The Tender, Magical Age of Six . . .

When Santa can deliver a piano down the chimney. When it takes three little boys to walk you to your mother’s car after school: one to carry your books, one your art portfolio, and one . . . well, the cutest was just window dressing.

First grader

In our little town, there was no kindergarten, but I was reading and writing by the time I entered first grade. I was also talking. A lot. Miss Agnes Ray, who had taught my mother when she was in the first grade, got enough of me one day and spanked my hand with a ruler. In fairness I have to say she had warned me more than once. I still remember how my palm stung, but I remember even more how humiliated I felt. It wasn’t over then, either. My best friend told her mother, and her mother told mine, and the hole of trouble got deeper. I didn’t talk so much in class after that.

About that piano

I remember we went to Memphis to shop for pianos so Santa would know which one to bring. In the music store, I spotted a piano with a big red SOLD sign on it and our last name. You should have heard my parents talk their way out of that one, but it was similar to the way they explained the street-corner Santas. They were all Santa’s helpers, my dad said. Santa couldn’t be everywhere at once. That piano must have been delivered to Daddy’s store and hidden in the back part that was like a warehouse. How he (and whoever helped him) got it into the house on Christmas Eve without waking me up remains one of the great mysteries of my childhood. Bordering on miracle, that’s what it was. But then, you’d have to know my dad.

Plate-glass windows

Daddy hadn’t been in the parts business very long when I was six. I loved his store. It had two big plate-glass windows, a serious office-looking desk near the front, and against the wall, a bookkeeping desk where all the account files were kept, a file cabinet with a radio on top, and on the wall, a NAPA calendar featuring forties-type beauties (a little racy; I’m surprised my mother let him get away with that one), cold concrete floors, a big heater, a long counter for serving customers, and behind that counter rows of tall bins that held the automobile parts, hundreds of them. The store often smelled of motor oil or paint, but that didn’t bother me. I loved to play among the bins and pretend they were caves or secret passageways. There was something a little shivery about those dark tunnels, but I could always come out into the light, and Daddy (and often Mother, too) would be there.

Busy dad (note the receding hairline)

About the time I started school, my mother began “keeping the books” for the business. I spent many hours playing at that big desk by the window that looked out on the street. You wouldn’t think much happens in a little north Mississippi town with fewer than 2000 people, but you might be surprised. A lot of life moved past that window.

Going back

I went in that building a couple of years ago. It’s now an antique shop, the brick facade painted dark red. I didn’t want to go in, but my husband encouraged me to do it. “You never know what you might remember,” he said, and he was right. The place felt incredibly small. The bins were gone, of course, and the automobile smells, but the pressed tin ceiling was the same, and I would almost swear I smelled Daddy’s pipe tobacco and heard the ching of the cash register.

Here’s a bit of a poem, “Parts,” about that place and time:

The storefront faced west, the plate-glass window gilded

by the late sun’s angle, hiding what was inside:

The concrete floor stained black with motor oil that poured

like syrup in winter. Smells of paint, metal, rubber, tobacco.

The slide and ding of the cash register.

The tall bins rose, ominous and unsteady, toward the ceiling,

the aisles between them tunnels, their shelves heavy with parts:

spark plugs, carburetors, batteries, fan belts. I knew them all.

In this memory, the windows are spattered

with canned snow, Merry Christmas painted on backwards.

We are there together, my father, my mother, and I.

Through the plastic mist we watch the Christmas parade pass,

the band’s music thin and distant as the shabby Santa who lifts

his slow-motion mittened hand in our direction.

What places are most significant in your early memories? Have you had the opportunity to go back?

This post is part of the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge launched by Jane Ann McLachlan. For previous posts, see Recent Posts in the right column.

13 thoughts on “The Tender, Magical Age of Six . . .

  1. What places are most significant in your early memories? Have you had the opportunity to go back? A little after this time I would be moving to Blue Mountain MS where BM College is located. It would be critical to choices I would may years later as I dated and married a graduate of the school. As Jane, my spouse, attending a class meeting at the recent 50th reunion of her graduation, I roamed the farm where were lived for 7 years and put size, space in proportion and was flooded with memories as I stood near the house, walked the road to the barn, passed the location of the saw mill where we sawed the lumber that was used to build the last house in which we lived at BM . I found an old “hideout” where friends and brothers shared secrets.

  2. This is lovely! The photo of you at the top is adorable – I found myself wondering who could strap a child like that just for talking? I really enjoyed your poem. Concrete visual and sensual details wrapped in the evocative voice of reminiscence. I find myself wishing i could walk through the house I grew up in just once more, and wondering if it would revive memories or be so changed it destroyed them. I was very interested to hear about you doing that.

    1. As for the spanking, I was pretty full of myself. I’d had everybody’s undivided attention at home, and I wasn’t used to sharing the spotlight with other kids! I wonder about the house I grew up in, too. It’s still there. I suppose I could arrange to see it, but I expect it’s so different on the inside that i would hardly recognize it. That was a LONG time ago!

  3. When I was 12, we visited the house my grandparents lived in when I was a toddler. It was a Spanish style house built around a tiled courtyard. It seemed so big when I was 3, but of course it was itty bitty! All of the rooms were long and narrow. Two people barely fit in the kitchen. I don’t know how my grandmother fit her huge Christmas parties in that place. I love the memories of your father. He sounds like your personal super hero.

  4. Terrific piece. I loved all the details, especially the smells and the dark tunnel and cave feelings.

    The neighborhood I grew up in was torn down, but I went back a couple of times and walked on the streets. I could find where our house was by the position of the driveways and trees. The neighborhood felt smaller than I remembered, but the trees were a lot bigger!

    1. Funny about those trees. I go back to the neighborhood where our young family lived while my sons were growing up, and it looks like an old neighborhood now. The trees make a canopy over the street. Time and trees . . . an interesting concept. Thanks, Joy.

  5. Brave girl for going back in. I returned to the Czech Republic at 30, after amnesty, 28 years after I left. Went to visit our cabin and it was still there, so was babi’s gnome in the garden. Just about broke my heart. Still feel extremely “Jiggly” thinking back on that experience.

  6. I remember visiting my Dad at his various jobs growing up and it was always an adventure. These are great stories all the way through!

  7. Gosh, this was so great to read and really got me remembering a lot of smells I hadn’t thought of in years. The combination of old spice, car grease and ciggerette smoke was my dad’s smell. He worked in a mechanic shop and I loved to go up there and grab old lugnuts they didn’t need. I had a huge jar of them eventually!

  8. This is a great one, Gerry. What a picture it paints of your life with your parents and how you passed your days. Loved the smell of the pipe when you revisited and the comment about how much smaller it seemed. I remember that with the house I grew up in!

    1. I’ve never gone back inside the house I grew up in, but it looks so small to me from the outside; I’m sure the effect would be the same. It was nice to see that old store building have a new life, though.

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