Old enough to remember…

I wrote to the author of this hidden little piece, below, in today’s New York Times: “Thank you for sharing this – I think back to all the Sunday rides we took as a family – it was my mother who was the adventurer – spontaneously calling out – turn here! – to my dad, who just did whatever she told him to. And I giggled at the adventure – for no more cost than an ice cream if we found a place, or some french fries, maybe. Sometimes, summer tomatoes from a fruit and vegetable stand. No worries about the price of gas.

I was much too structured with my children – wish I had transferred the carefree spontaneity of my mom (but I suppose there’s still time)…

My treat on my birthday – which today is – is to spend most of the day with my all-too-grownup girls – I hope for giggles and memories – less worry and fret – less planning and structure – as our world’s concerns have descend upon them like a heavy cloak.  I can no longer protect – distract – cocoon them – with arts and crafts, or food, or entertainment. I suppose there were worldly concerns in my childhood, back on those dusty Sunday road trips – but I don’t remember what they were.

This world’s dark and ominous cloud needs aggressive bands of sunlight – people who can drag us out with inconsequential moments of wonder.

Maybe that’s my role now.  I’ve done far too much planning and prodding and pulling them along. So I’ll go back to the moments … some of which have already been forgotten.  “Do you remember that? When we went to Maine, just the three of us? When we went to the beach in our clothes because we didn’t bring suits?”  – “No, not really…” Sigh…

Maybe they are not “old enough” yet – to remember. Anyone near my age will know what I mean…

I encourage them to write, to journal, to blog, to keep boxes of memories…because one day something will come back to them…and they’ll giggle and pause – and maybe, when it is their time they will take their little ones spontaneously to Maine – or to the Cape – without a reservation, with no bags packed.  Or, they could go on a Sunday drive – and shout out, “turn here”!

Thanks to author Christina Baker Kline…

“At the steering wheel my father consults his large paper map, turning it this way and that, squinting at the small blue lines that squiggle through tiny Maine coastal towns. He’s heard that the author E.B. White’s house is somewhere around here, and he’s determined to find it.

My mother, next to him in the passenger seat of our rusty gold station wagon with my baby sister on her lap, raises her eyebrows at my other two sisters and me, free-ranging in the second row. It’s the early 70s, and seatbelts haven’t caught on yet. We gaze back at her, knowing that once Dad gets an idea into his head, it’s almost impossible to stop him. We range in age from 1 to 10 (I’m the oldest), and all of us are literally and figuratively along for the ride. Besides, we’re excited at the prospect of meeting this author we already feel we know. We’ve been lulled to sleep every night by the soft cadence of my dad’s Southern accent as he reads us stories about a wise spider and a hapless pig, a resourceful mouse and a mute swan.

Dad pulls off the road into the dusty parking lot of a country store with a lone gas pump, and gets out of the car. We hear him chatting with the attendant through the open window. “Sure is nice around here.”

The guy shrugs.

My sisters and I glance at each other. Rural Mainers tend to be stranger-wary and small-talk averse. But as usual, Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “You lived here long?”

“Ayuh.” Amazingly, before long, and with only a little coaxing, the attendant is telling Dad about his grandkids and his lobster boat and pointing off into the distance, giving him the intel he’s come for. “Mr. White lives right over that hill there. Privet hedge in front. Can’t miss it.”

Back on the road, my sister Cynthia ventures, “Isn’t it rude to show up on someone’s doorstep without asking?”

Dad grins and winks at us in the rear view mirror. “He’ll be flattered.”

We pull up to the farmhouse to find a courtly white-haired man trimming the hedge with a set of clippers. “It’s him!” Dad whispers. He rolls down his window and leans out. “Hello, good sir!” The man seems a little nonplussed. “I have a car full of young readers here who’d give anything to meet their favorite author. A word from you, and they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives.” What choice does the poor man have? Within a few minutes, the famously reclusive E.B. White is demonstrating to a cluster of little girls in bathing suits that when you crush pine needles between your fingers and hold it to your nose, the smell is as strong as patchouli. And Dad is right — we never will forget it.

