Memory Lane (The Tip of the Iceburg)

The moment I wake up it feels like Portland. Sunlight filters through the mini-blinds and my fingers uncurl from deep sleep just enough to open the blinds. Portland skies: a mixture of perfect light blue, thin wispy clouds, and always the threat of rain in the distance; a definitive summer day.

Decidedly undecided about where to go and how to get there, I pop Beck’s Guero into the CD player in the Impala and meander onto 217 North. Preparing to drive down memory lane I exit at Barbur Blvd. and wade through Tigard (population 45,500) to cross the Multnomah County line just a few miles from my old house.

Vacuna Street, named after the Greek goddess of agriculture, still looks the same: unnecessarily wide lanes, landscaped lawns in need of mowing, a few odd dogs with snarled hairs and bashful demeanors. Cresting the hill I prepare myself for the view of Mt. hood I came to love as a high school student. I was a snowboarder back then and some weekends drove home still tasting the salt of sweat on my upper lip from sliding down that mountain. I used to jump off the ski lift topsy-turvy at 11,000 feet, board down the mountain like a timid yet determined slow-poke, then hop the lift and do it all over again. By the end of the day I’d get up the nerve to try jumps when no one was looking, always concerned about landing wrong and breaking an ankle. Playing rugby in college helped me get over that fear but that was years later and on a whole other mountain range.

It was on Vacuna Street that I learned how to drive my first car, a 1986 Plymouth Sundance that Lindsay and I called “Simon,” after the Saturday Night Live character played by Mike Myers. Simon had manual transmission and a tape deck that sank into the dashboard if the eject button was pressed too hard. I was the first in my group of friends to get a car so we drove Simon into the ground many times bounding over enormous speed bumps at forty miles per hour up Fairview Drive and around Lake Oswego. That was our version of harmless middle class urban recklessness, back before we figured out how to buy drugs and who would sell alcohol to minors.

At the bottom of the street I pulled up to my old house, staring a little in awe at the size of the trees and how much they had grown. The old wooden reindeer that Auntie Ellie gave my parents for Christmas was still in the front yard and I remembered how happy they were to leave that behind. The mail box I recognized as our mailbox, the same mailbox that dad hand built the wooden stand for, the same mailbox that I received my acceptance letter from Whitman College in. Beyond that stands a magnolia tree that is at least twelve feet tall. It was given to my mother more than eight years ago as a sapling by one of her students.

It is the memory of my two beagles, Bert and Socks, that is perhaps the hardest. We got them for free when they were still so young we fed them warmed cow’s milk and kept their bodies hot and safe with soft pink blankets in the cardboard box. They lived for sixteen years, two brothers with doggie personalities that developed like yin and yang through puppyhood, youthful abundance, and finally old grey-haired yowling retirement. Being an only child, Bert and Socks became my instant companions, always ready to play, always right there at my feet, ever-faithful and understanding. At times I pretended they really were the siblings I never had. Just before pulling off, I pull the car around to the side fence and peek into the backyard, remembering how during their last years of life dad had to build a special staircase attachment off the back deck so the old boys could still climb up and down from the porch.

It is difficult to explain how all of this feels. With each item comes a series of images, then memories, and attached to those memories are emotions – some running as deep as the roots of that magnolia tree, others only shallow like the absurdity of a fake reindeer on a suburban Portland front lawn.

Heading out to the main road I am surprised to see cars filling up the parking lot of Jackson Middle School (where I graduated on “8th Grade Promotion Night” in 1993). Without thinking I swerve left into the staff only lot, park illegally blocking the Principal’s car, and jump out heading straight for the main office doors.

The smell is familiar, sickening almost if it weren’t for my general affinity for my former Portland lifestyle. It is a smell I will forever associate with public school and my teen years, a smell I never knew until I started buying school lunches with paper tickets, waiting in long lines to squirt catsup from large steel pump jars onto pale green plastic lunch plates divided into inconvenient sections for the five food groups. It is the smell of cornmeal toasted in industrial ovens, caked over federal regulation hot dogs on sticks and wrapped in thin tinfoil to be served en masse to pimply kids with braces and single-strap overalls, sweating awkwardly into the pits of their turtlenecks and denim jackets. Two steps into the door and I know it already, can feel it on my skin, under my nose, going straight to my head, tunneling down to my heart, triggering one thousand scenes rapid fire.

“Well Ka-tey Schultz!”

I am at once lost in the past and utterly in the present and I know right away this is the sing-song voice of none other than Linda McCann, receptionist for Jackson Middle School and mother of my childhood friend Lindsay. This is how the rest of my day goes down memory lane. My former social studies teacher Mr. Slanksy is still there at the school. I see a random high school classmate in Multnomah Village. I spend hours at Jennie and Mark’s house in awe of the married life and their three beautiful children. It is elegant and bittersweet, wanting and untouchable, just they way it ought to be and hard to capture all at once. And it is only the beginning.

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