Sep 3 2011

The Lost Sandal

“Tell me a story from your childhood,” she pleads, “tell the one about the lost sandal.”

Buddy-roo is the captain of remorse, the herald of items-loved-and-lost. It is impossible to perform the seasonal clearing out of drawers with her present; shirts that no longer fit are still too precious to part with, she’s steeped in sentimental logic about why we should keep those pajamas, even though they are too tight to even fit over her shoulders. She still pines for her blue checked seersucker sundress, the one with chocolate stains down the front, which was already two sizes too small for her when I finally gave it to the good-will, at least three years ago.

The sandal: a white patent leather thong with a cherry-red flower stitched under the ball of the foot, visible only when the sandal was off, but when you were wearing it you knew you had a secret beneath your toes. The leather was thick and spongy, like walking on a mattress. I loved those sandals.

That summer, the farmhouse down the road was inhabited by a family with two children. It was my first experience with what is very common these days – a famille recomposée – but I’d never before met two siblings with different last names. The family was of very modest means, their clothes frayed and slightly soiled, their personal hygiene wanting, though I was admonished by my mother not to point it out and to treat them kindly and fairly despite how different they seemed. I was happy to play with a girl my own age – Linda was two years older – and I spent a fair amount of time down the road with her, though I was always slightly relieved when their brown rotary phone rang, summoning me to the cleaner familiarity of my own home which did not have the very-slight stench of urine that seemed to pervade theirs. I was always intrigued by their recklessness, how she disobeyed her mother without regret, how her brother Ray, two years younger than me and looking like a shoe-in for a casting of The Little Rascals, used to boast about riding his banana bike down the steep hill near our house at 80 miles-per-hour and pulling a 200-foot skid. To this day, my brother will repeat this claim, with the same I’m-a-little-tough-guy cadence, leaving my sister and me in stitches.

One evening after dinner I opted out of the activities with the boys across the street and ran down the road to play with Linda. The cows – belonging to the farmer who owned the property and rented to them – had been moved to another pasture so we were playing near a pond where they often grazed. We took turns running around the pond, timing how fast we could make a full lap. When I felt one of the sandals slip off my foot, I turned immediately to retrieve it, but I couldn’t see it anywhere.

The sandal had just come off – I’d taken maybe two more steps, because of my momentum, before I turned back – but it had already disappeared, sucked into the mud. Linda came around to help and the two of us, on our knees, pawed away at the dirty, muddy soil in search of what should have been a clearly visible bright, white shiny sandal. I heard the phone ringing in her house but ignored her mother’s shouting out that I had been beckoned home. I couldn’t leave. I had to find that sandal. Dusk was turning night; we could barely see what we were doing when my sister came down the road to fetch me.

She promised that we’d come back first thing the next day and search until we found it. It couldn’t go too far overnight, she reasoned. I could not believe that my favorite sandal had vanished into the mud and that I would have to leave without it. I hobbled home, one sandal on one foot, in tears.

The next morning, my cereal bowl half-finished, I ran down to hunt for the lost sandal. Hours of searching and digging and crying followed. It never surfaced.

This cursed event occurred forty years ago. All these years, every trip home to visit my mother or to look after the house, I pass that pond and think of my lost sandal. Linda and Ray are long gone, that rickety house has been cleaned and renovated, its lawn now mowed and manicured. But the pond remains, just as it was; often circled by cows that turn and stare at me, just like the cows before them, pretending they don’t know where my precious patent leather flowered sandal has gone.

I’ve told Buddy-roo dozens of stories about my childhood: of cherished Christmas rituals, of piles of fragrant autumn leaves, of lemonade in striped glasses sipped under the split-leaf elm, a chorus of summer crickets and fireworks viewed from our cupola. Yet this is the story she remembers most and wants to hear again and again; the one about my treasured sandal, lost forever.

“Do you still miss that sandal?” she says.

I picture the lonely sandal – I refused to discard it – gradually falling to the back of my closet, tumbled under each autumn’s new pair of Buster Brown school shoes, until years later my mother insisted, during a spring-cleaning rampage, that we throw it out. Perhaps this is why it took three years to give away that seersucker dress that was already too small for her, and why those beloved pajamas still reside in Buddy-roo’s drawer. The love of those lost, treasured items – or treasured items about to be lost – seems to run in the family.

