Country Mansions

snapshots: an introduction

One of the most obvious and yet remarkable discoveries I made only recently is that I will always be with myself. I have heard every word I have spoken. I have felt everything I have touched. I was there every time I was happy, sad, angry, or confused. I have tasted everything I have eaten. I have smelled every scent I have breathed in. And for every experience yet to come, I have the full knowledge that I will be there.

It is for this reason that I consider myself to be my own true companion. I will never forget about me. I will understand the significance of every joke and memory. I will never move away from myself. I will always agree with me on what music to listen to, what books to read, when to go to bed at night, and when to get up in the morning. I will never give myself the silent treatment. I’ll get to go to every play and every concert I go to. I’ll see every movie I see. I’ll be there for every dance I dance.

Perhaps this is why I am so puzzled that memory is as elusive as it has proven to be. I once stood with a wide stance, wearing a flowered tee shirt and yellow shorts, a lollipop in my pouty mouth and my strawberry blonde hair falling over my eyes. The photograph places me in a field that I don’t remember. I don’t recall who knelt behind the camera, nor what the scenery looked like behind whoever it was. I don’t remember my thoughts when that picture was taken, nor do I remember the events surrounding that particular day of that particular year. And yet, I was there. My same hands rested against those little yellow shorts. My same mouth sucked on that purple lollipop. My same green eyes took in the sights before me. It’s crazy to think that I was so small, so young, so intent on staring down the camera that was about to freeze me into an eternal frame. This is the paradox of memory –– I was there with me on that field on that summer day, but I don’t quite remember it.

My earliest memories, when I was about two years old and thus about two feet tall, all detail things on a small scale, as I was quite small myself. I remember that the carpet in our old house was brown. I remember the coffee table in my babysitter’s house. I remember the rungs of our dining room chairs. And so, one of the first memories that I can recall conjures up images of my father’s khaki pants as his legs led me and my sister through the zoo, and the blacktop on which we walked. It was sunny and warm and I was sure of my ability to walk by myself. That is, I was sure until I looked up and saw that the man whose legs I was following was not my father. He had a moustache. Upon noticing my presence the man smiled, took me by the hand, did an about-face, and began walking with me in the direction from which we came, in search of my family. I felt timid in the shadow of this friendly giant with a moustache, and a little shameful that I had wandered off from my father. Despite these feelings, however, I refrained from crying or making a fuss, and instead obediently held onto the moustache-man’s hand and followed in his wake.

The sight of my father shaking his head and smiling in relief that he had found his daughter is imprinted in my memory. I let go of the stranger’s hand and ran to my father’s open arms as he said, “Oh Kerry, Kerry, Kerry” and shook his head again. I melted into him, neither laughing nor crying, as he offered words of thanks to the Good Samaritan who had found me. We were standing by a snack bar. The roof was red and looked like a giant red toadstool. The chairs in the snack bar were connected to the tables with shiny black metal bars. The tables were yellow, and it was a very sunny day.

This is a snapshot of memory, a moment in time. I honestly don’t know if the friendly man had a moustache, but it just seems right that he did. I remember what my sister was wearing (shorts and a polka-dotted spaghetti-strap tank top), but I may have only made this up. Perhaps I only saw her wearing that outfit in a photograph from our family album. We fill in our memories with stories our parents have told us and pictures we may have seen, converting them to things we actually remember, no more reliable than a dream. My parents once told me that they brought me to a movie in a canvas bag when I was only a month old. My mother lined the bag with a blanket and took me out right after she had successfully made it past the ticket-takers with a newborn baby. Although I was only a month old, I proclaim to remember the inside of the bag. It was blue. My baby blanket was soft and white, with yellow and pink stripes. The movie theater was dark. I most likely formulated this memory from the story I was told, but it seems so real to me. The memory displaced the story. If this is what we have to hold on to, however, I will assert that my sister was wearing a polka-dotted spaghetti-strap tank top and that the roof of the snack bar looked like a toadstool. I will hold that the woven texture of the canvas bag in which I lay was rough. And why not? If we hope our dreams will become future realities, why shouldn’t we use our dreams to fill in the past?

