April 14, 2018

Back in the day...

“Don’t sit so close to the television, you’ll hurt your eyes and end up with glasses.” I heard this over and over as a child. Nevertheless, I sat, in the full-on Chinese splits, as close to the console television as I could get, watching the images flash by and memorizing as many words as I could hold in my mind. I loved television. Saturday mornings, Dad would wait until I woke up to fix chocolate chip pancakes and sit me down on the couch to watch Looney Tunes for the next hour. Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny were always my favorites. When Disney released cartoons of Donald Duck via the new Disney Channel, my Dad would watch them with me, impersonating Donald’s unique voice perfectly. By the time I reached kindergarten, ironically, we learned that I was legally blind in one eye and extremely farsighted in the other. Guess mom was right.

I can’t be sure, but I think I was the only 5 year old who walked into kindergarten with glasses so thick they had a name: coke bottle glasses. It made my eyes look magnified and they hurt my ears since they had to wrap around them to fit. It was then I learned how cruel kids could be. Even as a small child, I knew when I was being made fun of. It bothered me to the point that I began taking my glasses off before I went out to recess. That progressed to finding ways to “lose” them before school so that I wouldn’t have to wear them. I’m sure my mom felt sorry for me. I hated those glasses. I swear they are the reason that I became so insecure as an adolescent. I prefer to dwell on my younger years.

Most of my childhood revolves around the memories of playing outdoors. I loved to explore every nook and cranny of the hog farm we lived on, at least the nooks and crannies I was allowed to explore. After a good rain, when the sun would pop out, we would sometimes walk into the timber behind the house and search for mushrooms. Occasionally, when we were fortunate enough to find a few, I would get to help dig them up. I loved playing in the mud and mom loved eating the mushrooms. It was a symbiotic relationship that allowed me an excuse to be dirty. Naturally, you can’t live on a farm without a dog. His name was Porky and he was a giant. Really he was part border collie and a mixture of something else, so not really a giant. In my eyes, however, he was tall and perfect for riding around the yard. I’d hop on his back and hang on to his neck as he carefully inched forward, to of fear or protection, I can’t be sure. Imagine my sadness when we left the farm, and Porky, behind. Nevertheless, I was excited for a new adventure as we drove away and headed straight to the apartment building that would be our temporary home.

The excitement was short lived in my mind. Living in an apartment with no yard can make a girl crazy. Theres only so much to do inside. In fact, my parents agreed and sent me to stay with my grandparents in Nokomis frequently. It was like an extended vacation with midnight snacks (midnight being 8pm) and more exploring than I could ever hope for. Outside, there were hundred year old trees that housed critters of all shapes and sizes. There was a crawl space just big enough for me to fit through under the wrap-around porch of their 120 year old victorian home. A sidewalk ran diagonally from the front porch to the adjacent sidewalk that paralleled the street. Along the sidewalk were acorns galore and at the end of the path there was a concrete slab less than 10 feet from the road. The perfect spot to sit in the sun and imagine all sorts of different scenarios. I asked Grandpa what the stone was there for. He explained that the stone was for the men and women riding in a horse and buggy to be able to step onto when they were stopping at the house. Fascinating. I began to imagine stagecoaches stopping in front of the house filled with princesses and important dignitaries who needed a cup of tea or something to eat along their way. The hours I spent sitting there cannot be counted.

Along the boulevard, there were three smaller trees that had been planted much later based on their size. Each tree had the perfect branches and limbs for climbing. One could sit quite comfortably in the fork of the tree, making friends with Grandpa’s squirrels and watching children riding their bikes along the bumpy brick roads on their way to the park just a block away. It was heaven. When it rained, which I don’t recall happening often, there was no need to be sad, because exploring the inside of the house was just as exciting. There were three floors in all, the upstairs being the highlight of discovery. Each room was once occupied by an aunt, an uncle, or my mom. Some of their clothes were still in the closets, including wedding dresses and suits. The drawers held treasures long forgotten by them, but absolutely fascinating to me. Costume jewelry galore, ornate brushes and combs and mirrors that looked as if they should be in a palace of some sort. There were hidden doors in the closets where I was certain they must have hidden something magical once upon a time. Every room had something new to discover. I never grew tired of looking. Grandma would ask Grandpa where something was, she’d just seen it the other day, but couldn’t remember where. I was always there to remind her, having explored enough to know where just about everything was. She would laugh and say, “I should have known to ask you first. You seem to find everything!” I would smile, happy that I could help.

The basement was a little scary. Not entirely, but enough that I only had the desire to explore it when my cousins were visiting. The real treasure of the basement was actually the double doors that covered a set of concrete stairs leading up and outside. It was a storm cellar entrance, and I could imagine it lead to a great secret garden where fairies and trolls lived. Sitting on the top step, I was barely strong enough to push the heavy wooden doors enough for a crack of sunlight to come through and reveal a tall tree surrounded by unidentifiable shrubs at its base, thus leading me to the conclusion that the fairies and trolls must live there. At night, fireflies lit up the yard and hours were spent collecting them in jars. Fairies come to life. Just above these cellar doors was the kitchen window. On summer days, I could sit there and listen to the adults talking. It was never very interesting, but I could imagine myself as an investigative reporter trying to find out who stole the monkey bread. Around the corner and to the right, the pantry window was always open. There was a tall pole with a perch on top of it that always had a corn cob sitting on it. The squirrels in Grandpa’s yard were always the fattest and most friendly. He trained them to jump up on his lap and get nuts from his front pocket or right from his fingers. Sometimes he would let my sister and I feed them a little. It was the neatest thing I’d ever seen. Somehow, even at a young age, I knew that trick was rare.

One afternoon, the warm breeze blew through the pantry window into the kitchen and through the back porch where I had just come in, creating a vacuum pocket and slamming the screen door with a whoosh that made me jump. I entered the kitchen and looked for Grandma and Grandpa, but neither were at their usual spots at the kitchen table. I looked through to the pantry and saw there were some left over cinnamon rolls from breakfast, so I went in to help myself. About that time, Fatty (grandma named her) came bounding up the post, onto the perch, and hopped in the window to greet me. Her little paws reached for me as she sat on her hind legs begging for a snack. I looked around and didn’t see any nuts, so I told her to stay put and I’d find Grandpa. Squirrels are not very good listeners, in case you were wondering. Without thinking anything of it, I left Fatty to sit while I walked through the kitchen and into the family room. Grandma was in the living room playing the piano and Grandpa was in the adjacent room and smiled when he saw me. “Fatty’s in the pantry begging for a nut, but I couldn’t find any.” He told me to check the back porch, and as I turned to leave the room, I heard a gentle scream followed by, “Get out! You get out of here. You aren’t supposed to be in the dining room!” Suddenly I see a flash of brown running past the door, through the kitchen, and I watched as Fatty’s tail disappears out of the pantry window. Grandma didn’t appreciate that Fatty had come in to find her nuts, apparently following me to see if I was going to keep my promise. Grandpa and I laughed and thought it was funny, but we both apologized to grandma for scaring her. Fatty was one of many squirrels that Grandpa trained. Sadly, the squirrels often became domesticated to the point they forgot their survival skills. More than once we would see one of our little friends had been hit by a passing car.

Memories are like a warm blanket. Warm, cozy, and comforting. It is my hope to preserve these memories for my children who may or may not decide to someday read them.