When I was three years old, my family moved from Billings, Montana (my birthplace) to Las Vegas, Nevada, where we lived until I was seven. Because I was so young during those Vegas years, I retain only a random collection of memories of the place, many of which are of such arbitrary variety that you have to wonder how they managed to find residence in my cerebral cortex. For instance: In my bedroom I had what I referred to as my “treasure drawer” in which I maintained a cache of precious possessions, including the one item which I still recall to this day: a worn-out, pink tennis ball. I can’t recall what I ever did with that ball, but as I close my eyes and mentally open that drawer to peek inside, there it is.
Other memories are equally bemusing, having become, over time, my personal Norman Rockwell gallery from that era: Climbing a tree in the front yard to fire a peashooter at unsuspecting pedestrians. Lying down directly on the hot pavement beside the swimming pool to dry out in the sun. Bending to examine an anthill on my way to John S. Park Elementary School. I can’t recall the dining room in that home where (I assume) I ate every meal for four years, but somehow I remember playing with a kid down the street who had this board game based on that old Allan Sherman song “Camp Granada.” The kid’s name? I have no idea. But his parents were totally into Sonny and Cher.
Our home in Las Vegas was on South 15th Street, directly across from an undeveloped patch of dirt we referred to as The Vacant Lot, where I recall booting around an old leather football with the kind of laces that today you find only on an old pair of Converse All-Stars. I would hold that ball sideways, with a point in each hand, and punt it skyward again and again. My technique was flawed, I discovered years later, but as first-grade punters go, I was exceptional. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
What am I to make of these odds and ends of childhood, assembled as it were in the treasure drawer of my mind? As memories go, not one is of any historical significance. But as time has slipped ceaselessly onward, they have become finger-holds that allow me to hang on tenuously to a part of me that would otherwise be lost.
This brings to mind a favorite children’s book by Mem Fox about “a small boy called Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, and what’s more he wasn’t very old either.” He lives next door to an old folk’s home and befriends its residents, but his favorite person of all is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper “because she had four names just as he did.” When Wilfrid Gordon learns that Miss Nancy has lost her memory, he gathers up some of his own treasures in a basket to share with her.
“What a dear, strange child to bring me all these wonderful things,” thought Miss Nancy. Then she started to remember.
She held the warm egg and told Wilfrid Gordon about the tiny speckled blue eggs she had once found in a bird’s nest in her aunt’s garden.
She put a shell to her ear and remembered going to the beach by tram long ago and how hot she had felt in her button-up boots. . . .
She smiled at the puppet on strings and remembered the one she had shown to her sister, and how she had laughed with a mouth full of porridge. . . .
And the two of them smiled and smiled because Miss Nancy’s memory had been found again by a small boy, who wasn’t very old either.
No doubt the day will come when my memory will be lost, just like Miss Nancy’s. But who knows? Perhaps when that happens, a grandchild will climb up into my lap to show me a worn ball she found in an empty lot near her home, and unawares it will catch me and carry me back to South 15th Street. Meanwhile, I hope to keep the original tennis ball, pink and scuffed, for as long as I can, tucked away in the treasure drawer of memory, a precious reminder of the wonders of being a kid.