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.

Age Four: The Book Spoiler

By  the time I was four, I was already in love with books.

My favorite (which I still have) was Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg. It’s inscribed to me from my mother’s best friend, a gift on my fourth birthday. I memorized every line of Horton and demanded to hear it read over and over. My parents got so tired of reading it that they would skip parts. I was having none of that. Whatever they skipped, I would recite, make them go back, and “read it right.”

Budding artist/writer

I loved other books, too, like the Pooh series, and Uncle Wiggly.

Made sense to me

What?! My parents allowed me to deface my books? Apparently so. This isn’t the only one. I embellished most of my books this way. I added to the stories. They wouldn’t be worth much on the collectibles market, would they? But they’re special to me.

A little fashion artwork

A. A. Milne’s illustrations didn’t do it for me. I had to add a little artwork of my own.

Only child. Quiet house. Books and crayons. I was drawn to imagination and the world of stories. It took a while for me to discover that I really could be a storyteller. Years and years. But here are my beginnings.

What role did books play in your early childhood?

This is Day Four of Jane Ann McLachlan’s October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge. Follow the link to learn more.

Age Two: Memory or Story?

This is the second entry in the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge.

As I cast about for early memories, I have trouble distinguishing among what I remember, what I was told, and what I’ve seen in photographs. So I may be creating fictions here, and all along the way, actually.

I do have vague early memories of the house we lived in. My parents had moved in with my maternal grandparents before I was born, and we stayed–three generations under one roof, my maternal grandfather sick and dying in the back bedroom that opened right off mine. (That’s a story for later.) A red brick house with the side porch and tall junipers at the front corners. The cramped kitchen, the dining room table with a quilt thrown over it so I could play house, the one bathroom we waited in line for. The unfinished basement, carved out of red clay and braced with wood, jars of my grandmother’s jellies and pickles lined along earthen shelves. Dark, damp, scary. The big green yard and the vegetable garden out back. A ramshackle garage with a storage room on the side and stall-like spaces behind it. A barn, once upon a time?

Chickens. I seem unconcerned.

Chickens in the yard.

The rope swing Daddy hung on the walnut tree north of the house. Push me, push me! Walnuts on the ground, their hard outer husks turned black. Cool and dark in that shade, no grass growing. The white dog named Pokey who wouldn’t let me out of her sight. Our maid, Nita, a large, soft woman who would put me in the stroller and meet her friend who was nursemaid to a little boy about my age, and they would stroll us all the way to town and back. How I wish I could remember what they talked about.

For love of bananas.

Here I am. Unruly, curly hair. Chubby legs. What’s that in my hand? I believe it’s a brown paper sack of bananas. My Uncle Jim, nearly 20 years older than my dad, had brought me bananas! Why? Were bananas hard to come by in rural north Mississippi in those days? Maybe so. But I loved bananas, even though sometimes if I ate too much, they gave me a tummy ache. I loved my uncles, that one especially. He was a substitute for the paternal grandfather I don’t remember, the one who died just days before Christmas, three months after I turned two. Uncle Jim was a big man who smelled of cigarettes. He cursed–a lot–but he had the biggest heart in the world. A few years after this photo was taken, he plucked me from the path of a car.

Around the age of two, my parents took me to the zoo in Memphis for the first time. This was a major outing—at least a two-hour car trip—and I remember getting carsick in the back seat because of my dad’s cigar smoking. Soon after, he switched to a pipe. I still love the smell of pipe tobacco and will always associate it with him.

I remember what I wore that day–a yellow sunsuit with brown stitching trim and ruffles on the seat. I remember no animals I saw that day except the giraffe that sneezed on me. That made an impression! I remember eating popcorn for the first time. We ate in a restaurant on the way home. All important firsts.

Here’s that sunsuit. I may be cheating. I may have been closer to three years old here than two.

Ruffles. I loved this sunsuit.

And here I am, still, after so many, many years.

The story goes that my dad once told someone who dared to ask him why he and Mother never had more children, “She’s all in the world we ever wanted.” I knew, even at the age of two, that I was the center of the household. Their world revolved around me. Spoiled? Yes, I’d say so. But my daddy owned a service station then. He had a high school education. My mother had wanted to go to nursing school, but her parents disapproved and so she didn’t go. College was out of the question for her. Her mother had not gone past the eighth grade. I didn’t realize until I was forty the pressures their expectations placed on me. I wasn’t perfect. I never would be, and yet I represented what my parents and grandparents had never had themselves. They hung their dreams on me.

It’s all quite complicated, isn’t it, no matter how idyllic the childhood?