It oozed with ideals, my childhood. And tactility: wet sand between the toes, oil paints and turpentine, the sappy-tangy whiff of sawdust, kerosene, spruce needles, earth, raspberry cane prickles, red ants, water, ozone, and woodsmoke. At table, the air was alive with voices: clamouring, arguing, clashing, parrying, beguiling, vying for position in a varied terrain of opinion, politics, philosophy, fact, and fiction. The everyday shimmered with the dream-veil of idealism. Visions were realizable, something that could be poured, framed, fenestrated, stacked, pumped, lit, cultivated. A direct relationship existed between the built landscape and the one outdoors: windows were mounted to frame it and let it in all at once – they angled to meet the sun, to make the most of her even on the coldest days. Beauty was omnipresent. Nothing was off-limits.
Except maybe sugar. We dreamed of it. Craved it. Even the grim version of Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel couldn’t poison our gingerbread-sugarplum dream. Christmas, Easter, and Hallowe’en were oases in a sugar-free desert. To hell with carob, chocolate’s imposter twin. Reviled were the whole wheat birthday cakes topped with grapes and whipped cream. We relished the rare occasion that our mother would greet us from a day in the snow, bent over golden rings of apple fritters shimmering in a pan – a dessert that she herself had enjoyed in childhood…dusting them with fairy-crystals of white sugar. We gorged ourselves to bursting, waddling away from the sticky table with greasy cheeks and dilated pupils.
Limits existed, though. On the bus and at school, we bumped smack up against them. School: a Lord-of-the-Flies version of society, awaited. It was like entering a plexiglass funhouse maze. At every step, invisible barriers smacked, tripped, and thwarted. A straight line from A to B morphed magically into circuitous routes that could have confounded ancient Egypt’s crack labyrinth-planners.
In gym I was inevitably the last one picked. The words, “Find a partner” filled me with dread. So did: “Arrange yourselves into groups of four for this project.” That was just the beginning.
“You talk funny.” “Don’t you know it’s rude to ask somebody to share their licorice?” “Eeeew. What’s that in your lunchbox? Poop?” “You can’t play with us.” “Where did your mother find that weird bag?” “Who cuts your hair?” “Find somewhere else to sit.” “What do you mean, you don’t have TV? Are you poor or something?” “Dougie has lice and eats from the garbage can. He can be your partner.” (apparently somebody had it worse than me – but he was in my league). “Hippy-dippy-yippie-ie-ae!”
Other kids’ lunches had Wonderbread. Between forensically fortified white slices inevitably lay: ham and processed cheese, hard-boiled egg with Miracle Whip or peanut butter and jam (the store kind). Invariably, they had a sugary dessert, too: waxy Wagon Wheels, Twinkies, Half Moons or cookies. And there were little baggies of brightly dyed synthetic sugar-drink called Baxter’s Mini-sips. Narry a veggie in sight. Apples, oranges, and bananas made occasional appearances. Lunch-boxes were emblazoned with Barbie or G.I. Joe decals. They slung Adidas book-bags nonchalantly over their shoulders. They wore canvas Converse sneakers.
It was a brave new world – one with factory food, name brands, and secret codes of belonging that were equally alien. Worse: everybody seemed to be in on these secret codes. *I* was the alien.
You know how when you approach a pasture with cows in it, one cow will look over, then the others follow suit…and then that first cow will begin walking, and one by one the others follow? ‘Till they’re galumphing at a brisk trot? Well, that’s similar to how I’d describe that moment when my classmates realized that we used candles and kerosene lamps at night rather than electricity. On purpose. How did anybody live without TV, anyway? Did we have a toilet? What the heck was a clivus? Did we have running water? Was my family living in the stone ages?
The cow herd had officially trotted, and I wanted only one thing: to flee.
The bus ride home was another treat. There were heated debates on the merits of Ford versus Chevy. Diatribes on the intimate details of Chinese torture (fingernails still freak me out a little). Glowing reviews of Kiss’s latest album. And let’s not forget Unavoidable Rural Vocabulary 101 – ranging from new and creatively juxtaposed curse words to an impressive array of racial slurs. The bus disengorged a small group of us to a van. The van delivered everybody else…and then left my sister and me at the bottom of Mine Hill. Then we trekked up the steep dirt road to home: where smoke unfurled from our chimney and kerosene lamps cast a golden glow upon the snow.