Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to.
— Wallace Stegner
A few weeks ago, a post by Kristen on Motherese, Comforts of Home, got me thinking about the town I grew up in. Town is a romanticism. It was a city. The city of Dragnet, of steaming asphalt and row upon row of stucco, an expanse so vast no bird has flown its length without stopping gratefully mid-flight to rest on telephone wire.
Query: can one have a childhood in such a city?
Resolved: Any life will provide material for childhood.
If attended to.
THE MOUNTAIN HIGH
When Nick was three or four, we took him to a nearby mountain retreat for a few days to see snow and breathe alpine air. Believing the brochure, I had visions of dappled meadows and white capped peaks outside our window.
There was a manicured lawn and mountain air, but that was pretty much it. Our window looked out over a huge parking lot. The trees, bare ruined choirs, had been ravaged by bark beetles. As for snow, it had mostly melted, except for a brownish pile at one end of the parking lot.
Nick, having not read the brochure, was enchanted. Every day he begged, “We go to mountain?”
He meant the snow pile in the parking lot.
So we went, and I perched him atop the highest ridge of that mountain, some five feet off the ground, from where he gathered slush balls and threw them at me.
THE VALLEY SO LOW
A similar miracle existed in the city of my childhood: a stream that emerged from nowhere and ran a few hundred yards behind the houses on my block, then disappeared again. We called it “the gully” and it was every bit as pitiful as Nick’s mountain.
It’s bed was a gravelly wash twenty feet below the manicured back yards. The gully’s eroded, dirt walls were too steep to descend, but the slope was easier under a wood bridge at one end of the block. The whole thing was an eyesore we were forbidden to go down in, but that didn’t stop us. Every chance we got, my cousin and I descended under cover of that creosote-smelling bridge.
There was no danger. The stream was barely a man’s length across. At its deepest it just covered our socks. No matter the shallowness. You could see tadpoles in the water. Tadpoles! Here and there grew reeds tall enough to hide behind. If you tried to explore all the ramifications of the gully, we told ourselves, you would never find your way out. Explore we did, going a little farther each time, but never quite all the way.
The city, I know now, was full of such gullies, tiny tributaries of its river. One by one over the years, in the name of flood control, someone has been encasing them in concrete. This is a nefarious thing to do to a river, and the river fights back, every rainy season, by luring children down into the rising current. The walls provide no hand holds, and are too steep climb out of.
A few summers ago, I went back to the old neighborhood and stood atop the old bridge and looked down. The creosote was gone. The gully was gone. Far below in the concrete wash, a trickle of water meandered its way down to the sea.
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God’s Blog – On the creation of the world. See comments.
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