One Naughty Rabbit

It’s that bunny time of year! Every time I step outside I disturb a young rabbit feasting on my plants.

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I’m going to take you back to 1959 today. (Yikes, how did today get so far away from then?) I have a certain quantity of very clear memories from the age of just before two to age four. This event happened in the spring, about three or four months before I turned four.

What I am searching for today is why this is one of those important early memories.  According to  Sven Birkerts, we have memories which are involuntary.  Memoirists, he argues, “need to investigate why a particular memory of a seemingly meaningless moment has such power that it still calls to us through decades.” I wrote about this theory when I first started this blog in a post called “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.”

My parents took me on a trip far from our Michigan home–to New Orleans. On the last day, we went on a boat ride along the Mississippi River. In the restaurant, the ship’s captain introduced himself to me, then hoisted me up and tousled my hair. He placed his captain’s cap on my head. The hat fit me perfectly.

Maybe it was not really his hat, but one he meant to give me all along, like a souvenir. He and his men fussed over me, and I thought I knew what it felt like to be a princess.

Mom and I went for a walk on the deck. Somehow my thin summer coat sailed over the side of the ship into the giant net that encircled the craft. Sailors tried to fish out the jacket, but they couldn’t reach it.

“Lulu, you need to learn to be more careful,” Mom said.

I hung my head. “Peter Rabbit.”


“Peter Rabbit lost his jacket.”

Mom said, “Yes, you lost your jacket just like Peter Rabbit. He’s a naughty rabbit.”

I stood at the guard rail and stared at my little blue jacket, so recently wrapped around me, lying forlorn in the netting, so close and yet unreachable.

Peter’s jacket ended up as a scarecrow, whereas mine became fish bait

Why do I remember this memory so often? Any ideas?

* At home I had a 45 (record) with a narration of Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” so I was very familiar with the story.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

65 responses to “One Naughty Rabbit

  1. That is one naughty rabbit indeed! great shots too 🙂

  2. Perhaps you related to the irrevocable loss of the jacket and the inevitable scolding he received for it. Peter is the quintessential child: cute, curious, and likely to get into inadvertent mischief.

    • He is, isn’t he! I know that I was so impressed, too, with his story, and how he got a stomach ache and how the siblings were so smug, eating their blackberries. I probably got a stomach ache, looking at the jacket that they couldn’t get back for me, but I don’t remember that part.

  3. What vivid writing! I think you remember this because it aroused such a variety of strong emotions. One of my favorite early memories is of commercial fishermen in row boats dropping nets in Lake Erie near our house and then coming up on our beach to pull in nets full of flopping fish. I saw this happen many times and always loved it. In my memory, I’m standing on the beach, insignificantly small, observing the whole operation.

    • That is a really good point. There was no doubt a big stew of conflicting emotions. I love your memory because it sounds like a powerful and glorious image to a little one. Beautiful. You are so lucky that your early memories are tied to Lake Erie.

  4. I’ll think of your jacket now, every time I chase the rabbits out of my garden (which is every day, with the help of my dog). She never catches them, but she tries.

    • Your dog is Mr. McGregor and his rake, chasing poor Peter ;)! My husband used to say, there’s a rabbit eating all my flowers! and he would be upset. Not any more because I’ve trained him just to look at how cute they are haha. I do love to see a dog making that fruitless chase, though, as they are so earnest.

  5. Awww. That you thought of Peter’s loss and not so much your own. That speaks volumes to your character development at such an early age.

    • Now that is an interesting thought that had not occurred to me. Gee, SK, maybe that started me looking to literature and to other people, outside myself, when I encountered trouble. You might seriously be on to something about how I learned to handle things.

  6. I love how a tiny detail in our past can evoke an onslaught of memories.

  7. Aw, Luanne…I can picture you peeking over the rail looking at your jacket. The mind is an amazing piece of machinery when it comes to recall. I have a vivid memory of purchasing “Stuart Little” with my allowance. It was a cold and rainy Saturday evening…the picture is so clear in my mind.

    • Now I have this image of little Jill clutching her money and forking it over and getting that treasured book in her hands for good. Yes! And then there is Stuart and Margalo and the boat and on and on. That’s what memory does–it keep on going!

  8. I think coats symbolize protection, maybe even secrets if they have pockets. Perhaps you felt vulnerable in that moment?

    • OOh, I love the idea of the coat as a symbol! Yes, it was freeing and exhilarating to be onboard, but it was also a bit vulnerable to only have that deep old river underneath the ship. And to be so far from home. But what an exciting trip. I saw tornadoes and the Sleeping Beauty movie and New Orleans artists, music, and French food.

