We tend to lump our childhood memories together into compartmentalized categories, categories we look back on through glasses of varying hues. Many of these overlap, so that the time you lived in the grey house with the big tree in the yard mingles with the time you went to that red brick school with the nice teacher and the nasty coach, even though in reality those two things were in separate towns, and both are confused with the period when your best friend lived across the street, and that memory in turn is erroneously conflated with memories of making gingerbread men, even though you know you’ve somehow got the timing wrong.
It doesn’t matter. Childhood memories are not historical fact, nor should they be. Instead, they are ways of lending coherence and continuity and understanding to a time when all the world was bright and new, a time when magic could be found in the mundane, and adventure lurked around every corner, just one tree branch higher, across one more street or under one more fence, or in that little creek, behind that hay bale, in that dark and mysterious wood, that corner of the barn.
So in one of my categories, Thanksgiving, we lived forever in Washington, DC in a big, old-fashioned, haunted house that really was across the street from my best friend, but every Thanksgiving was celebrated in Baltimore at the home of Uncle Bill and my father’s sister, Aunt Kitty. Their house was a vast, shingled, porch-and-column affair in Roland Park, a planned “streetcar” neighborhood (there were still streetcars in that long-ago) of tree-shaded lawns, and traffic-free streets and fallen leaves where my cousins and I would play football or tag or other nameless games, loud and shrill in the Indian-summer warmth, because the weather was always lovely and redolent of wood smoke on Thanksgiving back then. It was a Federal law the weather be lovely, a very sensible law intended to give grownups a little peace and quiet.
There were four cousins, all adored in equal measure, though in my heart of hearts it was Kathy who was my favorite, while “T” was my hero. Kathy was closest to me in age, so that was to a certain extent a natural pairing of two similarities, while “T” possessed a wild self-confidence and athleticism that made him a towering and compelling figure in the improvised games that swept across the lawns and streets, and up and down the back stairs until an authoritative voice ordered us all out again. (Grownups are so strangely immune to the imperious call of blue sky and green grass and dead leaves; but I’ll never be like that when I grow up.) Billy was the oldest, and Ellen the youngest, with my sister Judith and I falling in between, so that there was someone for everyone, no matter what the activity. And that strange intimacy between us all, as if the year’s interlude were just an afternoon apart, a weekend’s absence between games. No need to catch up, just grab the football and let’s go.
It wasn’t only wild games. There were also quiet times, sitting on Kathy’s bed with her and Ellen, talking—what did we talk about? The Hardy Boys? Nancy Drew? And even quiet times with the grownups, for I have a vivid memory of my Aunt Kitty, the prettiest girl ever to be born in Baltimore, pointing out the seashells she and Uncle Bill collected on their forays to Sanibel Island in a far off place called Florida, seashells lovingly arranged in a class-topped coffee table in a room that in my memory was a wall of glass where the sunlight always streamed in regardless of the weather conditions. I sat on the sofa next to Aunt Kitty, so beautiful, so nice, so sweet-smelling, as she named the shells one by one. Where are they now, those collected memories?
And other more docile memories: the kitchen, presided over by an ancient, white-haired lady whose name has now vanished from my memory as finally as she has from this world, presided over too by her ancient Dachshund, both of them occupying a position somewhere between employee and family member, a position as common and easy and natural in that day as it is incomprehensible in today’s world. The chain-link kennel just at the bottom of the kitchen porch steps where Uncle Bill’s amiable black Labrador retriever was contained as too rambunctious to be considered a house dog. Her name I remember well. She was Stran, Aunt Kitty’s middle name, a name chosen optimistically and unsuccessfully by Uncle Bill in the fond hope it would allow her—the dog—to come into the house, muddy paws and drumming tail and wriggling body and all. It never worked, and it was the only thing about Aunt Kitty I found incomprehensible, as our dog, our one-eyed Boxer, lived not only in the house, but mostly on my bed.
But no matter what the activity, when we were finally called in to the dining room, my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes (my father’s phrase, one I cling to now as I do to all things and times when he was alive) were rumpled at best, fragmentary at worst, shirt limp with perspiration, tie askew, gray flannel pants (there was no other kind) grass-stained at the knees, newly polished shoes scuffed, socks at half-mast, hair disheveled, flushed and happy, and my parents would look at me with despair and amusement in equal measure, just as parents all over America probably looked at their offspring filing into dining rooms from the Chesapeake Bay to the San Francisco Bay.
And that dining room! Other than the lovely closeness of cousins, the other most vivid memories are of the meals. Was I always an adventurous eater? I think I must have been, but certainly at Uncle Bill’s groaning table I was. Actually, it was the children’s table; grownups sat at a white damask-covered table cluttered with place-settings, heavy silver forks and knives and spoons spilling out on either side, multiple glasses for water, white wine, red wine, napkins the size of beach towels, a centerpiece that in my memory consisted of holly and magnolia, though it was more probably different squashes and small gourds. The children’s table was in the corner by the window where our conversation wouldn’t compete with the adults, but the food was all served by Uncle Bill, just as most of it had been shot and cooked by him. He was an ardent duck hunter, an Eastern-shore boy, and it was in that dining room that I first sampled duck—canvasback, specifically—that he had shot at his club on an island in the Chesapeake Bay; venison one year; oysters on the half shell, salty and slippery and singing of tabasco-flavored sauce; crabs prepared in a multitude of styles, but mostly fried in cakes; salty hams brought up from Virginia; biscuits and cornbread; pies of pumpkin and sweet potato and the mysteriously named chess pie; small samples of wine, for that was not frowned on back in that innocent time; meals that went on and on with certain rituals time-honored and familiar.
One of these rituals always included—we children clamored for it—my father’s telling of the time from his own childhood when Aunt Kitty was admiring her new hat and dress in the reflection of the swimming pool of their childhood home (a pretentious and palatial pile called the Cloisters, open to the public now; actor Will Smith was married there) when she slipped and fell in, and my father began to laugh so hard he could barely run, and run he had to, for Kitty chased him round and round the pool with an ax in her hand and murder in heart. She always claimed he had pushed her, and during my father’s telling of this beloved anecdote of their own childhood days, Aunt Kitty’s face would take on a particular expression that combined amused forbearance, saint-like patience, and a steely glint that made me believe she was indeed capable of venting her anger with an ax.
And afterward, after the pies and port, after the stupor and the groaning and the yawning, when the grownups had been revived by short strolls around the block and pots of coffee always served on the seashell coffee table, we would drive back to Washington in my father’s green 1949 Ford, my sister and I sleeping—or pretending to sleep—on the rear seat as we listened to our parents. And in those soft oblique voices, the voices of all parents who are aware of little pitchers whose big ears might or might not be asleep, I sensed in ways I could not possibly have expressed then or even now that there was trouble in the paradise of Baltimore. Not in Roland Park or with my beloved aunt and uncle and cousins, but with other relatives, names only dimly recognized, in particular with my father and aunt’s mother, my rarely seen grandmother. I know now that she was widely regarded as the craziest woman in Baltimore, possibly on the entire eastern seaboard, but what was expressed then, in the soft voices and careful phrasing, was a quality of unbridled malice hidden by smiles, of viciousness camouflaged behind honeyed words. Many years later I would experience it all firsthand and sympathize with the memory of my poor father, and marvel at his courtesy and restraint and strength of character, but back then, in the backseat of a 1949 Ford, the words simply hinted at a world I did not wish to know, and I understood I was very lucky to be a child surrounded by love and laughter, fed on fine foods, safe in the security of Thanksgiving in the greatest nation on earth.