I wasn’t used to leaving people. But when we left New York, I left my grandparents in Brooklyn and the other set of grandparents in the Bronx. I don’t remember if I said goodbye or waved from the car thinking I’d return shortly. When you’re six, you don’t have an accurate grasp of time. When you’re sixty you still don’t, but you want more of it. More, more, more, like it’s some rich dessert topped with fresh whipped cream that you can’t get enough of on your spoon.
Sally and I were ballerinas together, parading about in our pale pink leotards and even paler skin. We invaded one another’s girly bedrooms on a daily basis. I have no idea what we discussed at age six, but we never ran out of things to wonder about out loud. We were best friends until her parents decided to divorce and move away. Through a blubbery pout, I watched her station wagon pull away and her marshmallow-white family depart from the Eichler world. It was as if some soft ivory snowflakes had escaped from the protective snow globe.
Grandma Mae always wore a sour expression on her face. It was a face cursed with jiggling jowls, a downturned mouth, and a protruding bulldoggish under-bite. Her eyes looked like they had plowed one too many fields and were ready for a nap. She was a perpetually annoyed drill sergeant, and she hovered around us like an unfriendly ghost.
Transparent Eichler walls had a downside. Like many of the kids in our neighborhood, I ran directly into that glass, thinking the sliding door was open. So much glass; so little judgment. All kids do is run throughout their childhood and not pay attention. I was no different. Ka-boom!
Each one of us can, at any time, be ambushed by an avalanche of recollections—a wave of nostalgia, rituals, and moments that used to be. One minute you’re a fully fledged, productive grownup, then without warning and seemingly out of nowhere, a whiff of pot roast with garlic and onions sparks a fuse that snakes up the nostrils directly to the sense memory powder keg, igniting flashes of the past and ushering in uncanny detail from another time and place. In that moment, you’re once again the younger, smaller, lighter version of yourself, re-experiencing your emotions from dread to elation.
My mother’s parents fought incessantly throughout her childhood. Maybe Grandpa Murray had too much time off from work. Maybe Grandma Mae had too little patience. But to my mother the holy state of matrimony seemed to be two people living together in too little space, arguing about everything, and asking one another what they wanted to eat for supper until one of them died.
It was a rare occasion when my kitchen-averse mother would cook up a pot roast in our rusty Presto pressure cooker, but I still recall that overwhelming scent of home. Our home. The jiggling top metal piece dancing on steam, and finally whistling away, would call us to dinner. But that was an uncommon meal, as our usual fare was Swanson or Banquet frozen dinners. My mother wanted food fast—and nothing too complicated. But the Sixties were complicated. Confounding. Coming of age in this Space Age home, in a unique and eclectic neighborhood housed in Santa Clara Valley during the sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll Sixties, was glorious and, in some ways, inglorious.
Music teases up emotions like nothing else. Even a photograph cannot conjure up the sensations that exist in combined notes and musical phrases. I’m swept away to another time when I hear a tune from the soundtrack of my youth, and it’s usually connected to a love interest. But when I hear a bar or two of any Dave Brubeck tune, or even the tinkering of Vince Guaraldi’s piano keys, I am transported back to my childhood living room with our orange oval shag rug and the full-sized hi-fi console. My father’s Brubeck records are playing on the hidden phonograph on top of the cabinet. It’s twilight time.
The autumn mist hits the glass outside the windowed wall of our living room. An icy temperature is seeping in through the Eichler walls and paper- thin doors. It smells like rain. I can hear the low murmur of my parents at the kitchen table and sense my brother’s presence in his bedroom down the hall. For a few moments I am back there, and back there is back in me.