You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day. — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
All memory has an edge, a border, a portal that we cross in order to visit.
This memory borders on the edge of farmland.
Just as my town aligned the porous Kansas-Missouri state line, the end of my street met an expansive plot of wild grass that rolled into a 60-acre cornfield, a boy’s paradise of adventure. My best friend Scott and I played hour upon hour in that grassland and rows of corn that eventually would be harvested, milled, and folded into our favorite peanut butter, jelly, ketchup, licorice, and sodas.
In school, we learned Kansas history and the state’s important agricultural contributions to the nation. We took pride in the slogan on a billboard halfway between our neighborhood and a not-too-distant drive-in movie theater: “ONE KANSAS FARMER FEEDS FOUR FAMILIES . . . AND YOU.”
Mrs. Calvin, who owned all that farmland, began selling parcels, and the first one she sold was our nearest entry to that diminishing paradise. The ground was razed, the rich soil made smooth and demarcated for dozens of housing projects that would eventually form a new subdivision called Calvin Crest.
Thoreau wrote, “Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!” Still, I don’t recall any sadness about losing our field. Adolescence involves outgrowing things.
Scott and I found other adventures, other outlets. The land behind the adjacent elementary school had a meandering creek that we navigated; we brought home and played with red clay and turtles that we scooped from its banks. We snuck carrots and sugar cubes to the horses the Petersons kept stabled on their nearby hilltop. We started digging a hole to China next to Scott’s house until his father, insisting both that we remain in America and not ruin his yard, terminated our international exploration.
We built a clubhouse.
In retrospect, there was a poetic justice in our building the clubhouse mostly out of scrap wood from the nearest housing construction on Calvin Crest. At the time, though, the proximity of the lumber simply was a matter of convenience. And one day when a construction supervisor caught us pilfering, he let us off easy, deciding that our using boards less than six feet long would be okay with him.
So, our clubhouse was not quite six feet tall. We nailed the boards to a base of railroad ties. We cut holes for two doors and a small window and placed tarpaper on the roof that, remarkably, staved off the rain.
The clubhouse stood under an old hedge apple tree at the edge of Scott’s backyard, an easy jump over the squat chain-link fence that separated our properties. We played there after school and on the weekends. We camped there some summer nights. The clubhouse became a sort of Chinese box, a separate shelter within the confines of our shelter—much like memory was a function of the brain.
My parents gave me a telescope for my tenth birthday. This was April 18th, 1973, the day after Federal Express began operations and two weeks after the World Trade Center towers were dedicated. With my love for astronomy, it was the perfect gift, but I couldn’t wait until the night for stargazing.
That morning Scott and I rushed my new telescope to the roof of the clubhouse, where we could begin spying on closer galaxies: all the nonexistent bad guys, the Peterson’s horses, the white chopping post in the garden of a nearby house where we knew Mr. Shutte chopped the heads off his chickens (but had never actually seen this happen).
I adjusted the tripod legs and the focus. The nearness of everything through the lens was magnificent. Scott pulled on my sleeve, impatient for a look, and finally I relinquished the telescope to him.
As I backed away, my left foot did not land on the roof. I had stepped off the clubhouse. Six feet up in the air, the alarm of a backward freefall: for a split second I knew something dreadful was about to happen.
Incredibly, my back landed against the old hedge apple tree, my foot dangling in midair. Shocked and unable to speak, the best I could manage was a nearly inhuman gasp, a sound loud enough to distract Scott’s attention. He saw my predicament, nonchalantly grabbed my shirt, pulled me back onto the clubhouse rooftop, and returned to the telescope.
Heroism, I think, is all around us. Sometimes, though, you have to gasp for it.
The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all . . . I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water. — Eugène Ionesco
I am fascinated with memory, the nature of it, the malleability of recollection.
For example, I had been certain the field Scott and I played in was wheat until I told my sister, who insisted it was corn.
So, I tracked down Mrs. Calvin’s son in Kansas and phoned him. He told me the agriculture was mostly maize, a close enough relation to corn, and a bit of soybean, but that particular plot of land nearest my house, he said, was unharvested wild grass.
Memory! The wheat field of my childhood was now, apparently, tall grass that Mrs. Calvin’s son used as a driving range for his golf swing. And not only that: during our conversation he remembered having used his shirt as a basket to retrieve the golf balls. I have no recollection of golf balls.
