I was not a normal child.
The story behind Mirth Defects is a little strange even by my standards. I have a childhood memory of sitting in a high chair in a kitchen. I can see this memory like it’s a movie playing in my head. I wondered for years where and when this memory happened but it never occurred to me to ask my parents until I was an adult, years after they divorced.
I’ll describe this movie to you as best I can.
I’m sitting in my high chair, the one you see in the photo. I look up because Mom says something to me. I have no idea what she says, but she’s smiling when I look up at her.
I hear a tinkling noise, and I look to my right. I see Dad sitting in a chair next to me, holding a newspaper (I’d bet money it was the Des Moines Register), and he is smiling at me too. The tinkling sound is Dad stirring up his chocolate milk.
For some reason, I look to my left and start taking in the room. My high chair (and Dad) is sitting in front of a snack bar. Mom is on the other side of the snack bar, the business end of the tiny kitchen. On my left is a refrigerator, near the opening in the snack bar, then a countertop along the wall behind Mom. There’s a sink on the left, and I remember a stove and a toaster, but I’m not sure which is in what spot. The countertop has a stainless steel splash guard, and it stands out to me for some reason. By the time my head swings all the way to my right, I’m looking at the spot where the snack bar meets the wall. Above that spot, on the wall, is something that took my breath away. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it. It was an old electric wall sconce with a brass stem, and it had a glass globe with the open end pointing upward. I think the glass was frosted but my memory is a little hazy on that detail. Regardless, I definitely remember that it had yellow flowers painted on it, and it was beautiful. The light was on, and it sparkled.
From this point, the memory fades. It feels like I point at the light and say something, but that’s just a feeling, not anything concrete that I can sink my teeth into. Certainly nothing as solid as Mom’s smile, Dad’s grin, or the sparkly light. And then the movie in my head just ends.
When I did finally asked my parents about that kitchen, they both freaked out a little. I wasn’t expecting that at all.
Mom stared at me, sucking on her Benson and Hedges Menthol 100, and she was as white as a sheet. She finally said “you can’t possibly remember that!” I assured her I did, and described the entire scene to her again and again. She couldn’t believe I remembered that kitchen, but she knew it was true, just the same. When she told me how old I was when we lived in that apartment, it was my turn to be surprised.
When I told Dad I remembered sitting in that high chair as a kid, he wasn’t impressed. He said something like “you were still using that high chair when you started junior high.” Then I described the memory to him just like I was telling him about a movie. That shut him up, which was no easy feat, I assure you. He was silent for a long time, and then he looked me in the eye and said “I’ll be damned.” He too confirmed the timeframe.
The day we moved out of that apartment, I was six months old at most. But I can see that kitchen in my memory like a movie any time I want. Now you know why my parents always said I was not a normal kid.
Sometime later, I told that story to my brother Kirk, and we laughed about it, and I said something that stuck in my head for years.
“I remember everything including my birth.”
We laughed like loons, and then (probably) drank more shots of bourbon, but I could never get that idea out of my head. “What if you could remember your own birth?” And then I wrote that idea into the beginning of Mirth Defects.