The child has few memories, so those he has are detailed.
We were in my hometown for some reason one summer Sunday afternoon a couple years ago and I said to my girlfriend that I wanted to show her where I grew up. (As if I have grown up.) We drove down roads I used to bike on, walk on.
I grew up in the suburbs, in upstate New York, in the 1970s and ’80s, a neighborhood without sidewalks, with kids biking across their neighbors’ lawns (well, I did) without fear of criticism. I remembered knowing which houses had dogs that were poorly restrained (avoid those lawns or else find a new speed in my pumping little legs) and which houses were simply scary for reasons no one could explain but everyone knew which houses simply seemed scary.
(Years later, in high school, I was fundraising or campaigning for something and I dared, out of my OCD-ish sense/need to knock on every single door in the neighborhood, I knocked on the door of one of the houses that I always thought was scary. The owner was as friendly and nice as could be. I felt like I had discovered something.)
We drove down a road I biked on 35 years ago, a road lined with trees (“The Woods“) whose branches now are meeting above it, which must keep it in permanent shade and a continuous risk of electrical outages, and which renders it even more spooky than it was every Halloween, when I would walk it in costume to leave my neighborhood and visit the next one over.
I did not know when I was 10 years old that I was memorizing these roads, their very surface. I recognized a kid-created access point into The Woods. (Was it the steepest point on the hillside? Yes, for reasons that were clothes-ruining obvious to us.)
Jen and I turned left onto the street I spent the first 18 years of my life, and there it was: “my” home, but painted the wrong color and sporting a new garage door and a driveway overhang that defined the phrase “out of place.” But I didn’t notice what was different at first. At first, I gasped.
Jen heard it. I sometimes forget in my relatively simple life that gasping is an actual thing that real people with real hearts do. I gasped. It had been decades since I had been in front of this building. Every image my brain could offer me was tossed into a memory salad: which window was my room, a rock I always avoided with the lawn mower (or sometimes hit, just because), which trees had grown, by how much, every single blade of grass. I said something about how my name is all over the inside of that building, because that was the first thing my brain offered with words that I could speak and because it is literally true: I was a possessive kid and wrote my name on sheet rock (sometimes exposing it to do so) and hidden spots on wooden beams throughout the house. In the basement. Inside closets. The attic. (To the residents of 4 Sheraton Drive, I’m sorry.) (Another thing: yes, I am aware that there is a connection between the number 4 being my secret favorite lucky number and my first street address.)
At the top of my road sits my elementary school, another building that may have my name in it, as I was the sort of kid who won awards in school. It was summer and we walked on its grounds. How could my brain retain that this one, particular jungle gym was the one that I always climbed, and that the other, identical, jungle gym on the same patch of yard was the one that I only climbed when mine was occupied? But there it was. There it is. I stepped onto a lower rung. It was as if I had had no other life.
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This is a lightly edited version of a column from October, “A Memory Salad.”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 30 asks, “What is your earliest memory? Describe it in detail, and tell us why you think that experience was the one to stick with you.”
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