So, which was it—grass or corn or wheat? Does it matter? I don’t think so. Accurate, unembellished memory of that field was the ancillary goal. Now it has grown muddied with three perspectives on the same place. What remains central, though, and with certainty, is that the field, unimpeded by development or roads or driveways, was a haven.
This, combined with my telescope incident gives power to the Kansas state motto: Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”
This was where I was raised, surrounded, like hot lava, either by slowly encroaching progress or seemingly irreversible setback, depending on spikes of nostalgia:
Mrs. Calvin’s wheat or corn or maize and soybean field and tall wild grasses were replaced by houses where families were grown.
The idea that Mr. Shutte killed his own chickens was more exotic to us than the confirmation.
When a black family moved onto the block, there was wide speculation that the white family across the street moving elsewhere within a month was something other than coincidence.
From the kitchen table, through the window and across the field, I could see the Peterson’s horses until a new building addition to the elementary school blocked my view.
Not long after a surgery that would mark the beginning of his end, my grandfather tasted the roast chicken my mother had prepared and said, gruffly, “Should have left the skin on.” Good food was elemental to our family dynamic, and I saw my mother’s conflicted expression, torn between pleasing and promoting health. The moment passed. Papa pulled the worst-meal-of-my-life story from his repertoire, a funny story with ever-embellished details we’d heard countless times, and we got on with our lives.
We cross a border between present and past to visit our memories. Sometimes we will ourselves into remembering–a phone number, a name, the rooftop of a clubhouse. Sometimes our five senses catalyze the memory—a grandfather hearkening back to the days when skinless chicken was not an option.
Sometimes, though, memory is a process that uses us for transportation. Embrace for a moment a glitch in reason and science. Picture yourself in a foreign country, standing for the first time in front of the house where your great-grandmother was born. Though you never met your great-grandmother, and though you have never stood here before, why do you feel a chill running up your spine?
We stand in a collective footprint, peering toward the source of shadows we did not create but which are projections onto and through us.
Maybe that chill up our spines from such an experience is the result of our DNA jumping the transom from tangible to ethereal, body and mind arching, spirit yearning for place, for heritage. Memory, then, can spark wonder and awe. Memory is the goal—or the vehicle or the result—that sometimes allows us to experience the sacred. Science cannot, should not, touch this.
Memory is potential legacy. Memory is a ghost, friendly and challenging and jarring in connection and possibility. Memory is a mobile, ethereal monument, erected as a pivot around and a bridge across where we were, physically, mentally, emotionally, when JFK was shot, when we lost our virginity, when the towers fell.
And then memory dissolves to make way for real time, for dinner, for the Calvin Crest housing development.
Scott went off to junior high school, and a year later I did, too. We had long since outgrown the clubhouse, leaving it to the birds, squirrels, cats, weather, and time. Eventually, our parents made us take it down, and we destroyed in less than an hour what had taken us weeks to build.
As with Mrs. Calvin’s field, I don’t recall any sadness about the end of the clubhouse. Girls now were much more enticing. Though we remained on good terms, Scott and I had found other, divergent interests. He was a prep cook at a local restaurant. I wrote for the school newspaper and played saxophone in band.
The hedge apple tree that had broken my fall from the roof of the now-demolished clubhouse lingered, withered, and died. Two men from a tree service needed but half a day to fell and haul it away, leaving a stump so low to the ground that the lawnmower had no problems rolling over the spot.
In time, Scott left town for college. I did the same a year later. Our parents decided that the chain-link fence separating the yards was unnecessary, and they had that removed, too. Scott’s father dug up their thick zoysia and seeded with the softer bluegrass that we used. Eventually, our parents would share the same lawn service.
On my visits to Kansas, I always pay homage to the spot six feet above the ground where the clubhouse roofline used to be, where I likely would have suffered a grievous injury after backing away from my new telescope were it not for a now-vanished hedge apple tree and Scott’s distracted heroism.
That is: all the physical evidence is gone. I have only my memory to rely on. Memory. Memory as a means of propulsion. Memory as a rudder. Memory as a mobile, ethereal monument.
Sometimes I drive without reflection through the side streets of Calvin Crest as a shortcut to the main roads. Sometimes, though, I linger. In this way, both the memory of Mrs. Calvin’s field and the actuality of the Calvin Crest subdivision continue to inform my path.