearing a corduroy romper and red mary janes, and for the first few minutes all I did was stare at the toes of my shoes. This was a new game, and I suspect I meant to play it properly. But then my brother woke up and began to cry.

As a parent, there were certain things I meant to learn from the way I was parented, and one thing was to try not to say “null word” things. The sorts of things that adults say to children that they don’t mean to be taken seriously. In my mother’s case, the “null words” she said to me were: “Stay very still. Don’t move a muscle. Take care of your brother.”

Now, if she’d stopped after “muscle,” I’d probably have forgotten the whole incident. But she didn’t. And I had been co-opted early on as Assistant Parent, the way that oldest children often are. So when Mom said “Take care of your brother,” I accepted it as an instruction to be followed.

The problem was that she’d already given me a contradictory instruction: “Stay very still. Don’t move a muscle.” How could I fulfill that directive and still take care of my wailing six-month-old brother? What I remember is looking at the toes of my mary janes, then toward the stairs to the attic, then back at my mary janes, and back to the stairs, like a tiny computer in a corduroy romper and red shoes trying to reconcile two opposing directives. Back and forth: stay very still– take care of your brother– stay very still take–care of your brother. I remember wale of the corduroy on my back, and that my white socks had slipped into the heels of my shoes as they always did, and that I did not know what I was supposed to do.

Fortunately, before I succumbed to directive-related psychosis my mother returned with the lemons. Probably she was gone ten minutes or less. Mom charged into the house and upstairs, got my brother, and then released me from my stasis on the couch. All was well.  But the memory? There’s the physical component of what it felt like, sitting there on the couch. And there’s the emotional component of trying at a very young age to sort out what was required of me, what directive was more important, what my responsibility was.

I suspect that this has some larger metaphoric thing to say about the person I became. I do know that when my kids were small I tried really hard not to put them into a position where they didn’t know which instruction to follow. I doubtless failed in many other ways; it’s the nature of parenthood to be full of failures. And while my mother put me in red mary janes for a number more years, I never really liked them much.

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