Mom, dad and I crossed the street from our house walking through lots of snow, which mom said was “fresh” and also “beautiful”. David had stayed at home with Margie, who was “the babysitter”, and mom had told her that this was the first time she and dad had gone out together without him since he was born. Margie had stayed at our house a couple times to play with me when mom and dad went out to a party or to “play bridge”, whatever that was. I liked bridges too, because you were up high and going over something below, but I wasn’t sure how grownups would play on them. I also liked Margie because, like Aunt Pat, she was bigger and older than I was, but still I could tell she was a kid and not a grownup.
It was still dark in the house and out the window in grandma and grandpa’s backyard. I so wanted it to finally be morning, Christmas morning, that I could hardly sleep all night. I just kept having things that I had to think about or just wanted to think about over and over. I knew I was going to get to open my presents. I had looked at them carefully and had ideas about what they might be, at least which ones were likely to be toys, the thing I wanted most.
There also had been a lot of other things yesterday that were hard to stop thinking about. There had been a party at the house yesterday with lots of people that I didn’t know but some of them said they knew me, from when I’d been here before. All the grownups had that colored liquid stuff in those strange shaped glasses and they got all excited and laughing and even being silly which was not what grownups usually did. Except I guess at parties.
It was still dark but mom and dad said it was morning. I wondered if in this “Binghamton” place it was dark in the morning. Mom had David in her arms, and he looked around trying to figure out this new dark place too. Mom just kind of stared in one direction, blinking her eyes a lot, which weren’t open as much as they usually were. I heard a person calling out.
“Sis! Sis! We’re over here!”
I turned and saw the person who was yelling and waving her hand in the air. She looked familiar but it was a memory from a very long time ago. She had on a long blue coat and shiny black boots. Her hair was like mom’s but a little bit shorter. She looked kind of like an adult but her energy was more like a kid like me, which was what made me remember her. She also reminded me of Margie who would come and play with me and David when mom and dad went to parties.
[Note: Having finished my backpacking through Europe memoir, Two Inch Heels, I’m returning to writing a more imagined “memoir” of my life starting at age three. This is chapter 16. If you’re interested, you can see the first fifteen chapters by clicking here.]
I was so excited! Today we were going to take the train to go “back east”, wherever that was, to visit my “grandparents”, whatever they were. I did know what trains were, because I had seen them on TV, on cartoons and other shows. I had also seen them for real when we were in the car and we had to stop and wait for a train to go in front of us. But I had never gone on one myself.
It was still Tuesday December 11 and I sat in the front passenger seat of our old Buick Skylark that my mom was driving home from Detroit Metro airport. My brother was in the back seat and my backpack was stowed in the trunk. The car was technically mine, given to me by my grandfather, my mom’s dad, but was now our family’s only car. Her ‘old banger’ of a car finally died a year ago and was sold for parts for fifty bucks and hauled off by a tow truck. She did not have the money to buy even another used one. She at least, while I was gone, was paying the insurance, the gas, and what little maintenance it got.
It was dark already so it was hard to make anything out. I-94 from Detroit to Ann Arbor was familiar to me, having driven into Detroit and back, maybe a dozen times or so in the past few years, mainly to go to the airport or to see a Detroit Tiger baseball game. Particularly when we got near the big auto plant outside Ypsilanti, all lit up just off the freeway, I knew I was getting into familiar territory and close to home. I felt really tired, my day having started fifteen hours ago after little sleep, and since then the four Chivas on the rocks. My mom got a kick out of it when I told her what I had drunk on the plane, commenting that I had become a “sophisticated drinker”, though I did not tell her how much I had drunk.
It was Tuesday morning December 11, 1973. I awoke with a start, Kevin calling my name, and it barely felt like I had slept at all. My mind had buzzed late into the night with anticipation, it being my last night after eleven weeks in Europe. It was nearly six o’clock and I had a 7:15 AM bus from the downtown Oxford bus station to the London Victoria Coach Station. From there a walk across the street to the BOAC office where I would check my backpack and take another bus to Heathrow for my 11:15 AM flight nonstop to Detroit. Kevin had volunteered to drive me into town.
