Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. (Barbara Kingsolver)
Hearing a certain song can grab you and yank you back through years and decades to a particular place and time. Spinning Wheel, by Blood, Sweat & Tears instantly takes me back to 1970 and a souped-up Corvair owned by my high-school buddy and next door neighbor. The car was filled with our friends, that song was blaring from the eight-track player concealed in the glove compartment. The sun had set, but without air conditioning, the hot, humid, mid-summer air in St. Louis necessitated that the windows be rolled down. This allowed us to hang our right or left arm (depending on our seating geometry) out of the car and pound on the roof, keeping time to the crooning of David-Clayton Thomas. We were young, life was good, and that memory is firmly etched in my brain.
But hearing is not the only sense that can trigger a memory rush. Any of the senses; smell, taste, hearing, touch or sight can be a catalyst to take us back in time. In this case it was this photo, discovered while going through my dad’s old 35mm slides. Finding it was an unexpected treat, a serendipity of the highest order as I didn’t know this moment in time had been captured.
I was ten-years old in this photo, the summer of 1965.
Eleven and a half years prior to this photo being taken, my dad moved our family from a small town in Texas to St. Louis. They left a little white frame house with a rose garden and a goldfish pond to live in a two-family flat in south St. Louis. My mother thought she had been transported to a special kind of urban purgatory, if not hell. She must have forgiven Dad, because a year later I was conceived. A decade passed and my mom still yearned to return to Texas. Dad traveled a lot during the summer and I was out of school, that combination made it the perfect time to return and spend the summers with my maternal grandparents in the small town of Chandler, Texas.
I wish I could say that my memories of that summer were a tightly woven fabric, where every detail, every location, every story was perfectly remembered. But that was 52 years ago and I have only disconnected, singular memories … pleasant, but not connected in a complete woven narrative. I am left with just memory threads.
The dog. “We travel too much, who would keep it while we’re gone”? and “The yard’s not fenced”. All valid reasons why I never had a dog growing up, but I still yearned for a dog. When that beautiful collie showed up shortly after our arrival that summer in 65′, I considered it at least a minor miracle. None of the neighbors had seen the dog before and no one showed up looking for a lost collie. She was in need of a companion, I was in need of a dog. It was a mutually agreeable arrangement. My mother was something of a germaphobe and stray dogs certainly fell into the, “you don’t know where they have been” and “you don’t know kind of diseases they may have”, category. But even she was won over by the collie’s gentle nature and intelligence. I pretended to train her and teach her tricks. She pretended to not have already known every command I practiced. Each time I stepped outside the house, she was there to great me. We were the best of friends that special summer.
The girl. If you look closely at the photo, you will see a girl about my age sitting very primly in a chair on the porch. She and her younger brother lived next door in a modern brick ranch. The four of us (counting the collie) made up games and entertained ourselves as kids did back then. Yes, in 1965, girls played in dresses. I can’t remember her name. Though it would soon change, at least for that summer, I found dogs more fascinating than girls.
The chair. My grandparents house was most likely built in the late 1800’s. The house was divided down the middle by a center hall that ran from the front door straight to the back door. If both main doors were opened, it allowed for air to flow through the screen doors and straight through the house, providing some measure of relief from the Texas heat. Facing the front of the house, the bedrooms were on the left and the living room, dining room and kitchen were on the right. The living room contained a large overstuffed chair, positioned squarely in front of the black and white console television. This was where my grandfather watched wrestling, or raslin’, as he pronounced it. I was only allowed to sit in the chair if my grandfather were not home. That chair got me in more trouble than should be possible for an inanimate object. The chair was upholstered in a faded, coarse, floral tweed. Unfortunately the fabric was not entirely intact. There were holes worn through on the massive arms that allowed the stuffing to poke through. Apparently I was the only who couldn’t refrain from picking at the stuffing. I was reprimanded, I was scolded, yet when I became engrossed in whatever I was watching, my fingers took on a life and mind of their own and inched toward the protruding stuffing. Before I knew what happened, there was a small pile of chair innards lying on the floor. I was eventually banished from the chair.
The gun. My grandfather was the constable in that little town. He was a man of routines. When he arrived home, he entered by the back door, unbuckled his gun belt, wrapped the belt, holster and gun in a loose knot and left it on the dresser by the back door. He then went into the kitchen to see what there was to eat. I was fascinated by the gun. It evoked ideas of cowboys and the Alamo in my ten-year-old brain. It was Texas after all and my father certainly did not wear a gun to his office. I remember the faint smells that accompanied the gun. The oiled leather of the belt and holster, the sharp metallic scent from the revolver and bullets. I knew I was not to touch the gun and fortunately my fingers had more control over this issue than they exhibited with the chair upholstery.
The porch. I spent a lot of time on that porch. It was a deep porch than ran the width of the house. It was a good spot to read and drink sweet tea. Other than positioning myself directly in front of one of the window fans inside the house, it was the coolest place to be. For all her good manners, the collie was not allowed inside. That was another reason to sit on the porch where she could keep me company, her tail beating out a comforting rhythm in three-quarter time on the wood floorboards.
The rain came rarely to that part of Texas during the summer, but when it did, it was often fierce and accompanied by a raucous duet of thunder and lightning. Positioned on the porch you could feel the drop in temperature right before the showers arrived. The porch was not equipped with any gutters, so when the rains came, the water poured over the edge of the porch roof in translucent sheets. I could stand with my toes curled over the edge of the porch and thrust my arms through the curtain of rain water.
My grandson is currently the same age I was when this photo was taken, my granddaughter, seven years younger yet. They are just beginning to weave their fabric of memories. I hope to help them collect some good ones. My mother is 39 years ahead of me down the road of life. Sadly at 101, her memories are becoming unraveled.
I understand now that I was a child of privilege. Not in terms of wealth or being sent to expensive private schools, but I was raised in an environment of love and support. I was exposed to art, music and literature. I wanted for nothing, … well, except for a full-time dog.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Arriving next summer, I immediately asked about the collie. My grandparents told me that she disappeared shortly after we left for St. Louis the previous summer.
God in his wisdom, has decreed that dogs have a much shorter life span than humans. I don’t understand this and hope to have the opportunity to question him about that decision some day. I choose to believe that somewhere in Texas, the descendants of the collie, four or five generations removed, are playing catch with 10-year-old boys and girls. Running across the hot sandy soil and building memories.