Memories give my life context; they populate a crowded canvas where new scenes are constantly painted. As future becomes present and present is swallowed up in past the canvas takes on more depth–more dimension. Reflecting, I find that certain memories (those most pleasant and painful) are set apart, being more perspicuous than the others, possessing all the characteristics of present reality including the complete gamut of sensual data--odors, sounds, sights, textures and tastes. So powerful are these memories, that I find myself reliving them from time to time, re-experiencing them whenever they are involuntarily recalled by a connective taste, sight, sound, smell, or touch. This is certainly true whenever I experience a mixture of bright sunshine and the scent of freshly washed clothes, a combination that inevitably triggers an image of Elizabeth Coleman. I see her and hear her voice as if she were right next to me.
From the time that I was a toddler until I reached the age of nine, Elizabeth was my neighbor. We lived in the country, off Betts Road, just outside the city limits of Greenbrier, Tennessee. My two brothers, my sister, and our parents lived in a small three bedroom house that sat facing the road. Standing on the front porch, I could easily see the Coleman’s small brick house seated less than 50 yards to the left but closer to the road than ours. We shared a driveway and we shared most everything else–church, Christmas, countless meals, laughter and tears. We even shared Poochie, a black, thick haired, mix breed dog who was fed, petted, and loved equally by both families.
It was my six year old opinion--a boyish perception that I’ve never really outgrown--that we lived in paradise. Each year corn was planted all around us. After the stalks were towering over our heads, my siblings and I would disappear into the dark green world, engulfed in a fairy tale land of dragons and other mysterious creatures sure to be lurking in the thickness. When we weren’t running through rows of corn we would skip across a bordering field, crawl under a fence or two, finally reaching a crystal clear creek. We would squat at the edge of that brook, which trickled at such a snail-like pace that I thought it must have realized that it had meandered into the midst of paradise, reluctant to pass through too quickly. Searching for salamanders and minnows, we reveled in innocence underneath a thick canopy of oaks, maples, birch, and an occasional dogwood. The sun’s rays had to fight to get through the dense overhead, but when they did they celebrated by splashing into the creek and exploding into shimmering shades of silver and gold that glittered on the tree trunks, or they would play with us in the moss dancing back and forth among the shadows. Still, there remains one memory that stands out, that’s painted on the canvas with brighter colors than many of its contemporary childhood fancies; it’s the memory of hanging laundry with Ms. Elizabeth.
I’m there now, lounging on one of four concrete steps leading up to our front porch. The Coleman’s side door screeches as Ms. Elizabeth steps out with a basket of damp clothes under one arm and a bag full of clothes pins in the other. She’s dressed in her typical summer attire, a wispy, sleeveless, bright colored knee length dress. It looks as though it was cut without consideration for particular shapes–sort of a one size fits all outfit. Her steps are short and rapid. Leaping to my shoeless feet I sprint at an angle that permits us to meet at the clothesline behind her house.
“Here comes my helper,” she shouts with sincere enthusiasm. The routine begins. We discuss whether I should carry the basket of clothes–which weighs nearly as much as I do–or if I should stand holding the bag of pins.
“I can carry the basket,” I insist, looking up at her smiling face. It’s a nice face, round, not deeply wrinkled, and highlighted with cherry cheeks. In stature, she’s hardly five feet tall. Her head is covered with thick curly black hair. In physical proportion she’s stocky. Her most dominate feature is her eyes, which are large and round, unless she’s laughing, at which time they alternate between squinting so tightly that tears are squeezed to the surface collecting on her eyeballs, or spreading so widely that all the light that is in her comes spilling out into the world.
“Sure, you can carry the basket. You’re a strong little man. But why don’t you carry the bag for me first and then carry the basket later?” she suggests convincingly.