The writer E.B. White passed along an appreciation for the scent of crushed pine needles to the author and her sisters when they arrived at his house unannounced in August 1973. Credit Courtesy of the Baker family.

My childhood was rife with moments like this. Dad was always going out on a limb, befriending people who didn’t necessarily seem to want new friends, trespassing on private property, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in quest of adventure. His philosophy was that you don’t need money or plans, only a willingness to be present in the moment and to go where inspiration takes you. If you don’t, you’ll miss the entire point of being alive.

Raised dirt poor in rural Georgia by a mill worker mother and a father who often went to the bar rather than home after work, Dad learned early on that his quickest route up the social ladder was through charm and smarts. He got himself to college — the first in his family — on a football scholarship, then used seminary to springboard to a doctorate in a foreign land.

As a young academic in the ‘60s, he grew to reject traditional values and had scant respect for the social codes of privilege. At parties, he could often be found talking to the bartender or a 95-year-old Irish grandmother in the kitchen rather than the hosts. A Southerner through and through, even after moving to Maine, he was constitutionally incapable of walking down a street in New York without stopping to chat with doormen, bodega owners and homeless people. He never met a taxi driver whose story he didn’t want to know. Dad’s unorthodox and sometimes embarrassing friendliness got him, and us, into trouble now and then. Some people didn’t take kindly to probing questions. Others found his puppy-dog openness suspect or unsophisticated. But his innate, bottomless curiosity about the world also taught his four daughters to be open to new experiences and comfortable with improvisation. Even now, in his late 70s, he lives each day with a kind of purposeful recklessness, asking provocative questions and seeking new experiences in the belief that he can break through to something better, more meaningful, more satisfying.

Though my parents had little money, they took us on adventures all over the world. Driving through Scotland in a rainstorm, we pulled over to the side of the road and rode the wild ponies grazing by the fence. We coaxed a stray lamb over to our rented R.V. to feed it. One year my father switched houses, cars, teaching jobs, committees and pets with a professor in Melbourne, Australia, sight unseen. Another year our family of six flew to Crete without a plan; at the airport Dad bought a map and started asking random strangers, with the help of a woefully inadequate Greek phrase book: “What should we do?” “Where should we stay?”

This spontaneity meant that we missed flights, lost luggage, drove on perilous roads late at night, stayed in some cold-water hovels, and sometimes went hungry. But it also yielded beautiful surprises: an undiscovered beach, a fisherman’s hut with a breathtaking view, a hillside breakfast of goats’ milk yogurt and fresh honey that I still remember 35 years later. It led to his daughters’ sense of the world not as a huge frightening place but as a wonderland ripe for discovery.

The Maine farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting “Christina’s World” was not yet a museum or even open to the public when my father got it into his head — soon after our ambush of E.B. White — to take a family field trip there. Following his usual routine, he pulled into the small village of Cushing and asked a local how to find the Olson house. When we arrived (no doubt trespassing), we picnicked in the field where the woman in the pink dress in the painting had lain. Looking up at that weathered gray house on the hill, and hearing the story of the woman with my name who spent her lifetime there, I was entranced. Years later, I drew on that experience to tell my own story of the painting in my new book.

There’s no doubt that my dad’s endless curiosity has shaped who I am. I often find myself — to my own kids’ embarrassment — chatting with strangers in lines, accepting spontaneous invitations, and seeking out-of-the-way adventures.

I think the most important thing I learned from my dad is that when you go out on a limb there’s a risk it will break, but you’ll get a whole new perspective on the world. And if you’re really lucky, it can feel like flying. ‘

“I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”

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“Peter,” she said, faltering, “are you expecting me to fly away with you?”

“Of course; that is why I have come.” He added a little sternly, “Have you forgotten that this is spring cleaning time?”

[Wendy] knew it was useless to say that he had let many spring cleaning times pass.

