Monday, January 7, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole

Whoa! When we emerged from our cars on the street where we’d grown up, we seemed to tower over the little brick houses. Where was Alice’s bottle marked “Drink Me” so that we could shrink to proportion with our old neighborhood? My brother, one sister, and I had an adventure in memory-land a few weeks ago. We wanted to share childhood memories as we walked around “our” block, walked the few blocks to the church/school, and walked to the park that had been our four-season destination for eight years.

As we stood in front of “our” house, we named all the neighbor families we could remember. In our minds' eyes, the street and front yards took on our typical 1950s summer evening scene. Apparently, we found Alice’s bottle, because suddenly we were little again—merrily zig-zagging across yards with Monica, Holly, Susie, Martha, Tommy, Paul, Tim, Scott, Danny, Maggie, Forrest, Jeannie, and Sharon. Running, hiding in bushes and under porches, squealing with delight, calling out to each other—yes, we could see and hear it all.

When we got to the park, we envisioned skating there with our father. (I had worn Dad’s red wool ice skating socks the day of our memory-land visit.) We couldn’t quite remember which park building had housed the warming area where we had drunk hot cocoa. The sledding hill had been flattened, much to our dismay, and the pool where we all took swimming lessons is now a wave pool. The largish kiosk where we all had craft classes was still there. We laughed about all the potholders we wove there … all the Popsicle stick birdhouses we glued there! When we got to the church/school, it was locked. I felt sure grade school memories would flood back if I could smell the hallways. I said as best as I remembered, the halls usually smelled of recently mopped-up puke. Much to my surprise, my sister agreed! Probably a good thing we couldn’t go inside; our heads would have bumped the ceilings—golly, even the school seemed Lilliputian.

The highlight of our adventure, though, was being invited by the current owner of “our” house for a tour of the inside. We’d been trying to figure out how to photograph the three of us, plus the house number, to e-mail to our other sister, when we noticed the house owner back in the garage. Although he was on his way somewhere, he graciously took the time to take us through the house. Again, we had the sense of being giants. We remembered and shared many stories. Mother and Dad used to watch late-night TV on the old black and white set in the living room next to the stairwell. I used to sneak out of bed and lie on the top step upstairs where I could hear some programs. We pictured where our mother ironed, where she sewed our clothes and taught my sister to make doll clothes, where the fishbowl was, where my brother fell off a table, where our little sister’s crib had been, where we’d put on dance shows for the neighborhood, where my brother’s Lionel train set ran on the big board painted by our father to look as if the tracks wound through lakes and forests, where we played Ping-Pong. For some reason, my memory of our burying a parakeet under a lilac bush was a vivid one.

We showed the current owner which closet our father had built out and speculated some of the storage cubbies in the basement seemed to be Dad’s signature style. The owner showed us they had kept the shiny pale-green tile walls of the upstairs bathroom and the black and white floor of the powder room. We recognized them! He also regaled us with disaster stories—their big flood, the lady across the street backing her car into the house and on another occasion, their parkway tree, and another neighbor’s tree falling on their screened porch. The owner had a remarkably good sense of humor about all these disasters. Of course, our parents had had to clean up the mess after three feet of water in that very basement in 1957, and then again 30(?) years later after six feet of water in the house they moved to, so our tour of the basement included a number of flood-comparison stories. Since this man and his wife had lived there 31 years, he was also able to report on the deaths of many of the former neighbors we’d remembered as we’d stepped out of our cars earlier. Sadly, four of the deaths were children in our generation.

So many stories came to our minds from that other, smaller time. My brother ran up to meet Grandma at the train with his little red wagon to carry her suitcase home in. We had a mulberry club whose sole purpose was to collect mulberries from the bushes behind the yard and secretively eat them in the garage. The lady next door to the south invited us over for cookies and to “see the world” through her stereopticon. Some of her cards were even in color! One day the little girl next door to the north was choking on our driveway, and our grandmother rushed out and held her by her ankles until the obstruction popped out. We had great fun splashing in an inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. My sister remembers a sandbox, but I do not.

While inside “our” house, we babbled fountains of memories. When we regrouped later at a coffee shop, stories continued to bubble. We ate Alice’s pebble that turned into a cake and returned to adult size. Fast-forward 50 years from those memories. Much has changed, but much has not. That house, that neighborhood are part of us, part of who we turned out to be.

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