Sunday, February 28, 2010

LITTLE DID I KNOW

One summer evening, when we were visiting Dave’s family in Pittsburgh, probably seven or eight years after we had moved out to Utah, I took four-year-old Annie with me to visit my old elementary school. The rest of the clan had trekked down Route 51 to Three Rivers Stadium and a Pirates baseball game. Annie was still too wiggly to sit through nine innings, so I told her I would take her to my old playground. We drove from Bethel Park to Pleasant Hills, up Old Clairton Road and past my house. Past the Methodist Church and the rock Library and up the hill and through the pine trees to the old two story building that once housed my day dreams. I was stunned to see that it had not changed; not hardly at all. The windows of the schoolhouse were still rippled, the ancient poured glass reflecting a softening light of evening. The backstop was rusty, and still bent where it had been when I played kickball there. The see saw, the monkey bars, the swings: all remained preserved, like they had sprung to life from that place in the corner of my mind where I store memories. We did it all, Annie and me. I bent my knees up to my chest and sat in the swing next to her. I held her waist as she hung her way across the bars. We tried to see saw, though the see was a little heavier than the saw. None of the Big Toy flashiness of the new playgrounds in our growing town of Farmington; this was the real McCoy playground equipment to last three generations of time.
Just as the air caught the chill of a waning sun, Annie turned towards the front of the school yard and squealed: “What was THAT?” She ran toward the dark shade of large hovering trees on the other side of the school. I ran after her, asking what it was she thought she saw.
“That!”
I looked and couldn’t really see anything unusual.
“What did you see Annie?”
Oooo, look at the sparkles!”
Annie stopped pumping her little knobby legs and stood, arms out, under the big old tree. Her eyes glowed with interest and excitement as she stretched out her arms, grasping at the air.
“What are they Mama?”
Then it hit me. I had not noticed them, perhaps because they had become part of the regular scenery of my childhood all those years ago, and I had sadly lost the eyes to notice.
“Fireflies!"
I caught one in my cupped hands, parting my fingers just barely enough for her to see the light glowing off and on; off and on. She giggled uncontrollably, amazed that there were creatures in the real world that did this kind of thing.
“Can we take some home to Utah?”
I felt a heart-tug at the question, realizing that my childhood was never to be her childhood, and so much of what I hold dear was not going to be part of her little world. That’s how it goes, and how it is supposed to go I guess, from one generation to the next. Nonetheless, I could not help but wish upon her and her brother and sisters a childhood with jars full of fireflies; of Barbies in the basement; of thick slabs of the Pittsburgh Press waiting on the front porch on Thanksgiving morning. What would be the Children’s Palace toy store of her childhood? Would she want, or ever have, an Easy Bake Oven? Would the tiny acorns of the scrub oak trees in Farmington satisfy like the ones from the giant oaks of Pennsylvania did?
I looked at Annie and longed for that innocence. That repeated presence of wide-eyed revelation, when so much was so new. She surely carries her own magical childhood memories now, but they are hers, not mine. I grieve the disappearance of what was so clearly, charmingly typical of my own youth.

“When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get older
And now that I’m older I’d like to be small
Some things I know now I wish I’d forgotten
Some things I’ve forgotten I’d like to recall”

That evening with Annie, frolicking on the playground of Pleasant Hills Elementary School, followed by a trip to DiStefano’s Drug Store where we bought, no joke, a pack of candy cigarettes, a strip of wax pop bottle candies, and a roll of Necco wafers…that evening reminded me of what I had forgotten.

Children of my heart: Do not be too anxious to grow up. Like the line from the song Toyland: Once you dwell within it you may never return again.

Years later, the memories triggered by the place I called home made their way into a song…which made its way onto a Christmas Album called Sleepy Little Town:


LITTLE DID I KNOW
Thanksgiving evening
My brothers and my sisters
laid our tummies on the living room floor
Pouring through the paper
With crayons and markers
Circling the toys we wanted that year

Little did I know then
Life would bring a Mousetrap
When all I really wanted was an Etch-a-Sketch
Little did I know then
So little did I know then
What I wouldn’t give now to know that much

Well the Easy Bake Oven
Was a red-circle item
Santa would be groovy if he brought me that
Of course he could always bring clothes for my Barbie
A Camelot outfit with a Guinevere hat

Little did I know then
I never would be Barbie
Heaven didn’t give me the stuff for such
Little did I know then
So little did I know then
What I wouldn’t give now to know that much

When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get older
And now that I’m older I’d like to be small
Some things I know now, I wish I’d forgotten
Some things I’ve forgotten I’d like to recall

Like how to do cartwheels
And gather up acorns
A jar full of fireflies on a summer night
The very first snowfall
Christmas vacation
Anticipation on the holy night

Little did I know then
Little did I need then
Just what I could reach out my hand and touch
Little did I know then
So little did I know then
What I wouldn’t give now to know that much


You can hear this song, if you'd like, by scrolling down to the pale green music box with Songs from Sleepy Little Town.

6 comments:

  1. I LOVE it! I've never seen fireflies. They say they have them out here but I've yet to see them. I think that I was always in a hurry to grow up and I can see it in Jack too. My mom keeps telling me to hold my babies as much as I can because the time will pass and I'll never get to repeat it, but it's a hard lesson and one we need to learn over and over again- to enjoy the moment and let it soak in and change you. Thanks for a grat memory and a great song.

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  2. It is one of the greatest tragedies of mortal life that there are places on this planet where fireflies do not live. They are the most magical of creatures and they do harm no no one. So many sultry Kansas City evenings we spent hunting them and chasing - leaping off tables, diving under lawn chairs, running wildly down grassy hills with bottles in our hands.

    It's not right. It's not right that there are children who are born, grow and die without an evening's worth of fireflies =

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  3. We moved to Pittsburgh in the fall, right before school started, so I didn't see fireflies until the next spring. I remember the first time I saw them. We were out in the backyard doing something and as dusk turned into twilight I saw these little sparkles of light. At first, I just thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. And then it kept happening. It took me a while to realize these were the fireflies that I had read about in novels. Their twinkling was magical. It was like being able to watch the stars twinkle up close and in front of me instead of having to look up at the sky. Maybe that's what fireflies are for in Pittsburgh anyway, to be able to see the stars when there is too much smog to see the real thing.

    What fun memories you have and what a blessing to be able to recall them and put them down on paper so they will be there forever.

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  4. I still have short but vivid memories of that day. They're like little glimpses of my childhood mixed with yours. I sure like you.

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