Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reflections on the Me I Used to Be

The date stamped on the photo is January 1969, but the summer setting tells us it's 1968. This is the most perfect snapshot of my childhood I have ever seen.

In the photo are my brother, my mom and me. Dad is the one behind the camera. In the background is our 1961 Ford Fairlane and the house we rented at Lake Tapps in Washington State. Mom is wearing one of her favorite sleeveless dresses and I'm in Sunday clothes, so we're either going to or have just come back from church. You can see my shiny black shoes that, if I struck my heels down hard enough, went "click-clack" on linoleum floors like the grownup ladies' shoes. The only thing missing is my dad's old dog, Suzy, who's probably in the house.

My brother looks like he's ready for a nap. I look like I want to get in my play clothes so I can go skin my other knee. He's three and I am six.

In those days, the scattered houses around Lake Tapps were mainly summer homes, though there were a few year-round residents like us. Our place wasn't really built for winters, evidenced by the "poink-poink" of water dripping into mom's Revere Ware pans during heavy rains. The couch in the living room faced those big windows, and when storms boomed and lashed outside, mom would sit with my brother and I snuggled safe to each side.

Behind the house are the woods where I played and my imagination took wings. Mom and dad used to bring us on guided nature walks in the national parks and forests, and I took those lessons to heart. In these woods, I spent hours foraging for things to eat. Blackberries, salal berries, Oregon grapes, wild huckleberries, thimble berries and also wild hazelnuts. Mom would wonder why I came in for dinner and had little appetite. I collected rocks and sticks and snail shells, and kept chunks of moss on styrofoam meat trays, because the moss looked like little green lawns in a miniature world. I still recall the spice of fallen leaves and the warm, herbal fragrance of bracken ferns.

In the summers, we'd pile into that Ford Fairlane (licence plate OSC 712) and the back seat was as big as a ball field. My brother and I would jostle and elbow, amuse ourselves with books and games, and play "slug-bug" on the long drives to see Grandma and Grandpa, or to visit some train depot my model-railroading dad wanted to see. Mom packed picnic lunches of cold chicken, pressed ham sandwiches, jello salad and apples.

1968 was a period of tumult, but I knew nothing of the times, of the Tet Offensive, the Chicago riots or the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Still, I think kids sense a world in upheaval. My dad had left the Methodist ministry a year before, moving us out of the little Victorian parsonage in Orting (the one with the slippery oak banister on the stairs) to this house. Dad struggled to find work, for a time selling Fuller Brush products door-to-door. I loved his sample case, with its exotic soapy scents and gizmos for grooming the well-dressed man.

Here I also remember my mom and dad first arguing over money worries. Then old Suzy dog became ill and dad took her down to the vet. He returned home later that day, alone. Mom and I were shattered. I don't think she ever forgave dad for that. Some while after Suzy died, I acquired two imaginary dogs, redbone hounds whose names I forget. (Whether I precociously read "Where the Red Fern Grows" at age seven, I can't recall. Maybe dad read it to me.)

We were only in this house two or three years, but somehow living here left an indelible mark in me. For years after we left, I had nightmares of returning to find my woods cut down, replaced by modern houses. Of course those dreams have decades since come true. Today, my brother is a deeply troubled soul, estranged and divorced from us. Mom and dad are in assisted living and dad will be 90, soon. I am for all purposes an only child.

To find this photo in storage almost 42 years later has been bittersweet and a little disconcerting. I hold in my hands a near-perfect window back in time. I'm happy where I stand today. Life is good. But I can't help the pang of melancholy this image brings. Where, indeed, do the days go? It is well we cannot look into the face of a child and see where the storms of life may blow them.

Pax ~