My First Memory, Rediscovered

CandleThink back to the very first thing, the very first moment of consciousness, you can remember.

For me, that memory has always been easy to access. Before my family and I moved from Peru to the US, we lived for several months in Costa Rica. All my life I’ve said I don’t remember the Peru of my birth—my first memory takes place in San Jose, on a night when the power had gone out in our house. I have this image in my mind of my mom lighting candles, of us all huddling together in the living room.

But last week, the day before my first Chasing the Sun event, I took my dogs for a walk. I do a lot of my best thinking on these walks, probably because I’m not really trying to. Earlier in the day, I’d been asked if I have any memories of the time in Peru that Chasing the Sun takes place in. Out of instinct, I said no. It’s what I’ve said all my life. Why would now be any different?

But have you ever been asked a question so many times you answer it without really thinking? And then one day, for some random reason, you really, really let it sink in, and you actually take the time to ask yourself, one more time…

Through my research for Chasing the Sun, and through my talks with family members, I learned that in Lima in the 80s and 90s, there was constant violence in the background: explosions in the distance, fires, city-wide blackouts. It was in the background because people had to put it there; how else would they survive day-to-day if they didn’t find a way to cope and push it out of the forefront?

For years, I was fascinated by the ability of humans to cope, to adapt. I researched this time in Lima and considered the climate of fear to be practically another character in the story. For years, I set the manuscript aside because I didn’t feel qualified to write it. After all, I hadn’t lived it. I couldn’t remember any of it. What made me think I had the right?

You know how part of this story goes: I wrote the book. I did the research. It got published and still part of my story, the one I’d stuck with my whole life, was that I didn’t remember.

But that day before launch, as I walked my dogs, I thought back to my first memory. It’s not just that the power in our house had gone out randomly, was it? Why did I assume this memory took place in Costa Rica, when it was Lima that was plagued by frequent blackouts?

Two days later, I was in Miami at my mom’s house, preparing for another Chasing the Sun reading. My mom, convinced that my hands would be on display as I signed books, had offered to paint my nails. We often bond over these simple moments; we talk about anything and everything on our minds.

So I recalled this memory to her, and then I asked, “That wasn’t Costa Rica, was it?”

She shook her head and smiled in sad, quiet way, like she, too, was remembering.

“That was Lima,” she said.

“I remember,” I said, and for the first time in my life, I knew that it was true.

It may not be a huge memory, but it’s mine, and I can finally place it where it’s meant to go. In a strange, small way, having this one sliver of a recollection makes me feel even more connected to the story.

I lived parts of it. I was there. I remember.


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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at

This article has 12 Comments

  1. I have some random memories of the distant past as well, and I always have to ask my dad where we lived because, well, it was always changing. It’ funny how grasping at these little memories somehow make us feel more whole in some way.

  2. We moved around a lot when I was small, for my dad’s job. Memories of those days are jumbled. Like yours, my memories are more snapshot than movies and it is the emotion tied to the memory that stands out, rather than the circumstances.

    1. I couldn’t agree more; it’s definitely the emotion that stands out much more than the action. Around the same day that I realized this memory is from Peru, I also rediscovered another one about the moment I found out about my grandfather’s kidnapping (but that’s another, very long post, perhaps for another day).

  3. What a great first memory! I think I confuse my memories with things that are on videos or in pictures sometimes. But occasionally I have these completely random memories pop up and I wonder why on earth I would have remembered that! That’s so cool that your first memory is tied to your first novel. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow, Natalia, what a beautiful post. My first memory isn’t nearly so profound. I remember hiding under the table because I refused to be potty trained. I picture my granny bending over with her arm outstretched trying to coax me to the bathroom, but I was having none of it. 🙂
    I can certainly still be stubborn!

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