Friday, October 06, 2006

Travels at five

When I was five Dad was stationed in Seaside, California. He was going to the language school there because he had to learn Spanish. We would go to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland after California and then back to Columbus to Fort Hayes for preparations, shots and such before going to Panama. Dad would go first and find a place to live and we would follow. I didn't know any of this at the time. I was only five. It was still an important time for me.

The year I was five we got a dog, a German Spitz, that killed the pastel colored chicks we got for Easter. Even then Dad had a thing for chickens. The dog was sold to a man who owned a furniture store and one day when I woke up Fritzy was gone. I was devastated over the loss of the chicks but even more so over the loss of Fritzy. To a child, everything is bigger.

When I was five my brother was born, a squirming, squalling creature who didn't like having his diaper changed and marked his displeasure, and everything and everyone around him, by urinating on them. He always missed me. Either I was too fast or not annoying enough, but he never hit me. He hit my sister, Carol, in the mouth the day Dad brought him home from the hospital. He also got Dad's chest, arced a spray across my grandparents and decorated the wall in dripping yellow.

When I was five someone told me that flowers were good to eat and I made myself sick on some of them and earned a spanking. That was the same year I ran away. For the first time in my life, I got angry and said I'd run away because I didn't want to be spanked any more. Mom told me to pack my suitcase and leave. I did. I remember packing my favorite book, a few play clothes and my hairbrush in my little brown suitcase and carrying it to the sun porch where Mom was ironing. The extension cord she had used to lash my legs a few moments before danced behind her in a brown dipping arc while she ironed the clothes. I told her I was going. She said goodbye. I walked out the door.

I'm sure she didn't think I'd get any farther than the road that went past our yard. She was wrong. I walked across the sprawling green yard, turned left and walked alongside the road. I wasn't allowed on the road and I would never cross it without my parents or grandparents with me. I must have been a sight to behold with my little brown suitcase bumping against my leg, a determined look on my face and red welts crisscrossing my legs. There were no tears in my eyes, just a fiery determination to get as far away from my mother as possible. I walked two miles and right into the next town where I was stopped by a kind police officer who picked me up, talked to me about why I was running away and took me back. I didn't get a spanking when I got home. After all, Mom told me to leave. She just didn't know I would.

We lived out in the country in what I remember as a big house on the outside and a small space on the inside where I shared a bedroom with my sister just off the living room where my father danced with us while Frank Sinatra and the big bands played in the background. On one side of our country house was a high fence surrounding the home of a Japanese man when I was five. Gram took me with her one day when she went to visit. I walked from an open, unstudied wildness into a fairy land of angles and circles of green and brilliant color marked with graveled paths and full of birds and butterflies. As I stood on the deck of the house under a roof walkway I was stunned into silence by the overwhelming beauty of the garden. I never suspected there was such beauty and perfection in the whole world and I wandered along the paths, my fingers bare millimeters from the flowers, trees and statues placed in perfect symmetry along the path afraid to touch anything for fear it would disappear.

My grandmother called me and I followed, reluctantly leaving a paradise I knew in my heart I would never be allowed to enter again. Gram had the cuttings our Japanese neighbor had given her and I had only the memory of what fairy land really looked like. I longed to preserve that vision the year I was five and hoarded the memory in a secret place in my heart, taking it out whenever I was sad or lost or feeling ignored. It was a memory I polished frequently and put carefully away.

That same year Gram and Grandpa got Cheela, a little brown chihuahua they took home with them once Mom was safely home from her long stay in the hospital. They drove from Ohio to California with us when Mom was pregnant with my brother and returned back across the country with their dog. I missed them terribly. I missed the smell of Gram's cooking and Grandpa's pipes and the way Grandpa let me comb his hair and light his cigarettes for him as I sat on his knee. Most of all, I missed the possibility of Gram taking me back to our Japanese neighbor's garden.

It didn't take too long to move into a new rhythm without my grandparents, a rhythm surrounded by family and my new brother and wrapped around with music. As the year spun from summer to fall, the music changed from Sinatra and Harry James to the crashing crescendos and melodious swirls and eddies of classical music. Rachmaninoff heralded Halloween while my sister and I dressed in beggar's rags and Mom painted our faces. Dad taught us a little rhyme we recited at every house before holding out our begging sacks. "Tonight, tonight is Beggar's Night. Don't be stingy and give us a bite." We came home with bright eyes and glowing cheeks spanked pink by the winds, eager to turn out sacks. We shared our booty with Mom and Dad, happily biting into candied or caramel apples and licking our fingers after crunching through popcorn balls. Sated and tired from all the excitement, we didn't protest when it was time to go to bed, dreamily clutching some special treat in grubby hands.

By Christmas we were back in Ohio, my sister and I sleeping on the roll away bed in Gram and Grandpa's living room and waking to huge walking dolls with brown hair for me and blonde hair for my sister and a glittering mound of presents. Our time with them was short before we moved on to Maryland and the snowy mounds and scattered forts at the edge of the long rows of military houses on base.

The last few weeks before I turned six were filled with snowball fights and new friends to make. Our quiet music filled life in the country became a noisy music filled life full of people coming and going, adults playing cards, drinking and dancing on the weekends and days filled with lots of other children and soon school and buses and books and fights and tears and a whole new world.

When you're five, everything seems more magical and wonderful, bigger and brighter. Even at this distance the views have lost none of their bright glitter. The rooms don't seem smaller or the land less grand because they remain only memories in this traveler's mind.

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