Thorton Wilder, the author of “Our Town” writes:
“I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young.
And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you.
You’re just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please”?
I’m returning from a block party street reunion – a street I moved away from forty-one years ago this November. I spent my first ten years there. They were the most important formative years, and I learned the rules of life from some special characters. It’s a unique family gathering in an untraditional way. The last one was in 2015. It is a proverbial time vault experience.
I grew up on McKinley Avenue in the Village of Kenmore in the Town of Tonawanda, New York. I still have dreams about that old, red four-bedroom house when I dream. Canopied by old trees and lined with charming colonials and Victorian century houses, it was an idyllic town. I don’t make that statement lightly. Everything we needed was within walking distance of a ten-block radius; the “Village Green”, schools, stores, banks, churches, the library and the firehouse could be accessed. I kid you not, the family doctor, Dr. Jones, was at the end of our street and still made house calls in those days.
The 1970s were reconciling with the tumult and turbulent days of the 1960s. It was a time of political corruption with Watergate and war in Vietnam, but Flag Days were honored and Memorial Day was equally patriotic and regaled in red, white and blue with well-attended parades and proud, civic-minded marchers down Delaware Ave. We have the videos to prove it.
We were protected by our communal service to grow into our understanding, to work, learn and play. People looked out for one another. The Baby Boom Generation was in full swing and there was never a shortage of kids to hang out or grab a pick up game of “Strike Out” at Kenmore Junior High or touch football in the street. We had yearly block parties that started in the afternoon and carried into the night.
It was a street that mourned the loss of children as well, my first encounters with death. The pain of such loss was buffeted by unconditional love and support with meal trains and many a night sorting through pain on porches.
Reunion attendees could name every family in every single house on the block. The old timers could go back fifty or sixty years. In those days, parents knew their kids were safe, as neighbors accounted for one another and kids bonded. We may have teased and played one another in good fun, but no one was going to mess with someone from the street without attending to an alpha male or two who had our backs from “rival” streets.
As I walked the old neighborhood, it felt as if very little changed. Many of the trees are gone, but I sat at the foot of the tree that was home base for “Hide and Seek” and pick ups for games or just milling around. I looked left and pictured my ten-year old self walking the alleys and bounding down the street with a twenty-five cent bottle of Coke or gummy Red Hot Dollars and other “penny candy” from Kenmore Meats and Grocers; the store we affectionately called “Joe’s”. I spent enough time there to remember the crags and nooks of that tree, an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. The small seat of roots magically carved by nature could still fit my frame.
For a moment, I could feel the presence of my history and the still timeless moment of radiant bliss. Maybe it was a glimpse of something “eternal” that Thorton Wilder mentions in his play. It’s that thing that can be unlocked by each one of us and is accessed when the safe of memory is opened. It’s a safe that is locked away in the bones of being. Its value is certainty measured in the oneness with others’ common experience in place.
My vault is sealed by my recognition that we have all struggled in life with challenges, but we have all risen and come out of it alright. We are still here. We still remember a tune of goodness. We arrive at the precious strains of life that something good comes from struggle and just being with one another to ride out the challenge. We are not alone in our struggle. The ones we bonded with in the trenches of life are still holding down the fort, still there for us.
When the poetry of time kisses the face of familiarity, something sincere is born. The character of the town that offered to shape our moments transforms us. The people that gave us solace, laughter, thoughtfulness and loving insight stay with us whether dead or alive.
In the play “Our Town” Emily begs for one more chance to literally go back in time to relive a day from her childhood to experience its greatness.
I don’t need to literally go back in time to relive the moment as Emily did in Wilder’s play. While I live and breathe and have my being, the moments walk with me. A moment in time is present and yours for the opening. Just open the vault of reminiscence and take a walk in the old neighborhood.