  9. If you were listening to that record regularly perhaps even daily there is a chance you unconsciously re-enacted the loss of the blue jacket. The brain is always making associations blue jacket = Peter Rabbit for example and at such a young age we can take things to the extreme 🙂 red cape =Superman/can fly. Lovely memory Luanne; rich in symbolism.

    • Yolanda! Wowsa. That is amazing. I mean, it’s possible. You know what your comment made me remember? There was another jacket lost around the same time. Either before or after, but right now I can’t recall. And it wasn’t blue. It seems as if it was a reddish/pinkish color and that is all murkier. That is even more suspicious, isn’t it? But I remember the blue one lying there and then Peter’s was blue.

  10. Steve Joos

    The incident has some deep meaning to you. Was Peter Rabbit one of your favorite stories as a child? That would be my guess.

    • Steve, I think so! At least I identified with him. In fact, now that you say that, I think the story itself is one of the most satisfying plots for a child. It’s as well structured as a fine novel.

  11. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    Something made me think of “investigating” it this way: if I included this scene in a novel I was writing, why would I do that? What would I be trying to convey to the reader about my female protagonist’s view of life? I think I had this reaction because it is such a vivid, emotionally complex scene with a distinct narrative arc. I’m not surprised you remember it often.

    • Ellen! What you say is such an epiphany for me in conjunction with Steve’s comment above. Peter Rabbit itself is such “a vivid, emotionally complex [story] with a distinct narrative arc.” I think the power of its near perfection as a Story resonated with me, and it might have been the first story to hit me this way–with the power of Story. So my own story, in mimicking Peter Rabbit’s story, had that much more power for me. Does that make any sense?

  12. Something that is both yours and unattainable, maybe.

    • Elyse, there is definitely a huge tension in knowing that that was my jacket there caught in the netting (like Mr. McGregor’s sieve???) and knowing I would never be able to get it back. UGH!!!

  13. Ahh…Peter Rabbit! How well we know of him and his naughty antics in our household. I grew up on the Beatrix Potter books and I loved sharing them with my own children. Still have them all boxed away and I also have a collection of the porcelain figurines collected over the years.
    Timely reading this here, I was thinking of Peter Rabbit losing his little blue coat when I recently posted about the herb and veggie garden in a country house which reminded me so much of Mr McGregor’s garden!
    I’m fascinated by your memory…your coat was so near yet so far. Yet you had felt like a princess not long before.. So I suppose begin the early memories of that sense of loss and how quickly things can change…
    I have recently been reminded of a memory of my white, plastic sunglasses floating away from me down the river after they fell off and how sad I was…I thought I was the bees knees in them, I was only about 3 or 4, ha!
    I commented on your link too. I used to read Psychology Today (not sure why I still don’t, time I guess) and find the connections with all this and writing memoir absolutely fascinating.
    Luanne, I also used to love codes! I wish I could come over right now and talk for hours with you, I just know we would have so much to share. Thank you for making me think harder than ever… 🙂

    • Sherri, I have the figurine collection!!! It’s overflowing and I had to put it in my bedroom because it was taking up too much room. Some of it is boxed and in my dresser drawers instead of clothes!
      Oh, I am so sorry about those sunglasses! I’m sure they were lovely :). Yes, that feeling of loss is overwhelming! Yes, let’s get together and chat!! I love that idea! Codes, Psychology Today, Potter, and so much more in common!!!

  14. This is a very interesting post! To address the memory, I’d look at: what did Peter Rabbit symbolize then? It sounds like you were disappointed in yourself when the coat fell over the side… maybe there was some kind of connection between Peter Rabbit + the feeling of disappointment? ((I could be completely off too!)) Memories are so interesting. My earliest memory is from when I was roughly 3. I was on my Mom’s hip, and the entire memory is just her walking me into my grandparent’s living room, my grandmother on the chair + my grandfather on the couch. I remember seeing an old-fashioned wooden lamp with a gold eagle on top, and wrestling was on TV in the background. Now I’m interested to push into this memory further to find out why it’s so prominent!

    • Disappointment, yes! I thought I was so special because the captain acted as if it were so and so did the sailors. And other places on our trip I was treated special. My parents got a free bottle of French wine at an elegant restaurant because I was “so cute.” haha it went to my head, I think. So I was disappointed in myself for being a silly stupid girl who could be naughty without even meaning to be. Caitlin, I would LOVE to know why that memory has been so persistent for you! Wow, what an image.

