I began to read spontaneously at the age of three. No one taught me how, I just one day to the amazement of the adults around me began pointing at words and saying what they were. I don't remember doing that, I only know it because my parents told me when I was older. Frankly I can't for certain say that I remember anything from my life at the age of three.
And certainly nothing before that. Or almost nothing, I think I remember falling out of my crib once and my parents making a big fuss about it. Probably landed on my head, which would explain a good deal. Anyway it is a blurry, barely coherent memory with no details.
Why do we have a hard time remembering the earliest years of our lives? Scientists have suggested that we can't remember those years because they were pre-verbal. Once we learn to talk we arrange our memories in terms of a narrative of words. However, that eliminates the pre-word memories we had that were based solely on feelings and sensations. So we can remember our first day of kindergarten, but not taking our first steps, even though learning to walk may be considered the more important of the two events. We were creating word-based memories by the time we went to school, but had no internal language with which to preserve our first steps.
I can remember some of my early toys. Over my crib were some cut-outs of Disney characters. When I was lying awake when I was supposed to be taking a nap I remember staring at them. They still appear to me in dreams. I had a top that when you spun it had little multi-colored wheels inside that spun to create a psychedelic effect, like a preview of coming attractions.
I also had a cloth doll in the image of a clown. Showing great imagination, I called it Clownie. It slept with me every night. I didn't necessarily hold it in bed like a baby or a pet, but it had to be in the bed with me somewhere or I couldn't sleep. Clownie usually ended up unceremoniously knocked on the ground as I tossed and turned and might even end up kicked under the bed by the time the next bedtime rolled around. Sometimes Clownie would suddenly appear in my sisters' Barbie games, with Clownie playing the uninvited role of the monster that terrorized Ken and Barbie on their innocent picnics. My sisters would complain to my mother when this happened.
One day my father decided that a boy should not sleep with a doll. That is what he called Clownie - a doll. I tried to explain that he was a clown, and sometimes even a monster when my sisters deserved tormenting and Ken and Barbie needed a cheap thrill, but above all he was my night time friend and I simply could not sleep without him.
My mother took my side, but my father would hear none of it. Clownie would have to go. One night shortly afterwards without warning Clownie went missing. Neither my father nor my mother would tell me anything about what had become of him. "You don't need him anymore!" my father said in a tone I knew meant there could be no further discussion.
What I couldn't have explained to my parents at that age was that Clownie was in some ways my protector against things that bothered me in the night. My house was a popular place for adults to gather after dark, my relatives and the neighbors, they often came over with beer and whiskey and records and there would be dancing and loud singing of Irish ballads until really late. Or sometimes it would be just my parents, sitting alone at the kitchen table drinking and smoking cigarettes, and sometimes they would talk really loud and in a manner that scares a kid when he hears his parents yell at each other in that tone of voice. On the nights of the big parties or the big fights (or both in one night) that was when I needed to check to see if the smiling face of Clownie was in bed with me. But I couldn't tell my parents of such things.
So now Clownie was gone and there was simply nothing to be done about it. About some things my father could be closed to discussion, and I knew even then that this one of them. I remember it being hard to sleep for the first few nights, but children are resilient and adaptable and in a short time I didn't think about Clownie anymore.
After my mother died I was going through some of the things in the cellar of her house in ol' Pine Point and I opened an old box. There were a lot of things in it from when I and my siblings were in school, drawings and report cards and stuff. But under it all on the bottom of the box there was an old, mildewed and faded cloth doll. It was Clownie, where my mother must have placed him so many decades ago. He was in terrible shape. There must have been a flood in the cellar once, because he had brown water stains all over him. A mouse had nibbled a hole in his leg and pulled some of his stuffing out for a nest. Clownie's bright colors had gone pale.
In an automatic reaction I picked up Clownie and held him to my breast for a moment. Then a voice in my head that I always believe told me what to do. There were two piles on the floor as we cleaned out the cellar of our Pine Point homestead. One was for things to keep and one was for things to be thrown away. I put Clownie in the throw away pile and continued sorting through my mother's things.
Tomorrow Jay Libardi would have been fifty years old. Because he personified youth to everyone who knew him, it is impossible to imagine what he would have been like at fifty. It's a shame we didn't get the chance to find out. Time pushes us on to other people, other places and other things. But even after all this time Jay I still steal a backward glance towards you.