Tuesday, December 11, 2012

All of my memories go back to Duluth


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.
Little Laurie Jo, rescuing her doll from the garbage can when she couldn't possibly have known it was in there. Little Laurie Jo, sitting on the big bed and trying to light a cigarette.  Little Laurie Jo, rocketing down the basement stairs in her  Taylor Tot stroller and knocking out her brand-new front teeth.

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.
No, I rode my Taylor Tot down the basement stairs of my grandparents' haunted house on Ridenbaugh Street in St. Joe. The house had an old-fashioned wooden cellar door and steep narrow stairs that led to where one of the house ghosts lived behind the furnace. He used to walk through the kitchen, down the stairs, through the cellar, and disappear behind the furnace. I don't know if it was residual memories of the Taylor Tot ride, or residual memories of the ghost, or, perhaps, residual memories of my difficult grandmother, but when we all visited St. Joe in 1999 for a family reunion, the only part of the house that triggered any recognition was the basement stairs: When I saw them, I was filled instantly with dread.

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.

17 comments:

Deborah said...

We moved from New Jersey to Colorado when I was a year old and I'm a lot like you. I've heard the stories so often that sometimes I'm not sure if I'm remembering an event, or just the story.

You must tell us more about the ghost...

Thea said...

I love the idea of remembering the telling. Now that I am the family matriarch, I'm the one telling the stories, and some of them I have told so many times that I wonder, did that happen, or am I remembering the telling.
Thea

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I don't know what it was, but you've made a great story of it. I love these early childhood memory stories.

Irene said...

I am the one who has to tell the stories now and I hope I remember them correctly. It is such a responsibility.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

It's always the best to be the star in family legend.

Pamela M. Miller said...

I love the theme of early memories, which are so fuzzy yet powerful. I believe you, re the wagon wheel!

My brother, a year younger than me, and I are always arguing about who has the best memory, and about whether our memories are correct or concocted. Sometimes photos trigger memories...

Speaking of which, that photo of you trying to light a cigarette is beyond priceless!

troutbirder said...

Wonderful memories even if wrongly placed. I find myself wandering back to those long ago days more often... We've been staying in Duluth for a few days in recent winters as it provide a convenient access point for my new hobby - birding. We can visit the Sax Zim bog and the North Shore.

Indigo Bunting said...

I love the wagon wheel story. Even more, I love the narrative of mixed-up memories of childhood. So accurate in all the inaccuracies.

Indigo Bunting said...

Oh, and I LOVE that photo. You know the one.

Anonymous said...

Asking questions are genuinely pleasant thing if you are not understanding anything totally, however this piece
of writing presents pleasant understanding even.
Feel free to visit my web blog ... cheapnikenfljerseysnews.com

Fiddlin' Bill said...

Now I understand your mysterious comment. :)

Martha said...

I love memories! Thanks for sharing yours! In today's age you'd have a phone that would have taken a picture of that wheel so everyone would believe you!

Naperville Now said...

great post. I, too, remember having strong memories about things no one remembers. Must say, I'm feeling a little bit validated :)

willowtree said...

Laurie, this is the best post I've read in the last three years. WT.

willowtree said...

I may have sent my last comment into the ether, or I may be repeating myself, either way... This is the best post I've read in the last 3 yrs.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Wonderful memories and stories..No one listened to you..I believe there was a wagon wheel. :)

shih tzu said...

ita a nice story and its really an unforgetable memory of you guys. :)love reading this!