  15. Lovely story, Luanne. I wonder if some of us are more attuned to emotions and feel shame more acutely than others? I believe this is proven fact. As a child, I believe that I would have felt strongly the same emotion- shame- i.e: lost the coat, coats cost money, parents work hard, had little for extras or replacements, the impact of words spoken to us …

    • Lynne, one of the “series” (using the Blueprint book method) of my book is shame! I do think that shame impacted me greatly as a child. My father lived with shame and I think it imprinted on me. What an intriguing theory you have!

  16. I’ve never considered why some of the memories I have are so prominent and others not, so this was really interesting. This is a wonderfully intriguing memory – I wonder if it was the mix of feeling so special and then doing something ‘naughty’ that made it stand out. Some of my most prominent very early memories involve being told off!

    • Andrea, definitely check out what Sven Birkerts says about these involuntary memories. They are usually very mundane. Haha, the naughty factor is definitely important, I’m sure! Maybe, using your theory here, I was so sure I was so great because I felt like a princess and then when I was naughty I was revealed to be the silly little kid I really was. 😉

  17. So interesting. We’re like little sponges when we are young, we soak up everything and it all gets associated to something. I think fairy tales and nursery rhymes are especially rich for children to find hidden meaning in. Think of how young you were! So recently arrived from the other side, wherever we exist before we get here.

    • Ah, I love that: “So recently arrived from the other side, wherever we exist before we get here.” That reminds me of Linda Hogan’s poetry. Beautiful, Deborah. I know that I LOVED fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and when I taught children’s literature (to college students) I gave them my theory 😉 that children innately love this literature and they only turn away from it and its descendants (poetry and prose) when we teachers unwittingly discourage them.

  18. I am sure you felt badly about losing the jacket over the railing. I feel that you were also worried about how your mother would feel, since she called the rabbit, ‘naughty’ you might have felt you were naughty! It was an accident and that is all!
    I love all of her sweet little books, Luanne. I also enjoyed the movie, “Miss Potter,” Luanne! Have you ever seen it? It tells all about Beatrix, from her childhood on, through the actors/actresses. I like the animation of her little creatures, as she talks and interacts with them. The ending is great, since it tells us that she contributed over 4000 acres of farmland, acquired from her book royalties, to donate to England as nature preserves. This was meaningful to me, considering she was a woman and lived a long time ago, too! I enjoyed this post, your photos were so darling! Robin

    • Yes, I think I thought I was naughty and wasn’t sure how I had been naughty. It made me feel insignificant and silly, maybe stupid. And here I thought I was the princess. I have NOT seen that movie, but I would love to see it. I guess I still love Beatrix Potter because I have an anthology of all the stories and . . . a collection of figurines. Samuel Whiskers is one of my favorite characters, for some reason. Re the photos: I feel that the bunnies are skinny this year and think it might have been that we had virtually no winter this year. It probably affected the amount of food available for these guys. So I am letting them eat all my plants!

  19. Knowing that a couple of weeks and posts have passed since you wrote this I didn’t intend to respond, but wanted you to know that this post got me wondering about those sharp moment-in-time memories I have from the period I was 3-5 (some good, some not-so-good) – is there some significance that I’m not aware of (a lesson, an insight, what???) or is it just a random thing? Something for me to think about.

  20. Hi Luanne! Us Florida girls at really appreciate you checking us out and liking our pieces! Fun to look around your blog too–adored the rabbit story–we are def from the same era. Rock on.

  21. I always have loved rabbits, even naughty ones. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  22. OK I sound like a broken record now but you guys really will get a lot out of reading Daniel Shacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory. It presents many ideas and possible answers regarding our memories, and I think, even though it is a few years old, it endures because it is thought provoking and easy to breeze through.

    One of the “sins” is the Sin of Mistattribution. I wonder if that could be one explanation for associating the blue coat/event itself with Peter Rabbit. I am thinking the repetitive nature of hearing that 45 wove it all inextricably tight into your childhood psyche.

    Sorry it took this long to comment. I was memoirizing.

  23. Elizabeth di Grazia

    Thanks for liking WordSisters. I liked your blog and started following. Your writing is poignant.

  24. Lex

    I think the animal on the photo is a hare, not a rabbit.

    • The photos? I’m pretty sure he’s a cottontail because he’s like all the other cottontails that live in my yard. But now you sent me to Google so that I could figure out the difference between the two. Turns out that both cottontails and hares have aboveground nests, so that isn’t a help. People who live in this area (Phoenix, Arizona) says these are cottontails here. But they are desert cottontails, and maybe that makes a difference?

  25. We have lots of these very clear childhood memories. They come back to us sometimes. I wouldn’t use the word involuntary, though. The memories are interesting to reconstruct as they are tied to a child’s associations, a child’s perception of the world, a child’s understanding. The associations with Pete Rabbit make it all the more poignant.

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