“I can’t come,” she said apologetically, “I have forgotten how to fly.”

“I’ll soon teach you again.”

“O Peter, don’t waste the fairy dust on me.”

She had risen; and now at last a fear assailed him. “What is it?” he cried, shrinking.

“I will turn up the light,” she said, “and then you can see for yourself.”

“What is it?” he cried again.

She had to tell him.

“I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”

“You promised not to!”

“I couldn’t help it.”

Today I spent some time with a friend from high school.  He and I share about 35 years of not being friends – the years between high school and a few years ago, when, through the magic of Facebook, one of our first reunions happened. We’ve caught up with each other.  Many of us now peruse our Facebook pages – like opening a “this is your life” book, we click on photos and watch the years unfold.

Whoosh! I see a blond haired lad with an impish grin and I see my friend, but then I realize – silly – that’s not him –  it’s his son.

I suppose I’ve been feeling a bit like Wendy did lately.  Facebook has had a way of condensing my life.

A few weeks ago, my friend, Mike, was chatting (on Facebook, of course) about helping his sister start a food truck business, resurrecting his old family recipes from his family’s iconic community restaurant.  I knew that my artist clients were holding an exhibit and wanted to have some food options for their patrons, so I suggested that he set up outside the building.  The building, an old Armory, is right next to “our” high school.  So on this crisp fall day, with a chill in the air, we found ourselves sitting together at a little picnic table area he had set up, right in the shadow of our high school.

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Whoosh! He’s a football player.  With a golden floppy head of hair, a swagger and a drawling, Texan style voice. He’s a little bit of a trouble maker, but then he’d flash his white-toothed, full faced smile. His eyes would smile, too, with a sparkly twinkle, just like an animated commercial.

He has a floppy head of grey hair, but the sparkle and smile are fully intact.  His impishness, too.  His age shows most notably in his manners.  He is extremely polite and helpful to older people, very respectful, and even moreso with children.  His second career is a prison guard.  Somehow that work has made him, what, gentle?  A gentle, impish, funny, handsome man.

We talk about the little catch in our step – me with my hip – he with his back.  We sit at the picnic table and talk about meatballs and sauce and memories of the city we grew up in.  We sit in the shadow of our high school, where, some 40 plus years ago we graduated and parted company for most of those years.  Many of us who have re-met on Facebook know we will always be friends, now.  We will share the joys of children’s marriages and grandchildren being born.  We will share the sorrows of deaths that are already beginning to happen.

What made this so surreal?  Sitting close and looking squarely at each other?  The shadow of our youth towering over us now?  Being in the city we grew up in and all the things that used to be somewhere? Talking about the boarded up Armory with pigeons siting in the broken windows? Reminiscing about family recipes? I started to think about my mother’s sauce and how Portuguese linguicia was her secret ingredient and how could I have forgotten until this very moment of recollection.

Whoosh! That whirling tornado funnel of thoughts again – and a snippet of my life – graduating, college, an accident, jobs, marriage, divorce, babies, deaths, career changes and challenges, children growing up and adult jobs, retirement planning, reconstructive surgery talk…and then – whoosh – I’m back, sitting at the picnic table.

A week ago both my children were hired for their “dream jobs” – within two days of each other.  And they even have binders of benefit plans for me to look at. So I tell them – grab all that matchy pension stuff – buy that long term care policy.  Trust me.  I know they don’t know about a lot of things that I know too much about.

Whoosh! I see them heading to age 30 and I have the panic about their lives that I have about my own.  You have to plan. You have to do it right.  If you do it better than me your life will be better than mine is now.  Listen.  Never mind. Just trust me. Trust me.

There’s a nip in the air.  The leaves are falling.  Soon winter will come.

One day there will be gentlemen for my daughters’ hands. And every spring it will be cleaning time again. And may there be grandchildren to hear about high school. And football players with golden hair and twinkling eyes.  And fairy dust and Neverland. And thus it will go on.

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” Peter Pan

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