When you reach a crossroads, you reflect, chronicle the events that made you who you are. What come to mind are the little things—because for most of us, there are no big things. We didn’t command a Broadway stage or win national office. We lived ordinary lives.
My memories come back to me in flashes, without regard to chronology. The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, and running out of a Santa Monica hotel—my husband clutching my hand by the fingertips, trying to get away. An air-raid drill at School 84, seated in the corridor, heads down, hands clasped behind our heads. That will save us! But from what?
The taste of white milk and saltine crackers after kindergarten naptime, Mr. Burleson’s science experiment, where we hold hands in a circle and feel a jolt of electricity travel through us as he revs up a generator. Walking to school, squishing blackberries underfoot.
In my earliest memory, I am seated against a glass-block wall in a wooden high chair with a tray that lifts over my head, and I am playing with Mason-jar lids in a bowl. My mother drives behind the bus that takes me to nursery school … and away from her for the first time. Feverish dreams in my parents’ bed—call the doctor, with his long, shaky hands. Sticking a sheet of clear plastic to the TV to draw along with Winky Dink and You. Playing fairies with twigs as wands in the backyard. Roller-skating alone on the driveway apron.
It is said we’re the sum of our life experiences. We become sensitive if we are criticized, afraid if we’ve been threatened, joyous if we’re loved. Or perhaps they add up to nothing, and the parts stand alone. Who knows?
Ten people, three generations, at a Thanksgiving table. “Look at what we did,” says my husband.
I can still see Mom’s tomato pincushion, feel the pricks as I am fitted for a floor-length gown I will wear as a flower girl in my cousin’s wedding. The lie I was instructed to tell to gain admission to the Riviera Club, where Jewish kids were not welcome to swim. With a borrowed tag pinned to my swimsuit, I say, “I’m Molly Garrett, and I’m 5 years old.”
I am travel-averse today, perhaps from countless train trips on the James Whitcomb Riley to visit my grandmother in Cincinnati. Terrified, I stand on the platform at Union Station, the deafening grind of gears and huge puff of smoke at eye and ear level. Or maybe some people are just born homebodies.
Death was scary then and is now. Who isn’t afraid? I remember my mother slumped in her bedroom chair, having just hung up from a call with her family in Cincinnati. “Papa passed away,” she tells me solemnly, and I am too frightened to ask what that means.
The older you get, the stronger your memories of the early years grow: the Buster Brown shoe store, my feet in an X-ray machine where we can see our bones inside new shoes. Locked in the boiler room at elementary school where I filled the watering can, and screaming in panic as the red-faced janitor, sweaty from loading coal, comes at me suddenly to unfasten the door. Finding my cocker spaniel, Skippy, dead on a neighbor’s front step; new pajamas to assuage the grief. Practicing the piano in the living room and singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
My first kiss on our front porch, and the surprise softness of a boy’s lips. Ballet class at the Hotel Antlers, and the cruel French teacher who taps a cane—hard, on the floor, like a weapon—and calls a skinny girl “Toothpick” and me “Pretzel” because of my crooked back. Starched white nuns’ hats, floating like sails, as we travel the hallways of St. Vincent Hospital. The clatter of X-ray films; curvature of the spine. No more normal. The shame lasts a lifetime.
Meeting my future husband in sixth-grade dance class. Taller, he mashes his cheek against my forehead swaying to a slow song. The sorority ceremony where I announce my engagement by blowing out a candle on its third time around. Sitting silent on a bed pressed against my roommate after her brother’s death. Overhearing the nurse on the other side of the doctor’s reception desk say, “Tell Debbie Paul it’s pos.” At last! A baby inside.
A dinner party at our home, and that child’s head wedged in the railing, stuck like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit’s house. We grease his neck, pivot his head. Call the fire department! Finally, a guest pulls him through, skinny body first. I advance a career my whole married life, but when the teacher asks what Mommy does, the kid says, “She stands at the sink.”
Memories collide, good and bad, all at once. I am cross-stitching the letter “G” on a friend’s AIDS quilt. For the second glorious time, I am told “It’s a boy.” I awake from surgery without my breast; I hold my first grandchild. I feed my father in a nursing home, and he thinks I’m Dorothy, his wife. Ten people, three generations, at a Thanksgiving table. “Look at what we did,” says my husband.
In 1950, three years after I was born, life expectancy was 68 years. I am living on borrowed time—more time to remember, for parts to become whole.
Editor emerita Deborah Paul’s personal reflections on culture, society, and family have graced the pages of IM since 1981.