Emily (left) and I (right) at the completion of our "gymnastics" routine circa 1999.

My mom texted me some pictures she took on her phone of old photos we have in an album from my childhood. I had asked her to send me some pictures of Grandma and Papa if she could find any, after I realized when I was writing about them that I didn’t have a single picture of either of them. She was able to dig up a few, and sent those, along with a few other random pictures of me growing up. We don’t have any video recordings of our family when my sisters and I were young, so there’s really nothing that jogs my memory of past times as much as old photos.

From the conversations I’ve had with various people throughout my adolescence and adult life, it sounds like I have an unusually detailed memory, and one that reaches back to much younger ages than most people. I’m not sure if this is an Amber-specific or autism-attributable strength because I haven’t talked to enough autistic adults to gauge the patency of their memories. Regardless, my earliest memories reach back to when I was eighteen months old or so, whereas it seems that many adults don’t have clear memories prior to the age of three. What’s also different is that I have memories from times as a toddler where I specifically remember mentally noting that I would “remember this moment forever,” which I have. What’s strange about these moments is that they were never particularly momentous occasions or events that yielded strong emotional reactions. Rather, they were the mundane, everyday type of activities (playing on the sit-and-spin, sitting under the kitchen table on the braided rug, the texture of my blankets in my crib), but I have captured a specific instance of one in my brain and I have the distinct recollection of being in those moments nearly 30 years ago and carrying out an internal dialogue that that experience was, for some reason, would always be imprinted in my memory.

The self- and life-awareness that sort of commitment involves seems unusually mature and developed for a two-year-old. I would assume that most young toddlers lack the appreciation for the course of life, the eventual maturation to adulthood, the fleeting nature of youth, and the imperfection and limitations of memory. I remember considering that there would be many experiences lost in my memory eventually, but somehow, certain ones I would cherish and retain. Instead of just siphoning notable events into this place of safekeeping, I seemed to gravitate towards marking specific snapshot of daily life for long-term storage. I do remember many holidays, emotionally-charged experiences (good and bad), vacations, etc. as well, but the exquisite detail on mental captures of those routine activities is most intriguing. The fact that I remember how my brain was considering things, and the complex human thoughts that I was thinking about in early toddlerhood, feels rather unique.

Despite my detailed memory, it’s always fun to see old photos. Ever since my parents got divorced over a decade ago, I haven’t opened up an old photo album. This was partly because the divorce was severely emotionally difficult for me, and it felt like looking at old photographs would be too painful on what was still really raw feelings of loss and grief. I’m overly nostalgic for the old days, so subjecting myself under my own volition to step back into those “better” days via a photographic trip down memory lane seemed deliberately masochistic; it felt healthier for my broken heart to try and forget those times a bit and move on. Additionally, from a practical standpoint, I didn’t have ready access to our old family albums and wasn’t even aware that mom had them in accessible places (outside of some box buried in her attic space). Ultimately, I think it was a wise decision to not actively pursue tracking down such relics because I wouldn’t have been emotionally ready until recently. Mom did bring my baby photo album when she accompanied me to a blood draw recently as a source of distraction, but I was ready by then and also, since I lack organic memories (ones I actually remember myself from living the experience rather than from being retold the story from others) from ages before eighteen months, I feel emotionally unattached when I review such early pictures. I do not feel any loss because I do not feel connected in a deep way to those times.

In stark contrast, the pictures Mom sent me yesterday jogged all sorts of fond memories of our tight-knit family when I was a kid and for my own young exuberance and innocence. I loved life as a child, and my parents gave me a very good young life. As I’ve recounted, it wasn’t until I was approaching my tenth birthday that I became heavily saddled with depressive thoughts, low self-esteem, and major anxieties (as opposed to typical childhood worries and fears). Even though the remainder of childhood and all of adolescence was then characterized by significant emotional issues and the reality that life is full of pain, I still consider those years to be much easier and less painful, in many ways, than more recent years as an adult. Perhaps this is slowly shifting to the reverse as I’m improving my life and how I feel now with all the work I’ve put into my development, healing, and growth particularly post-trauma and autism-related struggles work. Things are going better, and more importantly, I am feeling better.

My favorite photo that Mom texted me was one I requested where, as a second grader, I’m sitting on our hideous couch with Papa on Christmas morning, showing him the various rocks and minerals my parents gifted me in a small lap-sized trunk. I remember that moment, not just because of the photo I have seen numerous times in the past, but for the real-life lived experience that it was. It’s one of my favorite times with my grandfather that still exists in my mental archives. I also remember the boundless joy of opening that treasure trove of rocks, a lifelong special interest, and the pure excitement of sharing what I knew about each of them with Papa. As a highly reserved and serious man, I had little connection with him prior to that time. For example, he was never the type of grandfather who played with his grandkids. He would engage in conversation, particularly those of an intellectual nature, but such conversations aren’t typical for young kids. Therefore, as a seven-year-old, the Christmas geology show-and-tell was one of the first interactions exceeding three minutes that was just the two of us. For that reason, it will always be significant to me because it issued in a new phase in our relationship, one where we had more to bond over. Papa was an engineer, a science lover, and an intelligent man. Sharing knowledge, particularly in the science and nature domains, became a way to relate. I would love to sit with him now and talk for hours about the natural and physical world, life, and what he’s seen and learned.

The other photo I liked was a snapshot with my sister, Emily, on Nantucket. We are sitting atop a high pull-up bar on a playground down the street from where we were staying on our Columbus Day holiday weekend getaway. Emily and I took to riding our bikes to the playground after meals and choreographing a “gymnastics” routine together on the fitness bars on the playground. We weren’t that young; in fact, from looking at the photo and considering the memories I have of that time together, I think I was in seventh grade and she was in eighth. That’s partly what makes this memory and photo so endearing. We were authentically ourselves–dorky and nerdy in dress, mannerisms, and interests–and we unabashedly embrace this and our pursuit of pure joy. Flipping around those bars together and trying to develop a challenging acrobatic routine (without any formal gymnastics training) was true, unadulterated fun. I remember that part of the trip much more vividly, and with much deeper appreciation, than anything else about that trip. Emily was one of my best friends and playing together creatively as our authentic selves on the cusp of adolescence is demonstrative of our commitment to being there for each other and cherishing our bond. My adult eyes look into our pre-adolescent ones and see the self-confidence and innocence that, even though partly diminished from younger years, is still so perceptibly real and genuine compared to mine today. Looking at this photo makes me want to rekindle those feelings and that mentality and renew and re-strengthen my bond with Emily. We are still close, but nothing like we were back then. I’d say I’m mostly responsible for this separation. That gives me a heavy burden of guilt, but it also makes me feel like I must also carry the ability to fix things and rebuild an unparalleled closeness. I will try to focus on this positive feeling of capability. I will try to consider how I can make things better. I need her and she’s still here. It’s too late with Papa, but it’s not too late with Emily. I want to be best friends again, so I need to become worthy of that esteemed position by being the type of friend so special and good that she can’t find it anywhere else. I’ve got a long road ahead.

Showing Papa my rocks

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