And so begins my conscious history, or what I consider my conscious history to be. To detail nineteen years of memories in writing is an extraordinarily daunting task for anyone, and so I will instead pinpoint the vivid memories – the snapshots – that perhaps shaped who I am now, a girl whose hair has turned from strawberry blonde to brown and whose height has changed from two feet tall to a full five feet and three inches... a girl who once thought that she was the only one who possessed an inner monologue to someone who is aware that there is more to people than what is on the surface...

country mansions

We lived in Country Mansions. Actually, we lived in a small, white condominium that was attached to several other condominiums, but the complex was called Country Mansions anyway, housing about thirty families. We lived at the top of the hill. To get there in a car, drive only about a quarter mile from the entrance and then park on the gravel cul-de-sac. To get there by bike, stand up on the pedals and lean from side to side, pumping hard enough so that you don’t have to get off and walk.

On the way up the hill there is a small screened-in building with a shuffleboard court on the left, which any of the families can use for parties, and the indoor pool on the right, which is only open for about two months a year. Pass the big blue dumpster, rows of more condominiums and red garages, and then reach the cul-de-sac. Follow the pathway down past several condos on the left, and the second to the last was ours. Number 22.

I loved the condos. My mother didn’t let me cross the busy street that led from Country Mansions to the center of town, so I was restricted to roam about the grounds after the schoolbus dropped me off, which was fine with me. It was my small little world. We lived there for the first eight years of my life, and I remember suavely boasting to the new kids, “Yeah, I’ve been here for a while. I’ve seen ‘em come and I’ve seen ‘em go.” There were, in fact, few kids at the condos, so I eagerly made friends with every one of them.

Lucas Hall was my best friend. He was small and agile, with wildly curly blond hair, and a mischievous laugh. He lived in the condo on the right as you trucked up the hill, and we spent hours together hiking through the woods in the back of Country Mansions and running over its large green lawns. In the winter, spring, and fall we spent a fair amount of time playing in and around the screened-in building halfway down the hill. If we scaled the stone fireplace, we could slip under the eaves of the porch, as it was built against a hill. This small crawl space between the earth and the eaves provided an excellent place for spying on the neighbors. With excited anxiety, we used to watch Mrs. Amero walking her dog, holding our breath and stifling our laughter, delighted by the fact that we could see her but that she couldn’t see us. To come out from our hiding place, we crawled forward until we reached the hedge on the other side of the porch, opposite the stone fireplace. I used to fondly call this hedge the Hedgehog, though I can’t remember why. In the summer Lucas and I stayed away from the porch, as wasps loved to build their nests under the eves, and we were both petrified of anything with stingers. Once, Lucas and I put on all of his peewee football equipment, with layers of sweat suits and jackets over it. Armed with baseball bats, we destroyed a hornets’ nest outside his front door. I remember hitting the nest as hard as I could and then stumbling over each other to get away, nearly passing out from heat-stroke under New Hampshire’s hot summer sun.

Before Lucas moved in, my main playmate was Kenny Thomas, whom I didn’t like all that much. He used to say mean things like, “you’re dumb,” and “you’re such a girl.” I played with him anyway, though, because he was my age and sometimes fun to be with. I liked it in the summer when my mother excused me from the dinner table to take advantage of the daylight hours and play. I’d run over to knock on Kenny’s door and we would be off, riding bikes or throwing rocks into the frog pond. Once when I was really little, and not willing to let my bladder get in the way of my playtime, I peed on Kenny’s doorstep, right after his father opened the door. I was mortified. Maybe this was why I didn’t like Kenny.

