These days my mind wanders. A lot. I’ve finished the eighth month since Michael died. During our 45 years together, it seemed that my whole life happened while we shared with each other. I was only 20 when we started. Remembering everything we experienced often overpowers me with pain that is physical, wrenching gut pain. Sitting with it is just too much. So off my mind goes to other places, seeking relief.
I don’t know why my memory has always been vivid, packed with detail, both visual and aural. I know that there are mnemonic tricks that you can use to train your mind to remember, essentially creating a mind palace to use as a tool to access information. I’ve never needed to do that. The inside of my head reminds me of those children’s pop-up books, the ones where each page turns into a 3D structure that you can walk through and touch. When I pull away from my thoughts of Michael and me, I drift into the before, my very early years and am suddenly in the midst of a different type of experience.
The picture above is of a restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa where my family lived from the time I was 8 months old until age 7. The Green Gables. We rarely went out to restaurants because money was always an issue but on special days, we went there. In my mind it looked so much bigger than the building in the photo but I know that my child’s perspective accounts for that. I remember my favorite food was their massive turkey club sandwich with real turkey sliced from the bird, juicy tomatoes and lettuce, and enough mayonnaise to ensure that my mouth always needed mopping as I ate. I dreamed of going back there but then realized it was better to leave the memories in place so they could never be altered by my grownup perceptions.
In Sioux City we first lived in a rental on 17th street. We had a blonde cocker spaniel named Trixie. When she went into heat, mom muttered and grumbled, mopping up spots from the floor and eventually putting Trixie in a diaper. I was about 3 then and the diapers were from my little sister. Trixie bit me in my armpit and we got rid of her. In that space, sunlight came through the kitchen window and I’d stand still and watch the tiny pieces of dust moving through the air like tiny fliers. Fairy dust. We only lived there a short time. Eventually my parents were able to buy a house and 17th Street disappeared.
This is one of the few pictures I have of our house on 23rd street in Sioux City. The photo was taken from the rear.
It was the only house my parents ever owned. It was big and hard for my mom to manage. My brother bred white mice in the basement. When they were born, I was fascinated by their naked pink squirmy bodies. We had bats in the attic. I can see my mom chasing them, brandishing a broom at a sheer curtain or the baseboard by the door that led to the attic. I am sitting in the kitchen, watching her press a glass into cookie dough, the round shapes pulling away and then laid carefully on a sheet for baking. I played outside all the time. We had neighbors called the Brewers and the Larimers. The dad in the Larimer family was a doctor. Their home and lot were really massive. Their kids were Robin, Charlie and Janie. Robin was my age and was my first love. We played imaginary games in which he played the dual roles of noble fly and nasty spider. I was always the butterfly in distress, constantly in need of rescue. Thinking about that makes me laugh because I was a rugged outdoor girl with a sense of confidence. But we played it that way anyhow. The Larimers were Scottish and each summer they had a huge barbecue with bagpipers and what they called a weenie roast. Still makes me laugh. I had my first drink of orange soda pop at one of these grand events and was astonished by the carbonation bubbling up my nose. I liked milk.
I had a tricycle named Silver after the Lone Ranger’s horse with pink, green and white plastic streamers that blew at the ends of my handlebars. We had a new dog, a collie mix named King who was gentle and once came home carrying a baby raccoon in his mouth. My mom fed it strawberries which it pulled apart with its black, leathery fingers. We called it Mario. I can’t remember what became of him. I stayed outside as long as I could every day. My dad called me Chief Blackfoot which hurt my feelings.,My mom gave me jars with air holes punched in the lids for oxygen. I filled them with twigs and leaves and hunted for caterpillars which I hoped would cocoon and turn into butterflies like me. There was a tall stand of hollyhocks on the corner and I’d stand very still and watch bees disappear into the depths of their centers and wonder if they’d ever come out. When they did, if you stuck your nose in after they left, it would come out yellow, covered in pollen.
Once, there was a big flood in our town and my dad wrapped me in a rough blanket and carried me to the house on the highest ground where Mrs. Monroe, who lived there, said we could stay until the water receded. The next day, I went with dad to find our car which had floated down the block and was stopped from disappearing altogether by a sturdy fence. Life was full of adventure.
This is a photo of Hunt School where I went to kindergarten and 1st grade. I really loved my kindergarten teacher, Miss Wyfles. My mom had surgery the year before I started school and I was very upset by the possibility that people could vanish from their proper places. Every day I asked my mom if Miss Wyfles would be in school and if she’d be home when I got home. And instead of saying maybe or usually, she always said yes. One day Miss Wyfles was absent. Evidently I threw such an enormous fit that my sister who was 5 and 1/4 years older than me, was sent for to talk me off the ledge. She said my eyes were big as saucers and I was totally rigid. The first terror I remember. But I liked school. I liked my rug used for naps and the carton of milk we got before we slept. I remember our cloakroom-in the winter, the teachers were always reminding us to stand our rubbers up straight so the insides wouldn’t get wet. Those ugly black boots which had clips to snap together. I was glad when I finally got a pair of red boots. I also remember our air raid drills, thinking all the while that my arms probably wouldn’t do much to stop a bomb if it fell right on top of me.
Once, my sister forgot me at school. I was supposed to meet her on the front steps so she could walk me home. Eventually all the kids had gone except me. I can’t remember how I figured out how to make my way but when I appeared at the top of our slanted block, people were calling and looking for me.They were so glad to see me and proud of me for finding my way. I always thought my sister figured if she left me there I might never come home. That was the beginning of my being industrious and streetwise.
Sioux City didn’t work out for us. We were moving back to Chicago and had to leave King behind because he couldn’t live in our apartment. Robin took me to the big toy room in their house and said I could pick out any toy I wanted. I chose a metal horse with 3 legs. He kept some of our fish which he held in a bowl, alongside his siblings and his parents who waved goodbye as we all looked sadly out the back window of our car. After they faded from sight, I asked my parents if there was milk in Chicago and how you got to be the first car on the road.
There was a before. Remembering it helps with the now. Someday, there may be an after.