Looking Back: A Short Memoir
“I wish that I could smile, but then I look back at each receding mile.” –from I’m Sorry by Leon Stevens
I remember seeing my childhood home disappear behind the climbing tree. As my sister and I got older — and braver — we would climb higher through the prickly, sappy branches until reaching the point where you could feel it sway. We had built forts in it, each one a bit better than the last, but each with its own problems. The branches were so thick and long that they could be slid down like a slide until father trimmed the lower ones. My father built the house with just the essential tools, the labor of friends, and his love of creation.
When I finally left for college, the last vision of the town where I grew up was the paper mill belching out its white smoke — which was mostly water vapor — but it sure smelled bad, especially on hot days. The river at the bottom of the hill foamed with effluent from the plant. I wonder when they will clean that up, I wondered. In the end, it didn’t really matter because I had no plans of returning.
My first college dorm fades into the brownstone facades, and I reach over to turn on the radio to hear for the final time the station that was all the rage in town. My sister, who had driven the twenty hours to get me, fills me in on the news of the family, and we begin to reminisce. Later, the static takes over from the music, and I close my eyes to get some sleep before it is my turn to drive.
My apartment with the narrow stairs is slowly hidden by the trees in the neighbor’s yard. My grandmother refused to visit me, as she called it a deathtrap. The landlord never shoveled the walk or the stairs, and I was too belligerent to take it upon myself to do it. It was small — and cheap, perfect for me. Maybe I was secretly hoping that I would slip and fall.
She had her plans, and I had mine. Neither of us was willing to sacrifice what we each believed to be the correct path. There were long nights spent in heated debates, with tears being shed by both parties. I didn’t know what love was at the time, or maybe it was right there in front of me. Did she turn and walk away, or did she look for my brake lights? I’ll never know.
Passports? We don’t need no passports. At least then we didn’t. That was before, well…before. Was I surprised we were waved into the garage? No, but we had nothing to hide. We were just two cocky 20somethings deciding it would be cheaper on gas to go home this way. It didn’t help that we couldn’t stop making jokes. Four hours later and we cross the border again, this time with a more serious demeanor. We pulled away from the border guard, wondering why we didn’t buy cheap booze and smokes — what a bunch of dummies.
I don’t know why it took so long to get a roommate, but when I did, I didn’t skimp. I moved in with eight other people, some that I knew, some that I didn’t, others I would get to know too well, therefore making things awkward, and one that nobody got along with, but we were all fine with taking the one-hundred and seventy-five each month. When the sink filled up with dishes, we just microwaved everything or ordered in. I’m not the last to leave. The waving line dwindles as I drive away.
I must have missed the point when the mountains yielded to the flat golden prairie. All my life, I had wanted to see the towering peaks, to hike along the switchbacks up to the glacier-fed lake. By the time I got to the end of the trail, it was time to head back to the boat that bought myself — and way too many others — to this side of the river across from the town. I never saw the mountains again. I guess I forgot to look back in time.
Ascending the road that leads away from the ocean, I think about watching the sunset from the hotel balcony, a glass of wine in hand. The paths along the water skirted the wharf with all the fancy boats, meandered by the multitude of condominium towers, and separated the sand from the street before ending at the seafood restaurant next to the giant redwood. I reach the top of the hill, and I am on my way once again.
It’s fast. Real fast. Six lanes of asphalt and even the far-right lane is insane. I need to take advantage of this moment, so I press my foot down and start moving left. I close the gap on the car in front of me. There are still cars whizzing by. I check my mirror and prepare to pass but am thwarted by yet another.
Finally, I am at a speed that I have never been before, and I make the decision to stay in the second to last lane for the duration of the trip. Time passes as rapidly as my velocity. My passenger taps me on the shoulder and points to the off-ramp sign. Three minutes later, I’m back where I belong — in the right-hand lane. My signal announces that this thrill ride is now over, and I leave the autobahn behind.
Driving is like moving forward in time. You can see the future ahead of you, and it keeps getting closer, yet each time you see it and prepare for it, there is another on the horizon taking its place. The moments pass by the window so quickly, there is no time to savor the present because once you do, it is already gone. Often, we are so concerned with the future that we forget that the past holds the lessons and memories that have led to this point.
“I am sometimes filled with envy that the rear window has seen the last of all my firsts.” — Leon Stevens