Sesame Street‘s “A Sandwich” lets us mingle our celebrations: hurray for the 40th birthday of Sesame Street and for the upcoming Sandwich Party!
I was babysitting my young friend L., who was just on the brink of three years old*. Her parents wanted to spend a grown-up afternoon together, after which we would all gather for dinner. At the end of of the afternoon, L. suggested we get ice cream cones.
“Oh, we’ll have to do that next time, L.,” I said. “We don’t want to spoil our dinners!”
“I don’t mind,” she said, reasonably enough.
“Oh, but your mom** wouldn’t like it, would she?”
She said nothing for a moment, her little face pursed in wry understanding.
Then, suddenly… a light dawned on L.’s face. It was the light of revelation, of a world-altering discovery. It erased those wrinkles of displeasure, smoothing them over with wonder. In the spirit of innovators everywhere, L. had found a solution, a way to keep everyone happy. She bounced on her plump little legs, swept up in the delight and sheer novelty of the idea she was about to share.
Breathless and utterly guileless, she looked up at me and gasped:
“We could… not tell her!”
*I think — this was several years ago, and L. is now in middle school.
** Not to reinforce the all-too-common trope that Mom = responsibility and green beans, Dad = ice cream, ill-advised wackiness, and skateboarding injuries, but in this family… well, yeah.
At a post-Thanksgiving family gathering, my almost-18-year-old niece A and I are watching 3-year-old K play tirelessly with her blanket. K lays the blanket on the floor, lies full-length in it, and rolls herself up like a little burrito. She sits in the center and folds the corners up around her, over her head. Standing, she rolls herself in it head to toe and jumps with all her wobbly might. She lays it out on the floor, climbs onto a chair, and launches herself out into space, landing with a striking thump in the center of her blanket.
I turn to A and say speculatively, “I just want to sit her in the blanket, wrap it up over her, grab it by all four corners, and swing it around over my head.”
A nods sagely and says, in a considering tone, “We learned about that in my psychology class. It’s called giving voice to the id.”
Up at 5:30, thoughts racing through my brain with no particular destination, just visiting the same old subjects of what I should do, what have I read recently, how I wish I was still sleeping. The mini-bar fridge drones on, sucking energy from every life force around it. The fan in the bathroom competes for noisy dominance while JM watches podcasts in there so as not to wake me up. Too late. JM abandons me for the hotel cafe with faster wireless speeds. Instead of staying buried under the covers I decide to write, slow the pace down.
We’re back early from our two week safari. Long story short (meaning I’m not yet allowed to write about it), we turned around after the first day and came back to Alice.
My writing needs to be edited, but that’s the story of my life. Needs editing.
I vividly remember my sanctuary in the lilac tree. It grew in the corner yard of our old house, the house we left shortly after my seventh birthday. Low on the tree where the many branches met there was a small hollow, a recess just the size of a tiny child. I would curl up there warm in the wooden heart of the lilac. The canopy of leaves screened me from view and the fat bumblebees droned and looped around me.
From my little haven, I could peep out sleepily on all the ruckus of our street, the kids whizzing by on their bikes, the high-schoolers jostling past, all elbows and bookbags. The scent of the buds dropped over me like a sweet blanket, and I would drowse and muse for hours, snug in the tree’s embrace.
Memory is so slippery, such a
greased weasel soapy little runt, squealing and skittering out of grasp glossy and chimerical beastie, that to ponder it too long invites madness… or philosophy, madness’s respectable cousin. But childhood memories are particularly complicated constructs, deserving of special meditation. Most children find the distinction between the fantastic and the concrete blurry at best, and are already scrambling frantically to make rough sense of most of the realities that cascade around them, much less of the phantasms that flit through their pliant and voracious minds.
But my lilac tree…
A few years ago, I mentioned this peaceful retreat to my oldest sister, and she replied, puzzled, that it couldn’t be so. I can’t remember now: did the lilac tree have no such hollow, or was it simpler still — that there was no lilac tree in that yard? Either way, in a moment I came to realize that one of my fondest memories (and one of the only secrets I had in that big, busy house) was perfectly and flatly untrue, a childhood fantasy.
The second oddest thing about this memory: the instant I told my sister about the lilac hollow, before she even had time to crinkle an eyebrow, I found myself thinking how unlikely it sounded. A hollow in the tree trunk just my size? I crawled into it with no fear of worms or centipedes or bees? No one ever saw me there, or found traces of bark or dirt, or scrapes on my tender little legs? I slept there for hours, and no one looked for me?
The very oddest thing: even as my sweet, fragrant memory disintegrated in the telling, its sweetness remains undiminished. I remember the heady scent, the rough kiss of the bark on my shins, the green of the heart-shaped leaves swimming around me, the dozy bees dipping and humming. I remember the deep peace I felt, cradled there between the branches. It wasn’t real, but it was real.
I don’t know when it happened, but it dates with my earliest memories. The cat, the old gray cat I barely remember, scratched me, and my mother and I both remonstrated in our way. I shook a pudgy finger at him and scolded. “Bad cat!”
Gently my mother corrected me. “He’s not a bad cat. He’s a good cat and we love him, even though he did a bad thing.”
Even at the time, I took a larger message away from that moment. I knew that even when I was bad — even when I squealed and whined, even when I jumped on the bed, even when my sister and I invaded my father’s study (most forbidden in itself) and used his permanent markers to draw all over each other’s limbs and torsos — that my parents would love me.
Not every child knows that. If you hate getting teary-eyed in public, don’t read this in public.
I am participating in NaBloPoMo.
The kid in line at the coffeehouse pulled the sleeve of the rumpled, gray-haired guy standing next to him. “Hey, Dad, I know who this guy is.” He pointed at the packet of Newman’s Own cookies displayed on the counter.
“Yeah?” said his father absently, gazing up at the specials board.
“Yeah! He’s a dentist!”
This caught Dad’s attention, and he looked down at the packet, a smile crinkling his face. “Ah, no, no he’s actually An Actor,” giving the last two words a storybook emphasis. Dad’s eye flickered toward me and he gave me the special “ain’t kids crazy?” raised eyebrow.
It was time to chip in. “Actually, he’s right, in a way… The model for the original painting was Grant Wood’s dentist.”
The father turned wide eyes on his son, and a new look dawned on his face. “Hey… how did you know that?” he breathed softly.
The kid shrugged. “I dunno. I know things.”
I am participating in NaBloPoMo.