Tag Archives: childhood

A Fright Fest of Memories

In first through third grade, I lived at the foot of 11th Avenue East in Seattle, a street that curved like a scimitar. So dramatic was the block long drop that it had been given a name by the kids who lived there before me: “Devil’s Dip.” (Insert minor chord here, “Dit dit dit DAH!”)

Safely piloting your bike from the very top of the hill all the way to the bottom took a major act of heroism, requiring more daring than watching the Saturday televised horror movie without covering your eyes, more bravery than sticking your hand in a bucket of brains at the Boy Scout Haunted House and more guts than playing hide-and-go-seek in our unfinished basement laundry room with all the lights off (especially since someone – whose name is DEAN — always seemed to jump out of the laundry chute).

It took me a long time to work up the courage. I’d go halfway up the hill and struggle to mount my bike, which wasn’t easy on an incline. Each time, I’d start a little higher until finally I convinced myself that I was ready for the plunge.

The street seemed to pull itself up a little taller, opposing me. It didn’t help that at the top of the hill was a house that was haunted. Everyone knew it. It loomed, cocooned in an overgrown yard surrounded by dark black boulders, a fortress occupying almost a full block of its own. If I squinted, I could imagine it as it might have been. Outside, dark half-timbers bisected ballet-pink stucco; picture windows gleamed, ornamented by transoms made up of prismatic diamond-shaped panes; roses, dogwoods and rhododendrons bloomed in the yard. Inside, golden light cascaded from chandeliers burning gas flames, spilling on to two young girls who sat up straight in high-backed chairs as they practiced their lessons or embroidered a sampler. My imaginary scene was hard to reconcile with the aging ruin before me, its stucco now a faded flesh tone stained by mold, vines obscuring some of the windows. At night, it lay in gloom. Maybe the house was vacant, but maybe the girls were still there, in ghostly form, or maybe the two old sisters lived alone, glowering from their bedroom at the kids who periodically spied on them from the shrubbery.

Finally, I did it. I pointed my bike downhill and my stomach went airborne as I gained speed. My heart pounded impossibly fast. Then I was back to terra firma, safely parked in the street between our house and the Racz’s.

I remember it like it was yesterday.

I remember what scared me most as a kid. I remember everything about my first real kiss: where I was (Camp of the Holy Spirit on Mt. St. Helens), where I stood (right next to a big boulder), even what I was wearing (butterfly shirt). I remember exactly how my husband asked me to marry him (I missed the proposal initially, but that’s a story for another time).

Some moments are so powerful and so universal that they become cultural touchstones: first pet, first bike ride, first kiss… engagement, marriage, birth. Countless times when someone has talked to me about losing a parent, they say, “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

I remember, too. I remember it all.

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Singing Mama Home

In the initial weeks after my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, I wanted to comfort her as she drifted in and out of lucidity. I remember sitting quietly by her bedside at the hospital, holding her hand. My first instinct was to try to sing to her since, all through my early childhood years, so many of my memories were accompanied by her singing. But confronting her impending death, I couldn’t sing. Each time I tried, I choked up.

Music was, and is, inextricably linked to my attachment to my mother. When I was a little girl, my mother would tuck me in and sing me our family lullaby, “Jesus Tender Shepherd.” She would turn out the lights, and leave the door ajar. Through the crack in the door, I heard the murmur of our settling household. But instead of sleeping, I often lay awake. After a half hour or so, I’d get up and tell Mom. Again she would sing,”Jesus Tender Shepherd,” turn off the lights, and leave the door ajar. Sometimes, there was a third or even fourth cycle before she became completely exasperated.

In my mother’s twilight moments, I wanted to bring that comfort to her. For several weeks, I continued to try to sing to her. And one day, I found I could do it. As agonized as I felt while watching her slow departure, I finally had the control to sing. I sang that childhood lullaby then, and later when we celebrated her life.

This past weekend, my ‘other mother’ completed her journey on this earth. The family, and those of us who are extended family, didn’t see it coming. But her medical setbacks turned from a trickle into a cascade, and finally into a flood that she could not overcome. And yesterday, I found myself by her hospital bed with my best friend and her sisters and brother, trying to find a way to comfort my ‘other mother’ as she did the hard work of letting go.

That afternoon, we had attended a vocal choir concert by the Adelphians of the University of Puget Sound, which they ended with their traditional finale, Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home.” I started crying as I listened to the lyrics:

Tell me where is the road I can call my own, that I left, that I lost, so long ago?

All these years I have wandered, oh when will I know, there’s a way, there’s a road that will lead me home?

Rise up, follow me, come away is the call

With love in your heart as the only song

There is no such beauty as where you belong

Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home

After wind, after rain, when the dark is done, as I wake from a dream in the gold of day

Through the air there’s a calling from far away, there’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.

Rise up, follow me, come away is the call

With love in your heart as the only song

There is no such beauty as where you belong

Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home

Hours later, reflected in the hospital’s dark oval window, we gathered around an unquestionably beautiful woman who had loved us, chastised us, teased us, cheered us, cried for us, and stood up for us. My best friend, her daughter and I sang “The Road Home.”

As I remember it, just as we finished, my friend’s sister noticed that something had changed. Mama’s hand felt different. Then she didn’t take that next breath. She was gone.

Our quiet vigil was interrupted by a rush of awareness, then panic and confusion. Filling the void came the impulse to sing. And what came to mind was the lullaby that my mother sang so often to me. This time, I could sing it, joined by my best friend. We sang Mama home.


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