Childhood memories sometimes return in the same manner a pond turns over. A scene of peaceful beauty suddenly vomits forth unwanted material in order to cleanse itself of hidden debris.
When I was seven years old I had a favorite dress the color of buttery marigolds. Chocolate-brown piping that trimmed the skirt and sleeves. An appliquéd coal train chugged across its bodice. Curls of French knots wafted from its smokestack like a lazy lasso reaching back toward the caboose. I took great pains to keep it pristine. I skipped reckless games at recess to preserve it stainless and wrinkle-free, suitable for another wearing. Much as I loved to run my fingers over the smooth fabric and knotted threads, I’d take time to wipe away the sweat and grime that seemed magnetically attracted to my hands. Finding that dress in my closet ready to wear brightened many childhood mornings. Whenever I have thought of myself as a child, I have always pictured myself in that dress--innocent, shy, and tentative.
One summer shortly after my fortieth birthday, I flew to Minnesota to visit family. When I stopped to lunch with my grandmother, who I had not seen in several years, she did as grandmothers do. She talked of my father’s escapades as a boy. She recalled how I had worked with her in her garden of gladiolas, and how I ate Grandpa’s radishes right from the dirt with just a few perfunctory swipes on my coveralls. She pulled out mementos and picture albums, returning pieces of my childhood to me. There, in a dusty album among pictures of nameless babies, numerous weddings, and family picnics, we found a picture of me in my favorite dress.
My reaction was immediate and visceral. My shoulders sagged and my head nodded toward my lap at the tiny picture I held gently in my open palm. A great weight of sadness forced the breath from my chest and twisted my stomach as I reacquainted myself with a rush of memories the black and white matte finish evoked. The dress was as I remembered, but that child had been lost to me for years. Was I ever so untouched? Like many other baby boomers, my youth was marred by unspeakable tragedies that sucked the breath out of what should have been an oblivious, self-centered time. I was a sophomore in chemistry class when the intercom announced JFK’s assassination. Then came Dr. King and Bobby. But the carnivorousness of life had revealed itself to me years before their martyrdoms.
It’s a harsh story and not really mine to tell. I was merely collateral damage. Mary Ann was a childhood friend. We called her Mary. Losing her was one of those cold buckets of reality often tossed upon the young. For her mother the world became permanently frigid. For me, a veil closed and distanced me from the world for three decades. An early childhood injury or disease had crippled Mary. Her crutches always seemed an extension of her body. She moved like a spider when she walked, needing six appendages to make progress. Mary’s pudgy torso rested mockingly on her, overly long, useless legs. When she was eleven and had grown enough, doctors began a series of surgeries that would eventually allow her to walk unaided.
To the rest of us, Mary seemed privileged. She had more toys and games than the rest of the neighborhood kids combined. My younger sister, who we called Annie, was also a Mary Anne. She and I always played at Mary’s. Not only did she have a playhouse, her mother owned a roadside tavern and gas station that drew farmers and travelers from a rural area south of St. Paul. Mary’s mother would keep us out of the establishment by supplying us with bribes each time we’d show up at the screened back door. Marathon games of Monopoly ran on for days fueled by bar snacks and Kool-Aid doctored with extra sugar and bottled lemon juice. In the cold Minnesota winters, we would retreat to her family’s finished basement, a sign of wealth in our small town. We’d huddle together, continuing our summer games on a bear skin rug, an island of warmth covering the unrelenting cold of the painted concrete floor.
The final surgery took place the spring of our fifth grade year. Mary would finally be able to join the rest of us in public school the next fall. Once she had healed enough, I became part of her rehabilitation. Mary used my shoulder and encouragement to begin taking her first steps. By the end of June, she needed her crutches only for additional support as her legs strengthened little by little. By early August, she could almost keep up with the rest of us, her crutches sometimes flung out from her body, more like wings than necessities. Because she couldn’t be sure her legs would hold her weight at all times, she kept her training wheels handy. Doctors had warned her that falling on her newly remodeled legs and hips could undo their work.
Mary’s newfound freedom was like a drug. She wanted more, so I commandeered my brothers’ bicycle and taught her to ride. I rode the boys’ bike because Mary couldn’t raise her leg enough to mount it. The bicycle served two purposes. She could use it as a stabilizing device when standing beside it, and she could experience the joy of speed when pedaling. If her a hip or leg proved momentarily weak, she could improvise with the remaining limbs and tires to support herself.