Aug 5 2011

Precious Evenings

The summer is waning, but daylight still lingers long after dinner. At this point in the season – summer seems to turn a corner when August settles in – I think we appreciate the precious sunny evenings even more, knowing that they are numbered. The good news is there is still a month of summer left. The bad news: there’s only a month of summer left.

Seated at the dinner table, you can look out the back door of our country house and see the sun making its leisured descent to the horizon. Even after the meal and the dishes, it still has a good distance to cover; there’s a whole chapter of the day left. Last night after dinner, Short-pants kicked off her sandals and slipped into her knee-high green boots, grabbing a metal bowl from the cupboard and sprinting out to pick blackberries from the wild bushes that line our property while Buddy-roo made a beeline for the rusty old swing set. Some friends have joined us in the country for a few days, adding their three children to the mix; the gang of rowdy kids clamored around the yard with the gleeful, wild abandon that a summer night deserves. I think this might the moment when you feel most free, as a child: playing outside after dinner, like you’re stealing extra hours of fun that the winter won’t permit.

I remember how my brother, sister and I would cross the road after dinner to meet up with the five neighbor boys and play touch football in their front yard. Somehow these just-before-dusk football matches morphed into a game we called Spook. A musty old sleeping bag – a thick and weighty brown one with a flannel interior that had drawings of Davy Crockett and other frontier accessories – was central to this game, which was in essence a dressed-up form of tag. The person who was it (the Spook) had to carry or use the sleeping bag in some fashion while chasing the rest of us. My brother liked to run around the yard speaking in ye olde English, like Prince Valiant of the Sunday comic strip, alluring us into his grip. One of the neighbor boys would hold the sleeping bag with arms stretched wide open like the wings of a bat while running around the yard screeching a high-pitched alarm. Another would just hunch on all fours under the sleeping bag, waiting for us to come up and kick or taunt him and then he’d turn and grab us. We’d play Spook until it was too dark to see anymore.

The night might finish when, long after sunset, all eight of us would pile into their red convertible (before seat-belts were mandatory) and drive to town for ice cream cones. This was the same car we’d squeezed into earlier in the afternoon, when its white vinyl top would be latched to the windshield and the windows rolled up and shut tight to make us as hot as possible during the two-mile drive to the beach. We’d pour out of the car, jump down the thick, uneven cement steps to the lakefront, tossing our towels and shoes and T-shirts aside as we’d make the final sprint to plunge into the water. At night, that convertible top would be unlatched, folded and tucked behind the wide back seat, leaving us open to the night air, hair blowing across our faces as we’d cruise down the steep hill to town. The ice-cream stand had drive-thru service; what a joyful thing it was, being one or two cars back from the ordering window, fretting over maple-walnut or mint-chocolate-chip or just plain strawberry.

Last night as the sun finally set, De-facto lit a fire in the backyard while Short-pants led an expedition of the other children to forage in the forest for long narrow-ended sticks suitable for marshmallow toasting. Those that didn’t drop into the fire were sandwiched while steaming hot between two cookies with a slice of chocolate, melting into the perfect S’more, the time-tested summer’s eve treat. We let the sticky-fingered pack of children run wild into the night, forgiving any bedtime curfews usually imposed. When they finally wore themselves out (and nearly put themselves to bed) the adults stayed out in the back yard by the fire, finishing off a bottle of wine, staring up at the night sky, pondering Cassiopeia. What precious moments, these long carefree summer evenings, unburdened by tomorrow’s deadlines. Thank god there’s still a month of them ahead. And zut, there’s only a month of them left.

Nov 22 2010

The Escape of Memory

Day-to-day, small details are so easily forgotten. Even those scribbled on a Post-it, logged in an on-line to-do list or occasionally even emailed to myself. Before I had children, my mind worked nimbly. Now it’s like a sieve. Yet all I had to do was set foot on Danish soil and so began a flood of memories. Driving through the elephant gates of the Carlsberg complex, faces of friends who drank that local beer with me, more than twenty-five years ago, return with precise detail. Deposited in front of Tivoli Gardens for a dinner with clients, I glanced down the street at the lights of Copenhagen’s town hall square, and the memory of the daily crossing of the Rådhuspladsen came rushing at me like a mad parade.

