On Monday evenings I meet with a group of friends and we do writing exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: How to Write a Memoir. Each Monday, this blog will feature a reworking of one of the writing exercises that I did in previous weeks. This week’s writing topic was:
I started kindergarten in Massachusetts and finished in Pennsylvania. I was fine with this. I was a gregarious kid (who, strangely, grew up to be an introvert), and up for the travel and adventure. My brother didn’t like the idea of leaving home at all, but he adjusted pretty well once we got there.
On my first day of kindergarten (in Massachusetts) I discovered that there were two kids in my class who spoke Portuguese, one of whom spoke no English. P.D. had to translate everything so that A.K. Would understand it.
I brought my best friend (M.B.) along with me to kindergarten, which made it easy. Mrs. M. was our teacher, and we each had a bin and a hook to hang our things. It was in that coat rack area that I had my first kiss. S.K. would be my “boyfriend” until I moved to Pennsylvania and took up with an older man (C.K., a first grader) who lived next door.
C.K. And I would pretend that we were flying rocket ships under the picnic table in the backyard. We did science experiments, and played with Japanese beetles and staged plays in the garage, using the automatic garage door opener as a curtain.
We had a big playroom in the basement of our house in Pennsylvania where I learned that if you put an electric (toy) mixer in water, and weren’t careful, it would splatter all over the place. I also created my first recipe in that house – a beverage concoction of almost everything liquid I could find in the kitchen, including ketchup and pickle juice.
I remember how proud I was of inventing my own drink. (My oldest daughter now must feel a similar way when she mixes mustard and ketchup and calls it “mustup” – she’s hoping to bottle and market it to make her first million).
I was invited to M.B.’s birthday party, which was exciting, because she lived on a farm, and I cheated to win pin-the-tail on the donkey.
I made friends with the two smartest and cutest girls in kindergarten (J.E. and R.N.) and once in a while even got to go over to play at their houses. I had a crush on J.E.’s older brother. I recently tracked down R.N. on Facebook, and she gave me a recommendation for a good insulated coffee cup. I love the way that old relationships can be rekindled so casually and naturally online!
My (Catholic) school had a May Day festival, and I was lucky enough to choose the slip of paper that determined who would be a flower girl for the May queen. I felt like I had been chosen by Jesus himself. Another girl in my class tried to forge a slip, but was caught.
The janitor in our school was an impossibly old man with a red bulbous nose named E. who would stand in the halls and make the peace sign at us kids as we filed by. One day our class was interrupted by an announcement from the principal telling us that the janitor had fallen off of a ladder in the chapel and died. We were supposed to pray for him.
My school also had an annual fund-raising carnival, with game booths and crafts. My favorite part was the cardboard box maze that was set up on the stage in the auditorium. We got to crawl around in it and get lost, and then older kids would come with flashlights to find us. It felt like we stayed in there for hours.
At some point in kindergarten, I developed scarlet fever and had crazy Alice in Wonderland dreams in which the world became very big and white and empty and I was very small. For some reason, I remember being in my parent’s bed when I had scarlet fever, although I’m not sure why I wouldn’t have been in my own room.
My room was in the attic, with slanted walls and gabled windows. I had a Barbie townhouse, and I felt just like a story book character having that room – a whole floor – to myself.
My brother and I used to bounce on his bed and do karate chops to the sound of “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” (Hi-ya!)
There was a white storage shed in the yard that was designed to look like a cottage. When we moved into the house, my mother told me that my father would fix up the shed to be a dollhouse, but he never got around to it during the year and a half that we lived there.
On my birthday, we played football in the back yard. My father handed the ball to me and told me to run towards the goal with it. I saw a whole pack of people standing in front of one of the goals, so I decided to run to the other one instead. I can still feel the hot tears of shame that I shed when I learned I had scored a goal for the other team.
There was a stray grey cat in the neighborhood that I wanted to take in, but my mother was allergic to cats. Surprisingly, she let me feed it and give it milk in a bowl as long as I didn’t let it in the house. We named it “Putty-tat” and I guess that was, technically, my first pet.
When it rained, we would sit in the screened-in sunporch off the back of the house and watch the lightning as my mother sang, “Uh oh, oh no, no, no, don’t let the rain fall down… my roof’s got a hole in it and I might drown.”
One day, my brother was playing dead in the upstairs bathroom when he fell and cracked his head on the toilet. I remember that there was blood everywhere, and I remember frantically running around the house in circles, and pushing right through a tight spot between the kitchen table and the refrigerator when my mother needed to get by. My parents dropped me off at the neighbors on the way to the hospital, and didn’t even take the time to come in with me. I got to go up to the door all by myself and tell them what had happened.
Our landlords were Mr. and Mrs. L. – a large woman and a skinny man. The man always had Necco wafers in his pockets that he would share with us whenever we saw him. They were fans of the Philadelphia Flyers and we were fans of the Boston Bruins, so when the two teams played against each other, we woke to find our front lawn full of Flyers pennants.
At the top of our street was a dairy called Merrymead Farm. They sold milk in plastic bags and jugs that had a slit in them so that you could set the bag inside of it, and cut the corner to pour the milk. When you were done, you would slide the corner of the bag through the slit in the jug to keep it fresh in the refrigerator. They also made lamb-shaped butter at Easter.
We traveled back to Massachusetts to visit our family for Easter that year, and were astounded when we came back to find that the Easter bunny had visited our house in Pennsylvania while we were gone (as well as visiting our relatives’ houses in Massachusetts while we were there)!
At Halloween, my mother painted faces on pumpkins for every kid in my class.
At Christmas, a first grader told me that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, and she knew for sure because she had seen her parents bringing in presents on Christmas eve. When I got home, and told my mother this story, without missing a beat, she said that of course the girl’s parents would have had to bring the presents inside because if Santa knew that she was awake, he wouldn’t come in the house, and probably had left all of the presents out there.
I’m surprised at how many details I remember from the time that I was five years old (including my address and telephone number). It makes me wonder what my own daughters (one of whom is in kindergarten now) will remember from their own childhood. Of course, I want them to remember the Easter eggs and pumpkins more than the playhouses that weren’t built and the goals scored for the other team (although I have to admit that even though I remember those things, they hardly seem traumatic any more).
As we took turns reading our reminiscences about kindergarten in my memoir group, I found myself focusing on the hands of one of the women in the group. She is probably in her sixties, and her hands (which are perfectly normal and lovely) show her age. As she was reading about her girlhood, I suddenly realized that someday my little girls’ hands would be like hers, and they would have their own stories to tell.