I can see her clearly on the last day of her life. A tight grasp of each handlebar as she tentatively lifted her right leg through the opening in the frame. This was the most precarious part of the maneuver because her weight was all on one leg. Mary wore a faded red sun suit, thin from frequent washings, and straining at the seams from a recent growth spurt. Her long bare legs in white anklets and sturdy black shoes quivered as much in anticipation as instability.
Mary had mastered riding a few days earlier, but I’d been cautioned not to tire her out by riding for too long. That day we had permission to ride a half mile along a little used dirt road to Bowen’s Woods for a picnic and, for the first time, Mary was going to have dinner at my house. The humidity was cloying, a thin layer of perspiration cloaked every move and fused clothing to skin. The only relief came as we increased our speed and pedaled as fast as Mary’s reborn legs could handle.
We left our bikes alongside the road and retreated into the shadowy underbrush of the woods. Random branches served as stabilizers whenever Mary needed extra support. Roaming the woods had been a common experience for me, but it was all new to her. As the afternoon wore on, I became impatient with her lack of mobility and constant amazement. More than once I left her behind to move forward on my own. I recall her calling out to me once when I got so far ahead we lost sight of each other. The hint of fear in her voice brought me back, but I took some childish pleasure in my advantage, and I teased her, “Don’t be such a baby.”
With the frequent rest breaks and a post lunch nap, we lost track of time, but the angle of the sun through the foliage reminded us that we had promised to be back at my house by dinnertime. We scrambled, as best as Mary could, back to our bikes and stormed down the gravel road. As we approached the intersection, I taunted Mary over my right shoulder, “I’ll race ya.”
My house was just a few hundred feet on the other side of the state highway. I turned off the paved road onto our dirt driveway and skidded sideways, nearly losing my balance. As I tossed my brother’s bike on the ground and headed for the back door, a loud, sharp pop and then screeching tires stopped the world. I turned to see my father running from the garage I had just passed. He was headed toward the highway. I ran through our neighbor’s yard following others as they were drawn to the far side of the road.
When I reached the roadway, my father was bent over Mary, his fingers pressed to the side of her neck. Her dark brown eyes peered skyward with no spark. Blood trickled from her nose and ears, wet the crotch of her sun suit, and puddled around her body. One useless leg lay twisted grotesquely askew, and the face I’d seen flushed with excitement just moments before was now devoid of color. There was a time I claimed I had witnessed the accident. A vivid image of Mary catapulting through the air. Her body somersaulting, flying like a cartoon figure with arms and legs thrashing wildly about, contorted in ways no live body could sustain. That couldn’t have been true, but for a time it was necessary for me to interject myself that way into the reality, torturing myself with additional details.
That last image of my friend imprinted itself on me. The horror of it was left there to fester, no first aid was applied. My world changed at that moment. It was as if I took a step back into another realm. A translucent shell formed around me separating me from the rest of the world. I became an observer, watching through the eyes of the young girl that everyone else recognized as me.
I recall answering a few questions from a policeman. I saw the unlucky woman who had been blinded by the setting sun. She pounded her fists on her thighs and pulled at her own hair. “I never saw her at all,” she anguished. “She came out of nowhere!” I recall Mary’s mother, in a dirty apron, falling to her knees and muttering Mary’s name over and over like a prayer. Like a damaged record, my memory skips from that scene to my father driving me and the other honorary pallbearers to the funeral a few days later. The other children in the back seat laughed at some joke and I turned to chastise them. My father shushed me, “They’re just kids.” His answer implied I was somehow different than my peers. I wasn’t sure what he expected of me. I guessed he meant that I would handle it myself. So I did. No one seemed to notice that I never cried, never asked questions, only withdrew into myself as I buried those images under a patina of normalcy.
Three decades later, the summer my daughter, Mary Anne, was eleven, I repeatedly woke up in a sweat with nightmares of her as a ghostly apparition. She was away from me for the first time, spending the summer with her father in a small town several hours away. At first I thought the dreams were premonitions, and I felt compelled to call her with a plea. But before I could voice my warning, the image of Mary’s lifeless body came to me in a flash. Like a pond turning over and cleansing itself, the buried memory resurfaced. I watched the highway tragedy rewind in slow motion, a camera panning the unholy scene and then a close up of Mary in her red jump suit, her life blood oozing out onto the gravel and asphalt. With a rush of relief I listened to my Mary Anne’s adventures and reminded her to brush her teeth before hanging up the phone. My hands began to shake as I lowered myself to the floor. I sat cross legged on the cool linoleum and leaned back against the metal cabinetry, a welcome contrast to the heat within me. Grateful tears wet my face as I let go a mother’s fears, realizing they were only disguised recollections. And, after thirty years, I finally cried for the loss of my friend.