Age Fourteen: Not There Yet

In terms of maturity, that is, in every sense of the word.

The photo? Another beach trip. Note that the legs are getting longer, but I still look like a child. Love the car, though.

Beach motor hotel, the fifties

I was, however, a mature pianist. I gave a “senior” recital in October after I’d turned fourteen in September. They even trotted out the high school glee club for this one. It was quite a deal. And then it was over. I didn’t want to take piano any longer. What was the point?

The event of the year was a non-event, actually. (I’m fudging a little in order to write about it, but did happen during my fourteenth year.) Had I gone that night, it might have been one of the most memorable of my life. A young singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley was set to play at the Toccopola, Mississippi, gymnasium on March 29, 1955. (Toccopola was, as we’d say, way out in the county. This was not a major tour. Elvis was just getting his swivel going.) I begged to go, oh, how I begged, but my parents said no. So I missed seeing ELVIS IN PERSON, before he hit it really big.

I have fictionalized that night in a long poem. The venue is no longer a high school gym but a roadhouse. Makes it more interesting, I think. In the poem, not only do I go to see Elvis, but my parents . . . Well, you’ll see.

This edited section picks up in the middle:

Summer Nights Like This

. . . and there he was—Elvis,

not yet the King—

just a fresh-faced, pouty-mouthed

kid from Tupelo with a rag-tag band

and the longest sideburns

I’d ever seen. He sang

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine,

get my lovin’ in the evenin’ time”

and the crowd was dancing

and screaming and I was screaming

and the back of my neck prickled

like a ghost had run a finger

across it

and it made me turn and look

and there, across the room,

I saw my mother and daddy dancing . . .

They did the bop better than any of us kids.

When had they practiced their twirls and turns,

their dips and swaying hips?

When the song ended, even Elvis applauded,

but I looked away. I could not bear

my mother’s beauty,

the wild suggestion of my daddy’s touch:

I began to cry,

not for fear of being caught

but because I imagined them young,

I imagined them lovers on summer nights

like this, her naked skin against his,

with all the mysteries I had yet to learn

before them still.

Sunday Whirl Meets the Memoir Challenge

I haven’t done the Wordle for the Sunday Whirl in a while, but these words leapt out at me. I think it’s because I’ve been immersed in the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge for the last two weeks.

All of you who know me know I don’t consider myself a poet, but here’s what came out of this week’s Wordle list. It breaks the chain of memories by jumping ahead a few years, but it still fits the challenge.

Here are the words: umbrella, deeper, inherit, excuses, stand, become, thunder, childhood, joined, vowed, shifts, light . . .

Wedding March

We needed umbrellas that hot afternoon.

The end of June, thunderstorms were common

but this one didn’t last long. The clouds soon

shifted and light broke through. We would have to dig

deeper for excuses—I in my white dress

and he in a tux that didn’t quite fit.

In an upstairs room I waited, wilting.

My childhood friend pushed back my damp bangs

and grasped my hand, but what did she know

about standing in the church, poised

to be joined to a boy it turns out I hardly knew?

My father waited at the top of the stairs,

and I wondered what would become of me.

Then he walked me down, and the boy and I

vowed to cherish, to inherit each other’s woes.

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.