I was only six when my family moved from Mikell Street and, yet, it remains, all these years later, my neighborhood. And the people who lived on that street and the one behind it, College Lane, remain, all these years later, my people. So I don’t suppose that the sadness that rose up in me when I heard the news of the death of one of my early playmates should have been totally unexpected. But it was.
There was a gang of us in the neighborhood. A dozen or so at the core – the Campbells, the Keys, the Morrisses, my brother, my cousins, and I – who rambled up and down the streets and into and out of each other’s yards with a freedom I can not even imagine for the four- and five-year-olds I know today. We raced our broomstick ponies and played tea party and sat on quilts to eat each other’s birthday cakes. The clotheslines that festooned our backyards with white sheet flags and towel semaphores may have been the boundaries for land lots, but to us they were nothing more than base in our endless games of chase.
I locked arms with Debra and Dianne to form an impenetrable bond in Red Rover. I bent to hurry under the London Bridge built by Cathy and Glenda. I joined hands with everybody in Ring Around the Rosie to make a circle with no beginning and no ending. We taught each other how to follow rules, how to play fair, how to make sure everybody got included. We taught each other confidence and security and community.
We lived at one end of the block and on the other end was Mr. Newton’s store, a narrow cement block building painted an avocado green color, to which I was allowed to take my brother by one hand and walk all by myself, two nickels clutched in the other hand. With those two nickels I would buy cookies from the big glass jar with the bright red top or a handful of Squirrel Nuts and Mary Janes which Mr. Newton would drop into a tiny brown paper bag. I can still see with great clarity the wooden floor, its shine long gone, scuffed away by the years of neighborhood dwellers shuffling their way in for a loaf of Sunbeam bread stacked on the wire shelves near the door or a bottle of Coca-Cola from the long red cooler.
The Campbells lived about halfway between our house and Mr. Newton’s store. Mama and Miss Bonnie were great friends. They were both fine seamstresses and could talk to each other forever, it seemed, about fabric and patterns and notions, a face that allowed for a bit more perceived freedom for my brother Keith and I and Miss Bonnie and Mr. Pete’s children, Phil and Ann.
One overcast Saturday afternoon I was at the Campbells’ house to play with Ann and Miss Bonnie decided to make cookies. Miss Bonnie had the first stove I’d ever seen with glass in the door. Ann and I were just tall enough to press our faces up to the glass and watch them rise in the amber light of the oven. It was like being a witness to magic.
I have absolutely no memory of the taste of those cookies, but the image of them rising slowing, the heat hovering like a mirage, my friend and I mesmerized by them together in the safety and obliviousness of childhood remains clear and true all these decades later.
So, no, I don’t suppose that I should be surprised that seeing Ann’s obituary would trigger a wave of sadness and a waterfall of memories. That the customary string of words and dates and names that are supposed to sum up a life would leave me bewildered and unable to do simple math in my head.
That the day’s ordinary noise and activity would fade away as I sat for a while inside my five-year-old self.
I had not seen Ann in years and I couldn’t say that I knew much about her life as an adult. She had married, had children. She was a grandmother. And a widow. I read the names of the people left to mourn her passing, the ones I know and the ones I don’t. I tried to get a picture of my childhood friend – the little blonde girl who was quiet and easy among so many of us who were anything but – as a grown woman. It must have been the third time through that I saw it: “Most of her life,” the obituary read, “Ann was a homemaker.”
And there I was, back on Mikell Street again. Back with the Campbells, the Keys, the Morrisses, my brother, and my cousins. Back home. And back with the people who made it home and made those homes. The mothers and fathers, the neighbors and Mr. Newton, all the adults who created a place where children felt safe without even knowing it, where children learned to be adults by watching the good ones around them.