East Main Street in the small Washington County [N.C] town of Plymouth was a cool and hospitable place on a summer afternoon. Trees spread their dark, green branches across the sidewalk, forming a huge tunnel, while their expanding roots pushed up sections of sidewalk, forming volcanic-like mountains with the roots flowing from the cracks like lava…
Donna Smith writing in
“North Carolina: Our State” magazine
I read this short essay by a writer and photographer who really spoke to me through her words about the universal experiences of growing up, whether in a small town or city.
“Growing Up on Memory Lane,” the article was titled. I thought to myself, “’Memory Lane’— what fascinating words when you think about it.” How often we’ve jokingly bandied about that expression, not realizing its significance. The photo she took to accompany the essay shows a scene straight out of the gauzy mists of memory: a big oak tree shading part of the sidewalk she writes about, a section of picket fence, big shrubs and bushes, and a timeless, idealized and affectionate portrayal of the “lane” that also took me back to my own youth.
We, too, had a sidewalk in front of our apartment in New Orleans when I was a child. It was a community of identical, two- bedroom, white, wood-frame duplexes built right after World War II, I guess for families just starting out in life. It was called “Azalea Gardens,” and the adjacent neighborhood was named “Camellia Gardens.” How fitting for the Deep South! Apartment developments were often called “garden” of some sort back in those days, not like today when they’re all named after faux aristocratic English places and events: Fox Run, Hunt Chase, Steeple Chase, and the like. Things were simpler, more upfront in the 1950s. The pretentious names came later to suburbia.
I moved to Azalea Gardens when I was six years old. My oldest and most enduring memories of childhood reside in that place with its fenceless backyards, hackberry trees, huge legustrum bushes that had hollow interiors we could play in, and, of course, those sidewalks over which we pushed our red wagons on imagined, dusty stagecoach trails out West.
When you are a child, the small and circumscribed world of youthful imagination looms large and contains continents to explore. Such was our world. We donned capes and flew across the wide open spaces of our yards like Mighty Mouse from the cartoon show. We constructed Wild West towns out of large boxes and sheets of plywood. We had make-believe, imitation TV-show adventures. We avoided going in to supper when called, prolonging our fun as long as possible, and then flying back outside after supper, back screen door slamming behind us on those late summer days where freedom and excitement reigned supreme. “Come on, hurry up,” a friend would call from the yard as we gulped down the rest of our milk and mashed potatoes.
Down the end of that lane/sidewalk was a drug store where we went to have our cherry Cokes and browse about looking for dimestore-type junk to buy with our tiny allowances. Across the street from the drugstore was a real dimestore, and we spent glorious moments there parlaying our quarters into candy, bottles of bubble soap, magnets, yo-yos, pipe cleaners (some of you may also remember that pipe cleaner fad — we constructed all kinds of things out of those do-dads; I don’t even know how to describe them). These were the pre-Internet days where the video games, computers, laptops, smart phones and other life-altering technological devices would have been the stuff of far-out science fiction.
In those days we did a lot of running around and playing chase and football outdoors. We avoided being inside. There was no real reason except for TV cartoons, the Mickey Mouse Club, and various hokey westerns such as Hop-along Cassidy, and Roy Rogers. But they didn’t seem hokey back then. No sir. But we were limited in how much TV we could watch, or so I recall.
As Smith writes in her essay, “As I grew older, the block between the Marrow house and the Esso station lost its romance. Indians no longer hid in the cracks and tree roots. I no longer took notice of the crawling residents of the sidewalk. Perhaps I was taller and just couldn’t get close enough to see them.”
Yes, we all grow up, but childhood is a magical time, and the road back to it is called “memory Lane.” I remember as vividly as if it happened yesterday going for a walk with my 4-year-old niece in Edmonds, Washington in the fall of 1992, and observing with fascination and wistfulness the way her eyes sparkled with alertness and understanding as she picked up autumn leaves and saved a small collection of the prettiest ones.