Childhood Bookshelf

I went to pull an old Glimmertrain journal from my bookshelf tonight and this childhood book, which had been stacked on top, slipped out. I could instantly feel myself sitting on the hardwood floor of the upstairs hallway beneath the skylight in my childhood home, plucking books from the bookshelf and reading for hours. Believe it or not, I pored over this one. It was less an interest in saints and more an interest in lives. I took this book to be factual, biographical. Proving that really, I’ve always loved nonfiction. The stories had an unbelievable, and often tragic trajectory, a woman living in poverty and obscurity who eventually attained sainthood, or a nobleman who gave up his earthly possessions to live amongst the poor. Fairy tales, or reversed fairy tales. I also obsessed over the names: Cecelia, Elizabeth Seton, Ignatius, Francis. And the saint my sister is named for, Kateri Tekakwitha. Her story is by far the best, and we had other storybooks about her life, too. It’s incredible the way books, images, pieces of art leave an imprint. I can feel the cool wood floor on my legs, the way I’d get lost in books, the peacefulness of being in my own world. Perhaps I should also say that My First Book of Saints was not in league with the better-loved books on the shelf like Little House in the Big Woods, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, My Antonia, and so many others that escape me now at this late hour.

(Post 211 of 365)


Moon Child: 90/365

According to my mother, when I was two-years old and she was very pregnant with my sister, I declared, “Mommy, I didn’t come from your tummy. President Carter sent me from the moon to be with you.” Proof that I am a liberal from outer space.

Sax: 75/365

When I was eleven, I took saxophone lessons. Downtown, in a dim and dusty room above the music shop that doesn’t exist anymore. I lasted six months. I think it took me that long to even get it to make a sound.

It’s still one of my favorite instruments to hear played, especially on the streets of New York. Sometimes there’d be a sax player on the corner of 34th and 5th, and if I opened my office window, it would rise up, distinguish itself from the street noise, and change the entire day.

On Being Present: 53/365

“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.”

Robert Henri

After the St. Patrick’s Day parade, bagpipes and drums, fire engines and floats, swirls of conversation with old friends and neighbors, kids running in the bright Spring sunshine, we walk the half mile back to my mom and stepdad’s house, my childhood home, where twenty-two of us gather for corned beef Irish dinner. A blur of toddler cousins circle the house screaming and blaring a high-pitched toy trumpet. Someone is always pregnant; this year, my sister-in-law. The husbands gather in the backyard around the fire with beers and whiskey. My mom and Tim work in the kitchen preparing the big meal, refusing offers of help. Eventually everyone sits down together to eat, the littlest ones corralled into highchairs.

Later on, my brother and Chris and I are down on the floor collecting one million Lincoln Logs, blocks, dollhouse people, train tracks, and little farm animals. My six-year old nephew, Shane, bounds into the room and asks, “Who wants to go on a tour?” None of the tired adults are biting. Shane tries again, “Who’s coming on my tour? It’s a really good tour!” I raise my hand, “I’ll go on your tour!”

I follow Shane into the backyard. He points to the birdbath, “pool of doom!” We head further down the yard and he points to the fence, where a large hole and, above it, a weatherworn wooden mask, are obscured by the bushes. “Hole of doom! Mask of doom!” When did those get there? Next we venture under the treehouse – not too far in though, spiders! – and decide, naturally, it’s the cave of doom. I think of the sandbox that was there when I was a little girl. The rabbit hutch when I was a teenager. I notice the fence is old and leaning. When did the fence get so old? I’m instructed to jump over the hose behind the swimming pool because, of course, it’s a snake. I think about how Shane reminds me of me, of how I loved to pretend and make up stories.

When we reach my mother’s garden beds, Shane says, “This is where we can stop and take pictures and touch things. What would you like to touch?” I tell him I’m interested in those mushrooms growing on the tree stumps. At first he hesitates, then grabs the mushrooms with me. They’ve dried out and gone brittle, crumbling in our hands. We touch the soft, thick moss underneath. Then I pick up the old wasp hive that fell from the maple tree during the winter, hundreds of hexagonal cells made of wasp spit and bits of wood. The sublime geometrical artwork of a tiny insect. Somewhere between the wasp nest and jumping off the ledge with Shane, I realize how happy I am, that floating-on-air lightness that comes from being perfectly in the present. Texture and light, the many microcosms, the way everything ages, art in nature, body in midair, making up a story as we go along. This single moment in time, the only one that exists. When a six-year old invites you on an adventure, always, always say yes.

Figuring: 16/365

I’m just over two weeks into this project and I’ve realized that many of my posts begin with story and resist naming one specific truth, instead offering many. Yesterday’s post (#15) didn’t name one true thing in particular, but a flurry of small truths.

I was not allowed to have sugar as a kid.

I had a sweet tooth.

I spent a lot of time outdoors.

Bike riding will always smell like Bactine.

I was well-mannered.

I had kind neighbors.

My first best friend lived next door.

I ran naked in the street with my best friend on a rainy day in 1980.

When you become a parent, you reconnect with those early childhood places, the smells and sounds, who you were and who others were to you. I realized – it hit me last night – that I’ve been severed from my childhood self.

When I was thirteen, my parents’ divorce detonated like a bomb. My mom dropped the bomb; my dad waged a decades-long war. Everything – inside me and all around me – became reconfigured. I staggered around in the smoke and fire for the longest time, unable to get my bearings or grasp who I was. As I grew into adulthood, my memories only went as far back as age thirteen. To think about an earlier time felt like a lie, something that didn’t exist anymore, pieces of me that were no longer mine. I picture a paper accordion doll stretched out to thirty nine with the first twelve snipped off, scattered on the floor. Then I realize, maybe that’s the lie – maybe those first twelve versions of me are still here, bunched up and hiding. I feel too much of a kinship with them for it to be otherwise. The brain distorts, but the body remembers.

I’ll pause here to say, I have no idea where the hell this is going – the whole thing, I mean. I feel like I’m working on a giant Chuck Close mural I never saw the plan for and I’m standing a few inches from the canvas painting bright, messy circles. I want to step back and see what it looks like, but it’s too soon to tell.

Often what I listen for… is a sense that the writer is a little lost, not deliberately withholding information or turning on the heavy mystery machines, but honestly confounded (by the world? isn’t it so?) and letting others listen in on that figuring.

-Amanda Nadelberg



The Salt Marsh Smells Like Home: 14/365

I grew up next to a salt marsh. Tall grass and cattails, a muddy bottom estuary that filled and receded with the tide, meandering toward the town harbor. Low tide on summer nights, the breeze kicks up briny and strong. Good salt air. That is the smell of home.

As a girl I’d play behind the neighbor’s house, where the woods met the edge of the marsh. The trees made a canopy, dappled sunlight falling on a shallow pool of water surrounded by skunk cabbage and rocks. A small wood plank stretched between rocks allowing passage over the water. I’d hop from rock to rock, balance across the plank, poke the mud with a long stick, and make up stories out loud. I didn’t like to share that place. I preferred to be there alone, dreaming my words out loud to myself, Sarah, Queen of the Skunk Cabbage.