all the girls were Princess Leia

Good morning good morning. I woke up this morning to a dark orange shard pushing up over the Oakland hills, announcing the arrival of the sun. Out front of the house, in the lucky garden, one of the nasturtium plants has opened a single, sunrise-colored flower. Welcome to May – what beauty have you seen already today?

Those Santa Ana winds knocked me out yesterday (do we call them Santa Anas up here in Northern California, or is that just a SoCal thing?) — I spent most of the day laid out on the couch, watching movies and resting. It’s as if those strong, hot winds just reached inside my bones, took all my energy away, and replaced it with feverishness and ache. Today I’m feeling better (though still taking things slow), grateful for slightly cooler weather, and am thinking about remembering.

Yesterday I watched a number of movies — Crooklyn, Ordinary People, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Red Hook Summer — while I was crashed out on the couch. Three were period movies — set in the 60s, 70s, and 80s — and the last is meant to be present day Red Hook, in Brooklyn. Miraculously, only one of these films showed any sexual violence, and it was the last one I might have expected. (I’m going to have to write more about Red Hook Summer in another post.)

What do I want to say about these movies? They had me thinking about family and connectedness and struggle — about what story would I tell about my sister and I back in the 70s, about our life with our friends in the country between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, in 1975, 76, 77. What would I tell about our clothes, our haircuts, the shoes we wore, about the David (or was it Shawn?) Cassidy posters on our friends’ walls? How would I show my mother — not working outside the home, lodged in a newly-built salt-box country house, raising a garden and two girls, trying on vegetarianism in the land of cattle farmers and beef, making roadtrips into the city to visit the natural foods store, where we got samples of kefir from the shopkeeper who looked like Mr. Hooper. Could I give you her berkenstock sandals, her tall boots with the square heels, her bell bottoms and her halter tops? Could I give you her hair folded up into a bun like the drawings of the women in the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, and, later, her hair in a short bob that she curled under at the bottom? Could I give you how we ran around through the open space of one another’s back yards, the lack of fences, the way the wheat fields towered over us in the summertime? Could I give all of that back to myself? We raced, played tag, played with the neighbor’s much coveted slip-n-slide; my mom picked mint from the patch at the side door for her sun tea. We made snow angels in the wintertime and wore fat red children’s skis to slide over the little hill down into the drainage ditch.

All of this lives in the story of Before. I could call it a story that needs resurrecting, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually dead. Sometimes we can put something down for years, decades, and think that it has died, when in fact it’s simply living quietly in the lining of your breath, in your cells, never abandoned you, never died away.

The story of Before stretches until 1982 — that’s when I met my stepfather. Everything else is After.

But Before still matters; it still exists, it still lives, still is part of my infrastructure. Monarch butterflies in the roadside sunflowers. Splashing in the blow-up pool on the patio out the sliding-glass back door. Churning vanilla ice cream in the wooden bucket filled with ice and rock salt. Smells of charcoal and lighter fluid. Body achy after a day running in the sun. Hide and seek. Fingers and tongue turned purple with dye from mulberries. Exquisite boredom. My parents’ deep silences that infuse around every memory. They put me on a bus one day in 1977 and then I was off to the Waverly Elementary School. On the bus, the driver played top-40 songs on the radio, and we kindergartners played doctor in the way back of the bus on the way home at midday. We stared out the windows at the long stretches of barely-undulant farmland, at the long trains railroading alongside us; we put our arms out the half-windows and tried to the the long-haul truckers to blow their airhorns for us. The bus smelled like cleaning fluid and those new leather seats.

I don’t remember getting home from school. I don’t remember family dinners. I don’t remember birthdays or Christmases. I remember one weeknight getting to stay up late to watch the Wizard of Oz on network television —we ate pancakes in our pajamas, at suppertime! All of us were there, all four in this family of quiet, sitting on shag carpet and the rough couch. The tv was a little box with rabbit-ear antennas. We changed the channel with the knob. We were in heaven, weren’t we, my sister and I? Didn’t we know we had everything? Didn’t my parents know that we had everything? On the playground at recess the kids played Star Wars — all the girls were Princess Leia. We spun and spun on the old metal merry-go-round, holding fast to the bars, pretending we were careening through space on the Millennium Falcon. My mother took me to see the movie when I was five — I don’t remember. She tells the story now with laughter, evident pleasure in the memory, how inappropriate it was for a five year old, how I shouted out, didn’t understand, asked her to explain what was happening, hid from Darth Vader.

Later, in the After, I didn’t ask her to explain, and there turned out to be no place to hide from the villain. The bad man got into everywhere. And even so — even still — he did not mange to uproot all of the Before from my bones. I just put it away for safekeeping, protection. I re-meet Before when I knead whole-wheat bread like my mother did, or push the lawnmower like my father did, or dust garden soil from my knees like my mother did, or run hard up city neighborhood sidewalks like that little girl did — hair streaming behind her, arms open to morning, the dust of butterfly wings and buttercups beneath her chin.


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