Not just the images, I remember a whole chorus of feelings: how I nearly skipped across the square, jubilant and alive for the sheer adventure of living in a foreign country, or other days plodding across its weathered stones, unbelieving that I could ever construct a life that would meet my expectations, or simply because I felt sad, lonely and far away from home.

(How I long to be lonely now! There is always someone in shouting distance, interrupting or needing my attention. What a luxury, those angst-filled lonely days!)

An extra day in Copenhagen was designated for a tour of that distant chapter of my life. It started with a local train to the central station, where the sight of my feet upon the tiles with their black on terra-cotta design recalled side-trips to other European capitals that returned me home to this station with a backpack full of dirty laundry and dozens of stories to tell. If you had asked me, last week, to describe these tiles I would have drawn a blank. Seeing them triggered memories of people and places I didn’t even know were still stored in the back corners of my brain.

When I was a student in Copenhagen, I spent a lot of time just walking and wondering. Now, so many years later I was doing the same, but this time desperately trying to remember where was the doorway I used daily, to enter my school. Or that balcony I used to lean over, outside the architecture studio, or a hidden passage that was my favorite shortcut. I found most of these things – with only minor effort – but searched in vain for my favorite Café Peder Huitfeldt. I managed to find at least three little squares that could have been the cozy, out of the way square where (I think) it stood. Did it close after all these years or did I just forget how to get to that hidden place?

The night before, sitting around the dinner table with the family that I lived with as a student – everyone had congregated to greet me – I was struck by how we all blended together in exactly the same way as we did all those years ago. We are grayer and thicker, apparently wiser, unquestionably older. It occurred to me that my when they hosted me, my Danish parents were several years younger than I am now. They remember things I do not, regaling me with stories of my former foolishness. What I do remember – exactly – is the floor plan of the house they lived in then, the curves of their leather chairs, the design of my bed, the color of the sheets upon it, the way we sat together at the dinner table, even the weave of the tablecloth.

How do I remember certain things and not others? I cannot remember his name, that older man working on the film about the Danish resistance, who spun me into turmoil by inviting me to stay and work on it. My sister, heeding my father’s request, wrote me a carefully crafted letter urging me to come home and finish college. I do not regret that I conformed to their wishes, it was right to graduate with the classmates I’d started with, and a small Danish film credit would not have made such an impact on my career. Now I remember very little of that man, of our exchanges, his offer. Did it really happen? I can feel all the feelings of that wrenching decision, as if they were last week’s crisis. But the names, details, geography – it all comes in spurts and usually with a surprise, like seeing a movie you haven’t watched in ages. What makes me remember some places exactly and others not at all? What brings some experiences to the surface viscerally intact, and others are foggy images that dissipate if I try to focus on them – if they’re even accessible to me at all.

I speak the middle-aged language my parents spoke, spaced with lengthy pauses as I try to recapture what I started to say but forgot mid-sentence. I call Short-pants by Buddy-roo’s name, and vice versa. I beckon the children to the table for lunch when I mean to say dinner. I can’t remember numbers I’ve just added in my head. I forget almost all things that are not written down. I attribute this benign aphasia to the natural forces of maternal dementia, but it’s not consistent. Sometimes my memory has perfect pitch, with every detail in place. How does my mind decide what should escape it? How does it determine what to remember?

At the edge of the Rådhuspladsen there sits a big bronze statue of Hans Christian Anderson gazing off into the distance. When I lived here I visited him often, hoisting myself up onto the base of the statue, leaning up against his ice-cold legs. At age twenty, I was convinced he was looking off into my future; in our imaginary conversations he would reassure me about its promise. This weekend, meeting him again, his gaze looked less hopeful, more reflective. Standing before him now it seemed he wasn’t looking off into the future at all. No, he was pondering the past, probably trying to place me, just barely remembering something from long ago – something close, vaguely familiar – nearly within his grasp, but not quite.