all of the selves we Have ever been
In the years after my father separated from military service
and moved us to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I grew up and moved out on my own. I traveled to the city each day for work. While I was becoming a bonafide urban dweller, the world was changing. My small town roots were covered by the soil of a new reality.
As a young child in the small village that was home to my extended family, I had roamed the streets without any fears. It wasn’t until I was a young adult and back for a visit at my aunt’s home that I lay my head down on the pillow one night and thought about the front door. There were sounds of angry voices coming from a bar down the street. Unsure of the cause of the racket, my senses went on alert, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if the doors to my aunt’s house were locked.
Growing up, my regular territory was comprised mostly of the two main streets that made up the town. On each street there were open doors that I could walk into at any time. I didn’t have to knock or ring the bell. I did not need to phone ahead or wait for an invitation. My grandmother’s house was on Hanna Avenue, the center of our universe. Next door to her home was the family grocery store. My Aunt Addie lived on Main Street across from my Uncle Tony and Aunt Nancy. Many cousins filled the rooms of those houses. A short walk down Main Street and I was at the offices of the company my uncles owned and operated. The office was staffed by aunts and uncles and a few people who had worked for my uncles for so long, I thought they were my family.
No one had security systems. Heck, they didn’t even have keys. If a doorbell rang, it really got our attention. These places were always open to me. I could step inside and use the bathroom, open the refrigerator, find good food and plenty of fun company. We were all one large pride.
And then it happened. All the cubs grew up. The multitude of cousins slowly moved out and moved away. We joined the world of locks and keys, and later security systems. My cousins’ lives became busy and they had limited opportunities to return.
Most of the time I was busy with my adult life too, but I returned to Hanna Avenue and Main Street whenever I could. Slowly, the aunts and uncles departed this world. Eventually, their houses were handed off to strangers, and I never again entered those doors.
As a child, I thought that the whole world was made of houses like theirs, houses with open doors, homes jam-packed with aunts and uncles and cousins. I took it all for granted until it was no more. And then I began to feel like Puff the Magic Dragon after Jackie Paper grew up: “Puff no longer went to play along the Cherry Lane. Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave…”
It was easier for me to be brave on Hanna Avenue and Main Street. That is where the magic lived.
But that is not the end of the story. Magic may sleep, but it does not die.
Many years later, I moved to a new city. My daughter and I stepped into the check-out line in an unfamiliar grocery store. I took notice of the woman in front of me. “That looks like my cousin,” I said to my daughter. I tapped the woman on her shoulder, and she turned toward me. Presto-chango! It was my cousin. I no longer lived in a strange new city. I had kin!
In the years since our meet-up in the grocery store, my cousin and I have weathered some significant family losses, moves and transitions. While we no longer live in a time when the doors are left unlocked all day and all night, I have my own keys and codes to her house. I have a new house with an open door. There is always good food and great company. From time to time, the dining room table is jam-packed full of cousins, and the aunts, uncles, and grandparents come back to us through the stories and the familiar voices and gestures that bubble up from our shared DNA.
Life experience informs. The things we take for granted can be extraordinary. Magic can live in the ordinary. And each of us needs a house with an open door.