Standing in only my shorts, tanned by the summer sun, I follow close by her side. I hand her a pin, which she fastens to the first item out of the basket. She extends the garment and wraps the end around the line. I pass along the next item and another pin. She folds one end of the garment over the first, pins them together, and continues the process until we’ve created a chain link of clothes, towels, sheets, and pillow cases. A lumbering southern breeze pushes against the damp clothes, cooling them rapidly. A shirt sleeve animated by the wind reaches out and tickles my hot skin. A pant’s leg playfully kicks at us before settling back down to idleness.
“I’m so glad you’ve come to help me; I just don’t know how I could manage without you,” Ms. Elizabeth remarks while clinching a wooden pin between her teeth.
She always looks me in the eye when she talks, having a gift that permits her to avoid even the slightest hint of condescension. Soon I forget I’m a child; I’m a little man doing important work. I listen intently to each comment soaking up every word of encouragement.
“You’re such a good boy,” is the mantra that calls me to the clothesline day after day. She informs me that I’m good because I love to help her. I’m good because I eagerly step sideways with her, first down one row and then up the other. I’m good because I never complain. I’m good because I could be running through the corn or playing at the creek rather than helping her with a chore. “I don’t know if in all the world there’s a boy as good as you,” she emphasizes to my delight.
Interspersed between the mantra’s chant, we laugh and talk. I ask her questions like, “Why do you wear shoes out here in the soft grass? What would you do if a tornado blew all the clothes away? Who taught that mockingbird to whistle? Can you teach me to whistle?” We are great friends working side by side, dodging dangling dancing clothes until the last pin is attached.
“O, thank you! How would I have ever gotten all of this done,” she says, adding again, “You’re such a good, good, boy.” I run home, stopping to investigate a busy butterfly, breathing in a mixed aroma of freshly mowed hay, earth and thousands of ears of ripening corn. I hear the sound of the side door slamming shut, knowing without turning around that Ms. Elizabeth has vanished into the house. But her mantra lingers, having taken a life of its own.
I think to myself, as I look back, that if a caterpillar can experience a metamorphosis--being translated into a moth, then could it be that Ms. Elizabeth’s unselfish words have since been transformed into a firefly?
An explanation is in order. I’m oblivious to fireflies during daylight hours. They don’t force themselves on me by landing in my food or stinging my arm; they don’t buzz or jump. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist while the sun is up. When the light begins to fade, however, and the sky grows dark, little flashes of light can be seen in all directions as fireflies come to life.
None of us is allowed to live in childhood paradise forever. After I had enjoyed that season of my life, Age abruptly shoved me out. And as a snake outgrows its skin, I writhed my way out of innocence. I picked up a new brush, filling it with grey and sometimes black paint, splattering the canvas and bungling an otherwise perfect picture. Though now the blackness provides contrast, making me appreciate the bright colors in a more profound way, I would prefer to erase those bleak events from the canvas. But during those times when the light in my life was fading fast, when I’ve found myself lonely and engulfed in darkness, when I’ve despaired, lamenting the value of my life while searching the context of my existence for true identity, little flashes of light have become visible in the form of a distant spark, “You’re a good boy–a good, good boy.” Whatever I was...I always knew a part of me was, as Ms. Elizabeth said, “good.”
Many years removed from the clothes line, I recline, with my two young boys, on our front porch. A part of me envies them; after all, they now live in paradise clothed in innocence. Sometimes a wave of dread washes over me as I consider the road ahead of them. I long for Ms. Elizabeth to come out of the door across the street with laundry in hand so that I can send her my children to be taught that whatever they may become, they are starting out filled with much goodness. In her absence I do my best to pass along the message, looking them in the eye and telling them what good boys they truly are. Time parades before us as evening gives way to shadows that relentlessly stretch out their dark forms until they’ve covered all the ground with night’s heavy blanket. The sun hangs on the edge of the horizon until, wearily it drops, dragging the last hopeful shades of violet with it, leaving only the blues that grow deeper and deeper until they give way to blackness. Just then, in that darkest hour right after dusk, they begin to flash–fireflies all around–reminding us with each tiny spark that no matter how thick the darkness may get, it cannot...and it will not be complete.