Letter #5: A Small Yellow House

Dear Aglet,

I am writing a memoir, which is ridiculous considering how young I am and how far I have to go yet before I have any wisdom or experience or whatever. Somehow it’s more excusable, I think, to write about one’s childhood to someone who is younger, and a future hypothetical grandchild certainly fits the bill. So here you go, you and whomever is unfortunate to stumble across these silly letters in the meantime. Read, if you want to, the first chapter of a (hypothetical) book entitled “A Place Called Waldo: Some Essays About Growing Up Slowly.”

Love, your grandma,

Jo

Before I came on the scene, there was a young though balding man with a fiery red moustache and dishwater-blue eyes whose wife was young and trim and black-haired. She had brown eyes. Their house was nice and small and it sat on the corner of N. Methodist Street in a town called Red Oak. There was a porch, complete with swing, and the house was paneled a pleasant, light yellow. In the backyard there grew some grand old pecan trees, and in a small corner, a dusty, overgrown path circled a lovely mossy well. Lemon balm curled up over the stones of the well, and peppermint plants.

I don’t have much to say about the man and woman when they were really young; I don’t know what they talked about or what they did for fun. By the time I knew them they were the parents of four kids, soon to be five, and my father had lost a little more hair and my mother wasn’t quite as trim. Their eyes were the same as before, though. I don’t remember doing anything but playing in the yellow house; in the yard with the chickens; in the garden with the garter snakes; in the stinky but eminently climbable photinia tree. Playing, playing with my two older sisters and my brother, Tim. We made up all kinds of games, and all of them are a blur in my mind. The best and most dangerous game was flying.

My mom had, and still has, some knack for carpentry, and built not just a double-bunk bed, but a triple. Three beds were stacked with the three girls sleeping one on top of the other, Lydia (the second-oldest) probably a good eight or nine feet above the floor. “Flying” involved climbing to the top of the structure and jumping off with arms spread, until the unceremonious thump onto the carpeted floor ended one’s short, but thrilling, flight. Often my knees ended up braced under my chin, so that my teeth clacked and the breath was knocked out of my chest. The worst episode, however, happened to Lydia, then around seven or eight years old. For some reason there was an old army helmet on the floor having belonged to one of our grandfathers during a world war; perhaps Tim had been playing soldier. Somehow when Lydia flew from the bed, she landed in such a way that her head struck the very real, very hard helmet. I have a vague feeling that my parents put a stop to flying soon after that.

I have glimpses of life at Red Oak, mere flashes of memories, more like short, moving photographs than things that happened tangibly. A snapshot here, a snapshot there, of birthdays and parades and one, single snow day, which covered the back yard in an inch or two of easily spoiled white wetness and melted within a few hours. I remember that my obsession with candy motivated most of my actions as a four year old, and drove me on one occasion to eat every Milk-Dud my brother had hoarded so carefully, leaving only one piece in one of the boxes as a pitiful penance. When my father took me to work (a great treat), my time was divided into three occupations: weaseling candy from his colleagues; hiding a spiky rubber ball in his file cabinet for him to find later; and being terrified of the “dragon” outside his office. In one of the trees that scraped next to the window, there was a compact, black thing attached to a branch, which moved every so often and made strange noises which both frightened and fascinated me. I still am not willing to say for certain the dragon was a security camera, because how can one ever know for sure?

There was a church we attended where, depending on whom I sat with, I was bribed with candy to behave during the service. Mrs. Moon always gave Big Red cinnamon gum, but Mrs. Anita only shushed. You had to wait until after the service to get the good stuff, from the pastor when he stood by the doors with an offering plate full of candy for the children. There were acolytes at the church, who impressed me with their robes and responsibilities of lighting and extinguishing the candles in the sanctuary. If you had asked me my life’s ambitions at age five, they likely would have been two-fold: to be an acolyte and to eat candy. My favorite part of the service was hearing the grownups recite the creeds—it’s one of those snapshots I mentioned earlier. There are green glass windows, which though blurry, let in the sunlight in a uniquely Sunday-morning manner, and the pew is very hard and my legs can’t reach the floor, but my back feels the pew resonate with the voices of the congregation as they say the same words as they did the week before, in the same way as they did the week before: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

As it turned out, we moved from Red Oak shortly before I was old enough to acolyte (if that can be a verb), and we didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer in the new church we attended. One would think the old rhythms would have faded over a decade and a half, but they haven’t. Snatches of creeds and liturgy remain: “…I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…come to judge the quick and the dead…” Recently I visited a church which had congregational reading, and while the words were familiar, and it felt strangely comforting to be speaking the same things as everyone sitting around me, my adult tongue was a little halting in its response.

I guess I’m not really old enough to be writing a memoir, if that’s what this rambling story is. I ought to be out living rather than reminiscing about what life was like when I was a kid. If this story is worth anything to me and to you, maybe its worth will be in remembering a long, lovely childhood and recognizing that endings aren’t all bad. I am trying to grow up now, after an awfully long time of not wanting to, after a great effort to cling to the person I was and the people I knew then.

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