Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Way Back

Today I'm going back about as far as I can go.

Have you ever had a flash of the past hit you out of nowhere?  A picture from some otherwhen that just pops into your head?  Maybe some gray and fuzzy old pages out of a mental album?  Everybody probably has at one time or another.  You have a deja-vu moment from way back when and it feels like it might have been important somehow.  But then as fast as it came, it's gone; swept back into dusty corners by bright sunlight and busy days.  Whatever it was, you don't have time to fool with it and it was so long ago, it doesn't matter anyway.
But then again, maybe by some chance sometime, the old, faded photo sticks for a moment and you pay attention for a while.  That happened the other day and as things led to another.

I was just kind of idling at the table with my coffee, ticking over easy before the usual rush to get out the door.  From wherever it was buried and for whatever reason, out of the blue I remembered a memory.  I have no idea what brought it on and I guess it doesn't really matter.  It was suddenly there out of the fog and just like that, I was somewhere I hadn't been in a very long time.  Before I knew it,  there were more dimly recalled places and people out the past and for a little while that morning, I was thinking of things I hadn't thought of in decades.

The trigger was a gauzy picture in my head that seems kind of like a worn out newspaper photo.  It was of me watching my Mom working on an old dresser.  She was getting it ready for my baby brother, painting and fussing with it.  I can even see the room she was in.  I was only about two years old when he was born, is it even possible to remember that far back?

That quick flash made me dig a bit more until I came across a very faded, dim memory of my long-gone Grandma Thorton.  It's an impression more than a memory but I can feel her in a rocking chair in a living room somewhere.  It's dark and I can't see her face but I remember her and I know it's her.  Somehow, it's comforting to know that I know.

From there, I poked around in the cracks and found another old picture of me running home from the neighbors house across the road, scared and confused because Mrs. Brown was crying and I didn't know why.  My mother told me that the president was dead and I think she cried too.  I remember the television was on and everyone was afraid.  I couldn't understand it but I remember it.  John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 when I was four.  How can I still have that stashed away?

I went on down the alley and found more than I can believe.  Where did I keep the pictures of my Grandfathers house and the feeling of how it frightened me?  How do I still remember the big clock and box of wooden blocks.  How did I know he didn't like us much even when I was so small?

I tripped over the Sunday jaunts in the station wagon to 'check the store' when Dad was a grocery man.  Not much was open on Sunday then and he had to make sure the coolers stayed on until Monday morning.  We rode cardboard boxes on the rollers and conveyors that ran around the storeroom and chased each other on pallet carts up and down the aisles.  Dad would let us read the comics on the rack as long as we put them back when we were done.  Sometimes there was an ice cream cone afterwards but I mostly remembered the cool, dark grocery store with the big curved windows and rows of deserted cash registers.  It was like another world.

Somewhere too there's visions of a cottage on the St. Lawrence that was our vacations for a while.  I can picture a big back porch and an ancient record player that cranked out "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" over and over.  I can see the river and the path down to the dock through the weeds but not much else.  Another summer hideout was a place on Seneca Lake that had a big dock and a million steps down to the water.  Seems like it rained a lot but it's so faded that I can't be sure.

I found the the worn out memories of hand-me-down bikes, old hand-pushed reel lawn mowers, the two-wheeled garden tractor with a Radio Flyer full of kids wired to the drawbar, my oldest brother coming home from the Navy with stitches from a car crash, my sister going out on Friday with a pack of girlfriends, another brother in leather riding out on a chopper and that same younger brother with the now-old-again dresser who helped build a plywood fort and who fought epic battles with arsenals of crab apples from the backyard tree.  Tucked away among the cobwebs was pictures of snowdrifts higher than our heads and a parade of much-loved but long-forgotten dogs.  There's parts of me almost completely lost.  Small things like being terrified of thunderstorms and airplanes.  Laying in bed watching car headlights move across my wall at night and having nightmares from watching scary movies with the big kids; and larger things too, like a long line of friends now gone and a string of places now long unseen.  Names like Hally, Tim, Laura, Lallie, Ronnie, Clara, Donnie, Carl, Frank, Susan, Ginny and all the rest...what became of them and how do I still remember them?  How much more and how many others are hidden in old desk drawers in the back of my head?  Sitting there at the table, I knew I'd never know.

Much as I'd like to, I doubt I'll ever be able to sit still long enough to sort out all that stuff I've got stashed away in back of my eyes and between my ears.  That's a luxury for when I can park on the porch swing and watch the world go by, not today.  I'll bore my grandkids with reminiscing someday because that's what grandfathers do when they're not spoiling them.  For now, it's enough to spend a few minutes remembering and tapping it out.

Someday, I'll just have to walk back gently and knock quietly at the door to the old times and peek a little more.  There's a danger in hanging around and spending too much of the right-now in the back-then so I'll wait for the opportune time.  I know there's a whole pack of old hurts lurking about somewhere that are better off left undisturbed.  You bury some things because you need to and there's no good to come of opening up scars that have healed or dancing again with demons that you put down years ago.  But every once in a while, I don't think it does any harm to take a couple of breaths, turn off the world and look all the way back.  What you are comes from there after all.

If you're careful and tread lightly, it's like digging in any old attic or musty garage.  There's treasures to be found among the boxes and in the far corners.  You just have to close your eyes and look.

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