I came into the world--well, I don't remember, but I've been told it was on a night in late October, in Louisville, Kentucky. I lived there with my family in a small white house with a front porch (which I also don't remember) for a little more than two years, and then we moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, to live with my grandparents. I don't remember this, either. As a matter of fact, I remember nothing until we moved to Duluth right before I turned three, though I do know stories of this time, so many stories, told over and over until I think I remember the event itself but really I only remember the telling. There are so many stories in this family, in any family. As a child I listened to them all, but I preferred the legends in which I was the star.
|Not as shocking as it appears--I couldn't figure out the lighter.|
All of my memories go back to Duluth, and because Duluth is where I heard the stories, it is Duluth where I always assumed they took place. It wasn't until recently that I realized the Taylor Tot adventure could not have happened in Duluth: the basement stairs in that house went down to a landing and then turned sharply to the right; to go all the way to the bottom would have required a feat of maneuvering that I can barely achieve these days in a car with power steering.
|Laurie Jo in her Taylor Tot.|
We moved to Duluth in the autumn of 1959, when Guv found a job teaching English at UMD. This is where my memories begin: Fragmented sensations of the car ride up from St. Joe, sleeping in the back seat. This recollection might not be from the move, though; it might have been from a later visit to the grandparents. I remember sleeping, bumping along the road, night rushing past the windows, sleeping again.
But arriving at the new house: that is a true memory, though one that has had stories built around it and so I cannot swear how much is memory of that day, and how much is memory of story. This is a story that I started telling as early as kindergarten, and which I first wrote down in the autobiography I produced for my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Larson. (Title: "Jo is a Boy's Name.")
It was night when the car pulled up in front of 2315. The front door opens, we all rush inside, the memories begin, vividly. Big empty rooms, gleaming wooden floors, tall windows that stretched toward the crown molding that rimmed the 10-foot ceilings. I ran through the downstairs, stopping at the far windows that looked out on the back yard, the birch tree, the small gray garage. On top of the garage, at the peak, was perched a wooden wagon wheel. It did not lie flat, but rose up from the roof, round, spindled, whole and glorious. It was the most mysterious thing I had ever seen, and I ran from room to room, yelling, "There's a wheel on the garage! There's a wheel on the garage!"
But the house was bedlam, kids everywhere, poking into the empty bedrooms upstairs, deciding which one would be theirs, someone trying out the bathroom, my mother checking out the kitchen, one of the newborn twins in her arms, Guv jingling the car keys and saying we had to go (we were staying at the Spaulding Hotel downtown until our furniture arrived), maybe holding the other twin. Nobody listened to a small excited not-quite-three-year-old girl who was yelling something about the garage.
The next time we visited the house, the wheel was gone. I was intensely disappointed, and when I explained what I had seen and asked what had happened to it, quite predictably nobody believed me. Someone suggested I had seen a bicycle wheel that a prankster had tossed up there and which had since been removed. No, I said. This was a wagon wheel, and it was standing straight up.
Someone else suggested that I had seen the decorative piece that hung on the outside wall of the garage: it was a straight white piece of wood with spokes similar to those on a captain's wheel. No, I said. This was on top of the garage. It was round. It was a wagon wheel.
I was deeply, deeply frustrated. Why hadn't they looked when it was first there? Why had nobody listened to me? Why, now, were they trying to change what I had seen to fit their own explanations? I held onto that memory. I wrote it down for Miss Larson. I defended it when they brought it up and teased me--which they did, for years. "Remember when Laurie Jo saw the wheel on the garage?" Hahahahahaha. The memories of our childhood might not make sense. They might be as elusive as the ghost behind my grandparents' furnace. But it is that mystery, that nonsense, that keeps alive the richness of seeing the world open up for the first time.
What was that wheel? It was not a bicycle wheel. It was not a stylized captain's wheel, hanging on the wall. It was a wagon wheel, standing straight up on the roof, whole and round and glorious, ready to roll in any direction to any destination. And it was taking me with it.