Memories of someone else’s memories passed down through the years, delicately intertwined with memories of my own. Memories of words, and images, scents, and sounds, live in my mind with crisp detail, while some are shades of gray, obscured by the shadows in which they were created.
Memory is a tricky thing. Many times I’ve watched my family argue over who is remembering the correct version of a certain event, each so sure they are the one whose recollection can be trusted. Perhaps my accounts aren’t accurate at all, I mean I think they are, but wait, soon I shall be the sole keeper of the memories of my childhood home….who shall I ask? There will be no one left…
I am little more than a toddler in diapers playing at the bottom of the stairs in a Levittown home when I reach out and yank our old dog’s ear, prompting him to bite me in the face. I hear my great grandmother’s scream and feel my Uncle Jimmy’s arms hold me as we race down the turnpike on a fire truck. I hear his voice telling me it’s going to be ok.
I am a little older sitting on those same steps peeking through the rail as the neighbors join my Grandmother & Great Grandmother for cocktails around the kitchen table. I hear the blender that makes Brown Cows and Pink Squirels. I listen to the laughter and the clink of glasses joining in a toast.
It’s these stairs I creep down in the middle of the night, in search of a glass of water. Making my way in the darkness with a sense of familiarity. I do not see the dog, I trip, I feel my forehead connect with the bricks that surround the fireplace. I feel the warm blood and my cries summon Grammie and Mimi, who turn on the lights, scoop me up, and tend to the gash.
My fingers absentmindedly touch the quarter moon scar as I recall this memory.
It was the top of those stairs where I stood quietly as I grasped what was happening in the living room below. Mimi and Grammie placing gifts around the tree. My desire to remain out of sight stemming from not wanting to disappoint them by revealing that I now knew the truth. I slipped back into my room unnoticed.
It was in my Great Grandmother’s first floor sitting room where I learned to play Dominoes and Mille Bornes. It’s where I watched my Saturday morning cartoons. In Mimi’s company we watched weekday soap opera’s, as well as the evening news.
The adjoining bedroom I knew as if it was my own. I snooped in the closets and the drawers of the heavy antique furniture. A need to seek out secrets that would reveal a past I had no knowledge of. Always certain there were mysteries to be discovered. My small hands trying on the collection of jewelry kept atop the dresser. Dreaming of the stories behind each piece as I admired the delicate details and was awed by the ones that sparkled as they caught the light.
So many nights I slipped into her bed, scared to be alone. The one time I kept her up into the wee hours as I sobbed for every hurt or lost person and animal in the world. My heart ready to explode from the grief it carried for injustices happening beyond my control.
It was that bed where she would lay me down with a heating pad to my ear in an attempt to dull the pain from the ache I was so prone to as a child. Her hand stroking my brow as soothing as the warmth from the pad. A framed copy of “An Irish Blessing” hanging on the wall in my line of vision. I read it over and over again through the years. Later after she passed it would be the only thing I asked for.
The glass kitchen table with the flowered wrought iron frame…We all sat at it from time to time, but it was my Grandmother’s domain. It was where she smoked winston cigarettes while drinking her morning coffee, or sipping her nightly chablis. It’s where the Sunday crossword was done, where she wrote out her bills, and where she took her calls as she stretched the cord of the lemon yellow wall phone across the room. It was also where she sat passing the time and worrying all the evenings I stayed out too late.
Before the pull for excitement that called me out into the dark beyond the safety of my home, I was content to spend late nights in the living room. My grandmother and I watching PBS English comedies on the rabbit eared black and white tv.
The living room has a door leading outside. The yard where fragrant flowers bloom around stone fairy houses. At night with the light of a candle’s flame flickering inside them they capture my imagination. During a backyard bbq I bite into an ear of sweet corn and lose my first tooth.
My bedroom has a flat roof outside the backyard facing windows. Sometimes I sit out on it. I’m not supposed to do this but, I’m drawn to the outside world. I see into my neighbor’s yards, I wonder about their lives. I watch spectacular sunsets over the the traffic on Gardiner’s Ave. I never take that little flat space for granted.
It is that roof the boy I snuck in must jump off of after my Uncle Jimmy catches him in my room. My Uncle Jimmy who tries his best to be a father figure and guide me away from trouble. He is a soft and gentle man inside though he maintains a somewhat tough exterior. Our birthdays are a day apart. As a child I am sure this makes us connected in a special way. Maybe it did. Maybe it still does.
Across from my room is my Uncle Peter’s room. 12 years old when I am born and in my young eyes a super cool big brother. There is a steady stream of long haired young men in denim jackets in and out of his room. The door typically remains shut. I hear happy voices and eruptions of laughter over the rock and roll that is always playing. I smell the familiar pungent scent.
Sometimes when no friends are over and he comes home with a new album he leaves the door open and lets me come in and sit. I am fascinated by the ticket stubs taped to his wall of every concert he’s attended. I read their names and picture the music coming from the spinning black vinyl, being played in front of me on a stage. He introduces me to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Doors, and so many more. This is a gift.
Those are some of the rooms at 26 Abbey Lane and these are all the people who shared that space with me. They are the earliest pieces of my memories and I am mixed up in theirs but, they have taken their memories with them.
Mimi has been gone since 1990. Uncle Jimmy was only 49 when he succumbed to the leukemia he had been fighting for the previous two years. It was just days before our birthdays when I had to say goodbye. Grammie slipped from this world to the next a decade ago already.
Now the veil between life and death grows thin once again, as I see them in my minds eye gathered around my Uncle Peter’s bedside. He is too young to lay there looking so ravished. His wife should grow old with him. His daughters need him. His perfect new grandchild should be cooing in his arms, reaching up with tiny curious fingers to pull on his beard. The cancer doesn’t care about these things though and it is taking him whether we like it or not.
He is the last person left who was in that house with me. I want to shake him awake and say “remember when I brought home the black lab puppy from the neighbor and you made me bring it back, and then I went back the next day and said that my family changed their minds and I came home with it again?”. We had that dog 17 years.
“Remember how when Mimi wanted us to turn the music down she banged on the ceiling with the broom?”. “Remember what bad cooks Grammie and Mimi could be and all the mushy canned vegetables we ate?”. “Remember when you and Uncle Jimmy got into a fist fight in the dining room?”. Remember when you saw me wearing makeup for the first time and tried to tell me I was pretty without it and I looked ridiculous with all the orange blush and blue eye shadow?”.
We’ve done this through the years when we get together. This retelling of tales creating our own personal sense of time travel. The shared memories of a life experienced within the walls of 26 Abbey Lane.
When I find myself in my old hometown I drive past 26 Abbey Lane. Her structure still stands though her face and shape has changed. The familiar bushes in front of the kitchen bay window gone. The path to the front door no longer gently winds around the light post with wrap around vines. Cars I do not recognize are in the driveway and I wonder if as this new family creates their memories, if somehow the house holds the lingering impressions of the life lived there during the years soon only I will be left to remember.