My Elmwood Road
When I come home during the holiday breaks, I often catch myself spending considerable time reflecting on the past, recalling childhood moments and experiences. I’m sure most of the events, at the moment I experienced them, were rather bland and unremarkable. But the act of remembering, in and of itself, is pleasurable. Over the years, my memories have been sanded down and polished into something precious. I find myself wondering what shape they will take 10, 20, or 30 years from now; how their meanings will change when I am much older, and whether or not they really mean anything at all.
When I consider the memories that dominate my recollection of early childhood, it is the years I spent on Elmwood Road that I recall the most vividly. To provide some background: from the ages of two to six, I grew up in a two-family, two-story house on Elmwood Road with white siding and a brown roof, located in a modest and aging New Jersey suburb. The property included a large front yard with scattered patches of dead grass and forsythia bushes dividing our lawn from the next-door neighbor’s. My father, mother, and I lived on the first floor while another family lived above.
The family had a son named Steven. Steven had dark hair that would lie flat on his head when it got wet and then spike up like a pufferfish after it dried. The summers he spent playing soccer and baseball had tanned his arms and legs, and out on the field, he jogged as many children do: like limp spaghetti conjoined at the elbows, hips, and knees. He was shy around strangers and often ducked behind his mother, clutching her shirt and turning his face away. But his lips would be pursed, his shiny eyes darting back and forth as if on the verge of committing something clandestine but harmless.
Neither Steven nor I had any siblings, so we found replacements in one another. I would say most of the characteristics I took on during this period of time were just pitiful attempts at mimicry. He played soccer, so I did too (poorly), he watched football, so I tried it too (wasn’t for me), and when we started first grade he began obsessively collecting Pokémon cards (I actually excelled at this one). During one Christmas, he had come downstairs and, upon seeing the decorations scattered across the dining table waiting to be hung on the tree, proposed a competition. He decided we should see who could throw the round glass ornaments the furthest. I agreed this was an incredible idea, so one by one, we took the round, satin-finished Christmas ornaments and hurled them across the living room until my mother caught us and shooed us upstairs.
Steven’s father had a separate room on the second floor with an electric keyboard and a good sound system. When Steven and I were bored, we would bound up the stairs, burst into his father’s office, and demand music. His father would play “Life is a Highway” (the Pixar movie Cars had recently come out), and we pretended to play the guitar and drums and jumped into dramatic slides on the carpet floor and screamed in naive agony. When we did this, his mother would come in and tell us to quiet down before she returned to the kitchen table to study, as she wanted to be a nurse.
Sometimes, I would come up behind her and watch her take her index finger and trace the lines of the textbook as she jotted on her notepad. The words were cramped densely on the textbook pages to the point where they were almost illegible, and I would eventually wander away, looking for something more interesting. But when I close my eyes and look back in time, I see her seated at the kitchen table, one index finger tracing and the other handwriting.
We had a blue inflatable pool, and in the summertime Steven and I would watch, our legs jogging up and down, while his mom pumped air into it. Afterward, she would drag the long green hose across the backyard, prop it against the pool wall, and all three of us would watch the water pour into the chasm of blue plastic. Water would spill outwards, dampening the soil around the base, and our arms and legs would become flecked with wet, green grass clippings. When it was filled to the brim, Steven and I leaped in.
With our backs to the bottom of the pool and our bellies facing up, we pushed ourselves through the water like toads. We pretended we were scuba diving, tracing our fingers over the ridges of the interior, or picking up stones that had somehow ended up at the bottom. Sometimes, I would let myself sink downwards till my back hovered over the bottom of the pool, and I would watch the light hit the water and scintillate along the sides.
In my memory, the dimensions of the inflatable pool were enormous, towering over me like a blue silo. When I look at old pictures or videos, the pool seems much smaller, with the water barely reaching my chin, so I prefer to recall this memory through my imagination only.
When I turned six my father and mother decided it was time to move away, so we packed our belongings into cardboard boxes and emptied the house. When we were about to leave, I waved at Steven through the open car window, said we would see one another again soon, and turned around to read the picture book that was propped open on my lap. I glanced out the window and watched the blue sky and yellow forsythia blend together as our car rounded the corner and raced away from Elmwood Road.
But time passed and we never got a chance to meet again. We turned 10, and then we turned 20. His mother became a nurse. His father died sometime when we were in high school.
Perhaps there is a slightly selfish motivation for my not reaching out to him. To see him now would be to let go of the Elmwood Road that I remember and accept what I have found to be one of the most difficult truths of getting older: time pushes us forward, whether we are ready or not. We see it in our friends and our neighbors, we see it in our parents, and we see it in ourselves. Our homes will eventually be filled with people we don’t know or knocked down for a new house, and our memories become our own creation, shaped and molded out of air. We remember them, imperfectly, until they become something more beautiful.
So for now, I let Steven live in the white, two-story house on Elmwood Road. His father is playing music in his office while his mother studies at the kitchen table, hoping to be a nurse, and he swims alone in a blue inflatable pool.