My favorite playmate through all the years at the condos was me, whom I could trust to always be ready to go adventuring. My pretend world was extensive and real. I could be a soldier or an orphan, a dog or a bird. I liked to hike up into the woods and pretend I was either lost or that I lived there, high up in the trees. I was, in every sense of the word, a tomboy. I had short brown hair and the build of a eight-year-old boy. The one doll I owned floated in the bathtub, and so my GI Joes used her as a boat. I hated Barbie and My Little Pony. I loved Matchbox cars. I liked to catch frogs and climb trees. I chased the girls at recess with the boys, but I kicked the boys in the shins if they got too close. I broke my arm playing King of the Tire with a bunch of boys on the playground, and I later broke my other arm jumping from the top of the tire-turtle with my friends Chris Lorentzen and Chris Langille. My bony knees and elbows were always bruised and skinned, and my hands were always dusty or dirty. I secretly wished that I had been born a boy, and thought that if I just wished hard enough, I could change. Women had to have the babies, which I knew was bad, because whenever I got into trouble, my mother asked if I wanted to see her stretch marks. I didn’t quite know what stretch marks were, but I knew that they had something to do with babies, and that they sounded like awful things to have. While the women had to have the babies, the men had to shave, which I thought was equally terrible. The thought of taking a razor to my face every day frightened me, but I was ready to take on the challenge if God chose to miraculously turn this eight-year-old girl into a boy one day.

The condos sat on several acres of beautifully trimmed green grass. A childhood quirk was to eat this grass, by the handful. Looking back on it now, the whole idea seems a little odd, but the grass tasted good so I ate it despite my parents’ worries that I would somehow be poisoned by the fertilizer that made the grass so green. In the middle of the lawn there was a medium-sized frog pond, rimmed by willow trees. We weren’t allowed to swim in it, for fear of leeches and the mud that would suck you down to China, but I did learn to ice skate on its bumpy white surface and to hook small trout away from their cloudy depths and into the summer sun. It was at this pond that I perfected the art of frog-catching, taking quiet step after quiet step towards the gigantic bullfrogs that floated, unsuspecting, on the edge of the water. If I was feeling particularly devilish, often when I was with my dad, I brought these slick amphibians back up to our condo to scare my mother or my sister. Usually though, after putting a frog through only minor torture, I set it down safely next to the water and began to look for a new one to harass. The willow trees that stood on the edge of the pond were wonderful to climb, with their thick, supportive branches. My sister and I designated certain areas of the tree as rooms of an imaginary house. The living room was the area closest to the ground; the kitchen was up to the left and the bedroom was up off to the right. A stand of nearby pine trees also served as a fort of sorts, as we were able to slip beneath the branches to a shaded world of soft pine needles.

I remember our own condo at that wonderful time before a June dinner, when the falling sun turned the white sideboards a warm yellow-pink and the sound of the cicadas floated through the warm air. The walkway was black pavement, covered with a boardwalk in the winter to prevent icing. By June, the boardwalk would still be there, the last remnant of colder weather, and I would fly down it in my velcro sneakers or on my blue yard sale bike to get home by six. Dinner was always at six. Our front door was red and had a little gold 22 on the middle of it.

Immediately to the right on the inside of the door was the laundry room. Casey, when she was just a tiny black and white puppy, slept in a metal cage inside this room. When she was a little older, we left the door to the cage open so she could wander around amid the washing machine and the dryer while we slept. After a few weeks of being proud of her for not peeing on the floor, we found a bag of my stuffed animals that had been christened with Casey’s midnight emergencies. After that, special precautions were taken to run Casey outside at any time she seemed ready to pee on the carpet, the newspapers, or the tiled kitchen floor. Aside from these minor escapades, Casey was a great dog. She was part sheep dog, part Dalmatian, part terrier, and part Spaniel, and as mild-mannered as a flea (though she wore a special red collar to rid her fur of such creatures). A favorite game was to let her drag us around by the toes of our socks. She mournfully let us take her sledding and down the slides at the playground. She gleefully ate the corners off of my Bernstein Bear books, and my whole family loved her unremittingly.

