My first memory is being lost.
Before it, nothing is concrete; just vaguely shifting images. A tree. A dog. My mother's bed, though I don't remember the actual woman, or when she died, or the month I spent in a foster home while my grandparents fought my father for custody.
They claimed he was unfit, but New Jersey sided with my father, which is apparently kind of a big deal. One of my law professors says he's cited Wilson v Rockwell before, and it helped him win. It hasn't made him grade me any lighter though, so I guess it's not really important.
I was a just a kid, and my Uncle Greg was supposed to be watching me, but he had a drink and fell asleep on the couch, and apparently I wandered right out the door.
I was six blocks away, quite a distance for a little kid, when somebody noticed me and called the police. The cops took me to the nearest station and tried to match me to missing person reports.
I don't remember any of that. I just vaguely recall sitting on a policewoman's desk, a mob of blue uniforms around me, crying because nobody could understand my horrible lisp. My address, perfectly memorized, was no use as the numbers were "Thick thonty thew," (Six Twenty-Two) and gibberish to everyone in the room.
"Call my daddy!" I cried.
"We're trying, honey. But we don't know where he is," the policewoman said. She had kind eyes and had given me a tootsie roll, but I was still scared.
"Printh-tin!" I said for the dozenth time. "Printh-tin Plainth-bear."
"Do you mean Princeton, honey?"
I nodded vigorously. "Thatth what I thaid. Printh-tin Plainth-bear."
"Barrel? Borrow? Plainsboro? Princeton Plainsboro?"
"That's a hospital," one of the cops said.
"The hospital?" the policewoman asked. "Your daddy is in the hospital?"
I agreed, not yet knowing the difference between in the hospital and in the hospital.
"Is he hurt or sick?"
"He'th head of onth-cology."
So, they called him, then let me play with some grimy Legos that I didn't want to leave, even after my father showed up. I remember him kneeling next to me, still in his white coat, trying to get me to look him in the eye.
"Hey there buddy boy. What's the matter?"
"I wanna play."
"You can play at home."
"I don't have Lego-th at home."
He took my hands, shaking the sticky plastic pieces out of them. "That's because little toys are hard to walk on."
"Not for uth. Only for Uncle Greg."
"Uncle Greg ruin-th everything," I said, and I can still remember perfectly the look of pain that crossed my father's face.
"Don't say that," he said sternly, picking me up and rising to his feet. I put my head on his shoulder and he took me home, where he and Uncle Greg fought, like always.
The consensus of the fight was that I needed to take speech therapy. Dad had been convinced I would grow out of it on my own. Uncle Greg said I was smart, and verbally – as I would have said – "Precoth-ith". I just couldn't hear the difference between the warm and comfortable "Th" and the dreaded "S".
Speech therapy consisted of sitting in an office, not unlike my father's, and repeating things over and over again while I played with matchbox cars, another forbidden toy.
"What's your name?" the speech therapist, a severe looking woman who wore too much makeup, would say.
"Jotheph," I would say. "Jotheph Wilthon."
Her careful instruction regarding tongue placement just led to me making a hissing sound before the "Th." For two weeks, my name was Jossstheph Wilsssthon, before she switched me to a tape recorder.
"Listen to how you speak," she'd say, and play me a stream of my own babbling.
"My name is Jotheph Wilthon and I am thick yearth old. I live with my daddy and my Uncle Greg. They're both doctorth. My daddy ith head of onth-cology at Printh-tin Plainsth-bear. Uncle Greg ith chief diagnoth-tith-in. He'th got one leg that doethn't work right."
"Uh huh," I'd say. "Thath right."
Speech therapy didn't work.
It was Uncle Greg who fixed it in the end.
One day, a rainy afternoon when my father was at work, he set me at the kitchen table and put a candle in front of me.
"Tell your name to the candle without blowing it out," he instructed.
"Jotheph," I said, and the candle went out.
Uncle Greg was staring at me intently. He had a tendency to do that, and even at that young and oblivious age it unnerved me. He looked at you like he was looking inside you, at the way your insides worked, and it always made my stomach feel funny. Even when I was older, and took to calling him "old man" in a condescending way (and I still don't know why he didn't kick my ass for that), a cold look from him would snap my respect right back to the surface.
"You're not wrong," he said.
"You're not wrong. The way you say things isn't any worse then the way anybody else says them. It's just different. People don't like different. A bunch of people who happen to be the same get together and decide everybody else is different, but that doesn't make you wrong." He smiled to himself. "Did that make sense?"
He lit the candle again. "Say your name to the candle without blowing it out."
As quietly as possible I said, "Jotheph." The candle went out.
Uncle Greg lit the candle again.
Over and over, I tried. "Jotheph. Jotheph. Jotheph." Uncle Greg kept lighting the candle, and soon the room filled with the distinct smell of burnt wick. The afternoon passed, the rain moved on and I looked longingly out the kitchen window to the back yard, with its mud puddles and fallen branches.
Uncle Greg lit the candle one last time, and I heard the garage door clank open as Dad pulled his car in. Uncle Greg rose from the table and went to the sink, filling a glass with water.
I stared intently at the little orange flame, and, as the door to the garage opened and I heard my father's briefcase hit the floor, I whispered, "Joseph."
Uncle Greg turned to me, smiling. "Again."
"Joseph," I said. "Joseph Wilson."
The candle burned bright.
"Wilson!" Uncle Greg called. "Come in here."
Dad entered the kitchen, looking tired and confused, and maybe a little mad at all the smoke. "What?"
"Do it again," Uncle Greg said.
"Joseph Wilson," I said to the little candle.
My dad smiled, bright and big. Dad always smiled with his whole body.
"I'm real proud of you, buddy. Way to go!" Then he slid his arm around Uncle Greg's waist, and leaned his forehead into Uncle Greg's neck. They stood like that for a moment, and even in my six-year-old mind I realized something more was going on; that Dad was actually proud of Uncle Greg, and that this was the resolution of one of their fights. I knew that the only part of this whole thing that had been about me was the part where Uncle Greg said I wasn't wrong.
Then they both stepped away and my Dad looked at me with a smile, and I felt happy again. He said if I put on a clean shirt he'd take me to dinner to celebrate. I gave a whoop, blew out the candle and raced upstairs.
I suppose there's a metaphor in there somewhere, about words and families being delicate, like candle flames. I don't know. I'm not poetic enough to sort it out.
I guess that's really my first memory, the first event I can really remember from beginning to end. Uncle Greg, me, a little candle, and trying to say my name. The time Uncle Greg fixed me, just like he fixed everybody else.