My last two days had been pretty mellow, just hanging out here at the Clay’s with whoever was home. That is except for a trip to the village pub last night with Kevin, Madge, Bill, and Nana, where they took turns treating me to pints of Watney’s for my final sendoff, each with a toast. Kate was out studying with her friends. Before heading out she had found a moment with me when the others were out of earshot to say goodbye and say that Mackenzie wanted her to pass on a big thank you to “her cousin Spike”.
It was a chilly overcast Saturday afternoon December 8 as Kate Clay and I walked down Manor Farm Road from her family’s house towards Horspath village’s little bus stop at the bottom of the hill. She had invited me to join her and her “mates” who were going to see the new movie version of the musical Godspell, showing at a theater in downtown Oxford.
I remembered Kate from that summer three years ago when she was just thirteen. She was extremely shy, and had not interacted with me, my brother, or my mom very much. Now at sixteen she seemed to have come out of that shell, though still more reserved than her gregarious older brother. She had a look about her that was quite distinctive, with straight brown hair cut short on top and behind the ears in back, but with long bangs tumbling over her forehead and even longer on each temple down in front of her ears. Shy and cerebral like me, she had a thing where she would look down when she was thinking, her hair hanging down obscuring her eyes and nose, then bring her head up and flip her bangs to the side revealing her big eyes when she was finally ready to share her thoughts. More so than me, her brother or her parents, she seemed to have a real fashion sense about her, always dressed with thought when I had seen her. Today she was wearing a knee-length camel colored wool coat, fake-fur trimmed black gloves, brown and gold plaid knee socks rising above tall shiny black boots with platform heels an inch higher than mine. With my own big ‘fro’d hair, charcoal colored flared slacks, and two-tone suede heels (a bit worse for wear after ten weeks of way more use than I had imagined when I brought them) we would have looked the part of a trendy young couple. That is except for my bright orange down jacket (certainly a bit on the dirty side as well from so much use) that clashed with the rest of my attire, certainly not the least bit fashionable.
It was Saturday December 8th and I woke up in the rollaway bed in Kevin Clay’s bedroom at his family’s house in Horspath outside Oxford. I had gotten in last night around ten o’clock and Madge, Kevin’s mom, had made up that bed with fresh linens, rather than having to use my sleeping bag. Good thing, because I had noted that final morning at the youth hostel in Amsterdam when I had last rolled my bag up, that it really smelled of ten weeks of my sweat. Not so noticeable in a big male bunkroom where your nose kind of expected a bit of that reek. Plus the pervasive smell of hashish also kind of masked it. Of course, after those three days lying open on my bunk, with all that burnt hashish in the air, I’m sure my bag was now imbued with that scent as well. But here in this clean well kept house, it’s odor would probably be more noticeable, so best not to have to unroll it. When Angie and I had been here back in September and I used it to sleep on the living room floor with Kevin, it had been all fresh and clean and never used before.
It was Friday December 7th and I sat in the friendly confines of the American Express office in London. I still had a bit of post nasal drip, but was definitely and thankfully getting over my cold. The place was full of people including some of my backpacker ilk, though there were no VW vans being sold out front or hashish being sold in the bathrooms like in the Amsterdam office. In just four days I would be on the plane back to the States.
Ceil had driven me back to the little Manningtree station this morning with still snot-nosed Rebecca in tow. But the wildly precocious two-and-a-half year old had been full of energy and interest in everything. Rather than stay in her seat in the back of the car where she was too short to see much of anything out the windows, she would stand just behind and between Ceil and I in our front seats, and from that vantage see everything we could see out the car windows. She had learned to say, “What’s that?”, and fired off the question several times a minute for the entirety of the ten minute drive to the station. Between Ceil and I we had identified and explained to her trucks, tractors, traffic lights, bicycles, barns, even a small plane up in the sky, and of course the little station once we finally got there.
It was still Wednesday December 5 1973 and I was relieved when Ceil Kane answered the phone, knew who I was, and then confirmed that they could put me up for a couple nights. I had never actually met her before. It was nearly four years ago when she and her husband Ilya had answered my mom’s notice in the Oxford newspaper offering the house swap. My mom saw it as her only chance of giving her sons the more gentrified experience of travelling in Europe, an experience she and my dad could never afford under normal circumstances. But just as they had bought and refinished old furniture from garage sales and such to furnish a respectable looking house amongst the academic community of Ann Arbor, my mom had somehow managed to pull off the house swap and manage ten weeks in England for basically only the cost of the plane tickets.