To the left was the kitchen that led around through an open dining room and back into the hallway by the front door. I remember countless games of chase around this circle. I remember crawling through the hallway and into the kitchen, avoiding my father who wanted to help jiggle my terribly loose tooth out of my mouth. I remember roller skating up and down the carpeted hallway, with my old pink blanky over my shoulders. I remember family dinners, with my mother pleading me to use both hands when I drank my milk and to sit in my chair, instead of kneeling with one leg and standing with the other. Dinner was filled with talk of school and work and play. My sister always had stories to tell from the cafeteria or the playground, and I longed for the day when I could say things that had a plot, with a climax and a resolution. After dinner the family settled into their chairs while I climbed up the five stairs to a landing and miraculously turned into my imaginary friend Appleclock. Appleclock sang songs and told silly stories, and also danced a little bit. My other imaginary friend, the Judge, lived under the table and was there every time I needed to make an important decision. When my parents asked me what I wanted for desert, I would excuse myself to the floor under the dinner table where the Judge and I would confer to find a suitable answer. My imaginary dog, Lucky, lived in the bathrooms of Clark School, in the first grade. I loved to take Lucky for imaginary walks, but was always careful to return him to the bathrooms.

It was at our dinner table that my sister got help on her homework from my parents, with my father impatiently insisting that the teacher was wrong, before plunging into the math book to find the “right” way to solve the problems. My sister would then turn to my mother, who would explain what she knew of math in a soft, slow voice. It was also at this dinner table that I had several birthday parties, where we would eat lunch before going out onto the porch for popsicles.

Down a few steps from the dining room was the living room, with the TV and sofa off to the right, and the bookshelves and armchair off to the left. To the left there was also the sliding glass doors that led to our small brick porch and down a little hill onto the immense green lawn. I have vivid memories of watching my sister walk home from school across the lawn and up through the sliding glass doors. My mother would always be ironing and watching “As the World Turns.” To this day, when I hear the opening song from that soap opera, I think of ironing.

The bookshelves housed millions upon millions of books. My GI Joes loved to climb them. The reclining arm chair was old and gray. When I was very young I used to dream that I could climb up onto the armchair and just sort of fall off into the air. I would float around the house, but no one would ever open the front door for me. The dream was so vivid that I honestly believed I could fly, and I used to tell people so.

Off to the right were two orange chairs that spun around and around, and then the sofa. I remember kneeling on the sofa and watching Hurricane Gloria out the window, bending the tall pine trees as if they were blades of grass. My mother was sitting on this sofa reading when I first learned the meaning of figurative language. I asked for a glass of orange juice and my mother told me to “wait a minute.” I patiently counted to sixty, but she didn’t move. I realized that maybe when she said “a minute,” she really meant “a little while.”

The stairwell to the upstairs was large and vaulted. The light hanging from the ceiling made beautiful shadows on the white walls. Mary and Martha Lund and I loved to lie on the stairs and discern out of the shadows. We also loved to slide down the stairs on my mother’s red exercise mat. Mary and Martha were twins, and my mother has told me stories of how, when I was little, I used to fearfully call them Mary and the Other Mary. The two of them made up part of my Playgroup, which also included Elizabeth Solz and Patrick Powers. We played together two or three times a week, alternating houses.

Right at the foot of the stairs was a small bathroom with dark blue wallpaper. The wallpaper had tiny white dots on it, and if I unfocused my eyes, the dots would move around. Lucas and I once decided that we wanted to make a swimming pool, and so we stopped up the bathroom door with towels and turned on the faucet, full power. We were gleefully splashing around in about five inches of water when my mother heard our raucous laughter and opened the door. That was the end of that.

Up the stairs was my bedroom, my sister’s bedroom, and the master bedroom. I don’t remember much about my sister’s bedroom because I wasn’t often allowed to go inside. Meghan loved me to pieces when I was born, but she liked me less and less as I grew into the role of the conniving little sister. I remember sitting on the floor in the kitchen and quietly refusing to help her with the dishes while my parents watched the evening news. I would get her so frustrated that she would yell “Ker-ry!” over and over again until my parents grew angry and told Meghan to do the dishes by herself.

