In this strange and hard time, my biggest daily solace is a walk with my dog, Simon. Today, Independence Day 2020, was no different-at least not different since March. There was a soft breeze down in the Barranca where we walk and as we came out of the tunnel that passes under the road, I was overwhelmed by memory.
It’s broad summer, first in the Midwest and I’m transported back to Whitcomb Avenue in Palatine, IL. I’m 5 or 6 years old and yet memories of that time flood through my mind with what I think are precise details, though I think some of it is rather like Michael Crighton’s “frog DNA” in Jurassic Park–perceived gaps have been, perhaps, filled in. The sun is bright and warm and in carefree, long bicycle days, my brothers, friends and I are wandering the paths and sidewalks in between our homes, our school (which had a summer-day program) and the local K-Mart, which sold Icees, a cherished treat.
Then, in Pennsylvania, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, near Middletown and Hershey, was Hummelstown. We lived there less than two years, but the memories and strong pull of that place, of that time-1973 to 1975, are cement memories, as heavy as they are vivid and beautiful. Strangely, I learned many years ago that my father did not like living there, but it makes sense. He grew up in Pittsburgh and wasn’t terribly keen on living in Pennsylvania again. We visited Pittsburgh to see my grandmother often, and going there too was like time-travel. For dad, it was a step backward in his life. We had lived in Illinois and he worked in the hustle, thrum and vibrancy of Chicago. In Pennsylvania, his office was in the basement of our home. In Illinois, his office was in a Chicago high-rise.
For me, Pennsylvania was the birth of everything. It is where I learned to love baseball, it’s where I became interested in reading about the American Civil War and American history. We were close to family, my Aunt Virginia, Uncle Karl and cousins–and school, friends and adventures were plentiful. 4th of July in both places was a true amalgam of Americana– good, homemade and inexpensive food, fireworks displays-and fireworks at home on our street (something I’ve grown weary of, actually. I don’t care for the loud noises of them anymore).
Why those memories came back to me so hard down along the dirt and scrub-brushy path near my current home is probably owed to my recent reminiscences of photos of those places. Like a dream, I was engulfed in my childhood and my life now evaporated before me. I was a child, but could see through adult eyes the joy that filled those bug-juice, bicycle path days. But I’ve also sought escape from this hard and dark time by thinking back to the freedom of my childhood. Summers were filled with choices my brothers and friends and I all got to make, it seemed. Nothing felt hemmed in. The indoors were not where we wanted to be and the weather hardly mattered. We wanted to be outside, roaming the woods, the sidewalks, the paths of familiar home territory and our parents were content that we were safe enough to manage that navigation on our own. It was a glory I’ve not seen since.
We’ve all been forced to think very differently about our lives and perhaps some of it is needed, correct and honest. I don’t wish to debate that at all with anyone. But in this time, a year before I retire from 30-years of teaching, I feel the want of freedom very keenly just now. I feel the need to escape universal fear, create a life worth pursuing again and one that I hope is worthy of ideals that the 4th of July is meant to celebrate.
Earlier today, in Santa Monica, CA, some 45 miles from where I live, a man leapt to his death from a pedestrian bridge overlooking the 10 Freeway near the Coast Highway. He’s the third one I’ve read about in a week, though one of the three was saved by alert police officers who talked that man down. Desperation is prowling like a wolf and our politicians, feckless and craven, hungry for power and control, make no sense in pronouncements that differ from what they said a week ago. My heart grieves at people’s desperation and fear, illness and death. My mind cannot accept that it is happening. We are better than this–we can be much, much better.
As I walked out of the Barranca and onto the road, my dog turned to the right and we headed for a neighborhood called The Pinnacles, with a steep-hill climb that makes the exercise worth doing. I looked ahead to the hill and started thinking about 11 months from now, June 2021. I’ll be newly retired and perhaps with some hope, grace and faith, the pandemic will subside whether from vaccine, or plain old miracle. Maybe I’ll be free again and if I am, I may just go find another path to walk on. And see where it leads.