My New Jersey Aunt used to tell us the story about how she once almost drowned in a tidal wave. She was about three years old, playing near the edge of the water with another little boy at the beach. It was the early 1930s. A tidal wave (that's what she called it, I have no idea how accurate the term was) came out of nowhere and swept the two kids under. As soon as the water was calm, the adults on the beach began diving in to the water, trying to find the kids. My grandfather felt a small body just below the surface, pulled a child out by the hair, and passed the child to onlookers, thinking he had found the little boy. The child he had rescued was actually my aunt, who had short curly hair.
I think it was my aunt's earliest memory, and perhaps the most vivid memory she had. She loved the ocean, loved to swim and body surf in the waves at the Jersey shore, but she also respected the force that came so close to taking her life. Five years ago, as she was dying, she repeatedly told me the tidal wave story, describing what it felt like to be sucked under by an approaching wave. Her short-term memory had faded and she could no longer remember what she eaten for lunch that day, but that early memory was entirely clear, almost as if her whole life had compressed until she was once again that child standing on the beach.