I don’t remember much about my own bedroom either. I spent most of my time playing outside or downstairs, and so I usually just went to my room to sleep. My parents’ room, on the other hand, is fill of memories. My rocking horse, Joey, lived in my parents’ room. I named everything Joey. Every fall, at the middle school Fun Fairs, Meghan and I won goldfish (usually with the life expectancy of three days), and I always named mine Joey. I also had a caterpillar named Joey that eventually turned into a beautiful white Isabella moth. I made up for this fact by pretending Joey had a wife named Isabella. Every time I saw a moth outside I happily greeted it with a “Good Afternoon Isabella” half the time, and a “Hey Joey” the other half.

My parents had a gigantic bathroom that had a heat lamp. I remember being balled up in a big towel on the floor after I had taken a bath, soaking up the heat and ignoring my mother as she repeatedly told me to get into my pajamas. My parents also had a small balcony that looked over the lawn and the frog pond. My cousin Scott once climbed over the black iron railing and stood with his toes on the balcony and his body leaning out over space. I got into some serious trouble when I was caught trying to copy him.

We owned a beige Mercury, with vinyl seats that we stuck to in the summer. The neighbors didn’t like our boat-of-a-car being parked out on the gravel cul-de-sac but, then again, they didn’t like much that we did. They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and the village that raised me, directly and indirectly, was full of some crazy people. Many of the inhabitants of Country Mansions were old and retired, and resented kids running through their gardens, splashing in the pool, and yelling from one side of the lawn to the other.

My mother ran a computer business out of our condo, and the neighbors didn’t like the UPS truck circling around the cul-de-sac because they didn’t know what was being delivered. Bernice Boothroy once used her position as the Town Clerk to try and obtain the information of the contents of my mother’s deliveries from the post office. When my mother heard word of this, she marched on over to Bernice’s condo, knocked on her door, and calmly told her that the packages contained underwear sent from her sister in Colorado, and that the next time a new package came in, she would be sure to let her know.

There was Phoebe Swain, who stole our yard sale signs and hid them in her garage. There was Mr. Shute, who threatened to call the pound if we didn’t keep Casey on a leash, and Jack, our next door neighbor who moved our woodpile all the way behind the garages when no one was home, claiming that it ruined the beauty of the walkway. There were, on the other hand, some wonderful people in our community. I remember sitting on Mrs. Amero’s washing machine and chatting with her while she did laundry. I also loved to visit Mrs. Scott and her dog Smoky, and to talk as if either Mrs. Scott was eight, or as if I were fifty-five. There was Janet, an older girl who let me watch “Jaws” with her, although I knew I was way too young, and the Keanens, who were friends with my parents. At the top of our walkway lived two nice people with a baby, whom I used to make silly faces at, and a family that had a few little dogs and a teenager that loved to sit in the window and yap away on the phone. And most people bought my Girl Scout Cookies, which made me the top seller in my troop for years on end.

Untroubled by the thoughts of who-to-be and what-to-be that are brought on by adolescence, there is an unconscious security in childhood. We accept who we are naturally, and put our energies in just “being” –– in playing and pretending and taking things as they come. When I was little, I knew I wanted to be either a tiger or a bird when I grew up, but I didn’t focus all that much energy into the future. There wasn’t any need to do so. I instead thought about the really important things, like how many shapes I could make out of the clouds, and the small flowers that grew out of my egg-carton garden. I was driven by emotion, by love and awe, by frustration and fear. I laughed when I was happy, and I cried when I was not.

We left the condos the summer I turned nine, and moved a block away, into a house with a yard of our own and different trees to climb. The busy street at the bottom of the Country Mansions hill was no longer a boundary for my wanderings. We moved during a heat wave, but I remember everyone being in high spirits anyway. I ran through my new small house, pretending to get lost and looking for good hiding places. The last shipment of boxes was driven over by dusk, and I stood at the end of our little driveway with my hands on my hips, wondering where the next day’s adventures would bring me. Then my mother called me in for dinner and I obediently ran through our new garden, jumped up onto the wooden step covered with slate, and opened the screen door, good and hungry.