I scribbed and scrawed and scratched and scroobed. At first with those thick lavender elementary school trainer pencils, sometimes with a nothing more than a nubble of broken crayon. In flowing royal blue fountain pen ink or a smudgy stub of pencil. I dreamed of typing in a tree house but instead I scribbled in backseats or on busses, while wedged behind a fliptop schoolhouse desk or hunched over a sticky kitchen table.
Like Livingston on a lifelong safari, I am off to capture the prize.
My middle finger is marked by a callous from gripping the pencil so earnestly, even desperately, my hands are forever stained with ink. Scraps of paper, half finished notebooks, missives tucked into books. Tantalizing clues and ciphers and keys! All for me.
The cartographer of malleable memory, I am making a map.
BRAVE: Oak Park Boulevard
Ah ha! Nobody is watching. My moment has come. I kick my tennis shoes off into the summer grass and gingerly ease my feet onto the hot sidewalk. I am expecting a sizzle but it doesn’t happen. Step by step by step. I can do it! Like the firewalkers that boldly skitter over hot coals I am brave enough to walk the fiery pavements of Oak Park Boulevard with my bare feet! But even so I make certain to step carefully over every single crack. Because I love my mother very much.
AWAY: Hudson’s Department Store
Like a moveable steel Everest it loomed imploringly before me. Each step rising up and up and up and then somehow folding away into some mysterious and inviting heavenly realm. Where did it go, where did it lead? I had no idea. All it took was just one tiny step and I was on my way, lofted upwards on a moveable stairway to adventure! As my mother turns I wave and then, in an instant, I am out of sight.
BEAUTY: The Beauty Parlor near Coolidge
It’s Friday and all the ladies are there ready to be made behived and beautiful. With enough hairspray the hairdo will last for the whole week. Each lady swathed in a plastic apron, they face their mirrors without ever making faces, and they sit in chairs that spin without ever spinning wildly. How do they do it? The air is thick with chatter and cumulous clouds of hairspray. But if we are quiet, there is a quarter for each of us.
In the corner, in the back is the Soda Machine! My sisters and I stand transfixed. Red Pop or Orange or Rock n Rye?
I am the oldest so I already know which is best. Without hesitation I drop in my quarter and twist the dial. In a moment a tall bottle of Faygo Grape is in my hand.
I swig right from the bottle and I think maybe that being made beautiful just might be worth it.
VICTORY: Camp Walden, Girls 9
High noon on a sunny day. We are inside, of course. That’s where the real action is. The floors are hard and swept and smooth. You could bounce a quarter off my hospital-cornered bunk. I know. I tried. I am toe to toe with my halter-topped, feathered-haired adversary. I’ve got this. Then with one practiced hand I knock the jacks into a perfect arc and with the other I flourish the ball in the air. My left hand sweeps through the maze and in a flash it’s all over. I am the official jacks champion of Girls 9.
The Oldsmobile pulls around the circle. I get out and the car pulls away. I am here. Knee socks and loafers, pale blue blouse and a brown jumper with pockets. I desperately need the pockets, where else can I put my nervous hands? I walk up the steps and pull open the doors. I am in the Green Lobby, a simple name for a space so exquisitely beautiful no fancy words could hope to ever do it justice. My heart skips a beat and then it almost explodes from my chest. How can this be? How can you come home to a place you’ve never been to before? But I have. At that moment I know part of me will never leave. Or perhaps it is that this wonderful place will never really leave me.
BELONG: Carnegie Deli, New York City
Sunday morning, 8 AM, Seventh Avenue. The doors of Carnegie Deli are unlocked before my eyes. Where are the crowds? I cannot figure out where everyone is. Don’t all real New Yorkers rush out at pre dawn hours on Sunday mornings?
I sit uncomfortably on a bentwood chairs at one of the long tables and I wrestle with a menu that is as massive as the Ruben’s Triptych. Pen and pad in hand the bow-tied, black-jacketed waiter is waiting. And waiting.
I panic. So I order the first things that come into my head.
In a few moments he places a warm baked apple and hunk of Russian Coffee Cake in front of me. I take a few bites and I start to relax at last. It is very good.
When I look up to pay my bill three other people have ordered exactly the same thing.
I have done it. I belong.
SEALED: Haagen-Dazs, The Upper West Side
We stood there together, our noses pressed against the glass case. I hardly knew him. So will it be chocolate or mint chip or strawberry or mango? Rum raisin or butterscotch or fudge Ripple or plain vanilla? Cup or a cone? Sprinkles or sauce? Can an ice cream choice define you? Of course it can.
“I’d like an egg cream,” I said. His eyes, behind his round tortoise shell glasses, were wide. “That’s amazing,” he said. “Me too.” The kiss, and the life together that follows, is especially sweet.
JOY: Riverdale, 16th floor
The identical little people in identical pajamas were so small they couldn’t stand for more than a few seconds without toppling over onto each other. That didn’t matter. They fell down they got up, they fell down they got up again. And they laughed, a rich and rollicking and rolling laugh that blended into a jazz trumpet duet that would have knocked Old Satchmo, Louis Armstrong himself, back on his heels. My oh my!
We never got the joke. Just the joy.
MEMORY LANE: Around the corner
He traveled that route like a tiny King in a Yankee cap. Perched proudly in his green wagon he had the presence and bearing of Caesar himself. I pulled the wagon. Down the street, around the corner and a curve through a cave of trees, back and forth day after day to take his brothers to elementary school. It was my job, but small as he was, he was certain it was his.
Then when he was old enough, for a time he walked with them. And then, older still and the only brother left, he walked Memory Lane alone.
Except for this last time. It was his last day on this beloved path at this beloved school. He asked me to walk with him. No wagon necessary. I did. We walked the path together one more time.
And in front of everyone he held my hand.
For me memory isn’t solid at all but truly more like shimmery green jello. I love jello. It shifts in the light. It wobbles. It changes. Memory I think is meant to be stretched, sometimes reshuffled or perhaps rolled like dice from a cup to continuously recreate the treasure map of a happy life. Follow the dots wherever they lead again and again on a zig zagged path to happiness.