Driving Down Memory Lane–Literally

After four years of retirement, I began to realize that I have more time available than I need for my many critical pursuits:  travel, reading, writing, home projects, gardening, napping, and beer drinking.  So, it was almost inevitable that I began to think more about volunteer work.  I already volunteer occasionally for a local environmental non-profit that specializes in teaching the basics of composting and other sustainability projects.  I also substitute teach at my former high school which is tantamount to volunteering given the amount of money one is not paid for working as a professional teacher.
So when I was ready to make a regular commitment to an organization, I had no hesitation to select San Diego’s Mama’s Kitchen.  Besides having been a regular donor for years, a close friend of mine is the head chef and my wife and I have attended many of their events and fundraisers.  Mama’s Kitchen provides 7 days worth of food, every week of the year, for nearly 600 San Diego residents who are affected by HIV/AIDS or cancer.  They have a cadre of drivers who spread out over the county delivering both hot and cold dishes three times a week and are always in need of more.

After my orientation, I selected the route that was closest to my house, west of where I live now but directly south and east of where I grew up and all around where I went to elementary school.  And there will be another post where I talk about what it is like to work with my clients, how I am slowly getting to know their needs and quirks, and how I have started to worry about them at times, but that is not what this is about. Instead, I discovered that my route unexpectedly took me back to people and memories and experiences that stretched back to my childhood.

I have to mention that I would never complete the route on any given day without the help of Siri.  Left to my own devices and sense of direction, people would starve.  Siri and I have become so close that I actually pay little attention to the street names or the how I am getting from client to client.

So, as I’m blindly following Siri’s friendly but imperious demands to “continue on Federal Blvd for 1 mile and then turn right on 61st St.”, suddenly I’m seeing street signs and buildings that have been hugely significant to my development as a person.  Honestly, I was stunned at how this route would string together memories spanning nearly every decade and every important stage in my life.

The first street sign that brought me up short was La Corta Dr. where my first girlfriend lived.  We were in the first grade.  Having a girlfriend at that early age just meant that you had admitted that you liked her, she happened to like you back, and it was ESSENTIAL that NO ONE should ever know or find out.  Our mom’s drove us back and forth to “play dates” that I have almost no memory of, but I do remember that she was a petite little blonde girl, and I thought she was absolutely beautiful.

And a single block further down was where, Mike, one of my buddies from high school lived on Madera St.  One night when I was sleeping over, I discovered that he lived next to someone who allowed Sandy and the Classics, the pre-eminent cover band for all big high school dances, to practice in their garage.  Hanging outside on a warm summer evening, listening to them working on all of our favorite songs while we dreamed of all the fantastic girls we were never going to meet in the coming year at the dances in our steamy, stinking gym, was like getting to be backstage at a free show. It was about as good as life gets for a ninth grader.

Next thing I know, I’m cruising past Morse High School, the site of my very first teaching experience. Back in 1975 I was assigned to Morse as a student teacher to teach one sophomore English class for one semester.  I had a wonderfully patient master teacher who forgave me all of my inadequacies and spent endless hours talking to me about teaching, life, and personal development.

I so owe those sweet kids an apology.  I was woefully unprepared to teach them anything about reading and writing and simply did not know how to plan thoughtful, cohesive units.  What they got was my energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humor which helped to paper over some of my shortcomings.  The class was a wonderful mix of Anglo, Mexican, Samoan, Guamanian, Native-American and African-American kids. Day after day when my lesson, planned for the 55-minute period, expired after 40 minutes, instead of giving up and giving them “free time” I’d go from student to student and check in with them, badger them about missing homework, find out what they were up to outside of class, encouraging them to keep trying hard.

It was not unusual to see those same students that same afternoon helping out their moms with the grocery shopping at the market, located just a short distance from the school,  where I was a grocery clerk.  It must have been weird for them to see me as their English teacher at 10 o’clock in the morning and as the guy bagging up the family groceries just hours later.

I cruise past the latest iteration of my old grocery store, still anchoring a crumbling strip mall as I’m rounding a corner on my way to my very last client.  But before I make that turn, I pass by Darby St.  Halfway down Darby sits the first house my wife and I owned, our starter house, purchased back in 1977 on the day that Elvis died.  I remember hearing the news as we were in the midst of signing away our lives.

We didn’t think of the house as a wreck, but in fact, it was by every measure a major fixer-upper.  In three years, we painted or wallpapered every square inch of the place inside and out, ripped up the avocado green indoor-outdoor carpet that greeted us as we walked in and re-did all of the flooring.  It was just getting comfortable when we were finally driven to sell after battling constantly with a noisy garage band across the street.  Sandy and the Classics they were not.

I sit in my car across the street from our old house now and I can barely recognize any remnant of the work that we had done.  As far as I can tell, the garage band is long gone.

I rouse myself and get back on the road to make my last delivery to a nice guy who has two very active dogs in a small house that most would call run down.  I suspect his wife is the patient.  He is chatty and fun to talk to.  We say goodbye, and I take the short cut back home where I sit in my driveway, steeped in the snapshots of so many unexpected memories.

“The Kids Are All Right”

My children are now 28 and 33, and yes, it makes me feel old to write that down. Typical of their generation, they are both single and both still testing out a number of possible career choices. Luckily, they are both bright, hard-working, loving individuals and I don’t spend as much time worrying about them as I used to, maybe because they live in different cities and we only get edited versions of their daily lives.

But I have no trouble remembering the early years. Emily (our youngest) did not sleep through the night for the first two years. I have no idea how my wife and I soldiered on with heavy work schedules, early mornings, and no sleep.

We went through the usual number of medical emergencies including several broken wrists due to horses and soccer. When he was a toddler, my son, Nico, implanted a purple button so deeply up his nose that we couldn’t see it and had to take it on faith that this justified a run to the urgent-care clinic. I remember thinking to myself, “You’d better have a button up your nose.” He did and the doctor calmly took some tool that looked like a cross between pliers and tweezers and snaked it out for us.

Emily, my youngest, scared the living shit out of us when one afternoon she suddenly seemed to lose all strength in her legs. She must have been 5 or 6 and seemed quite happy to squirm about on the floor, but we were quickly again off to urgent care for an exam and blood tests. They started throwing around scary words like meningitis. That night we got a call that they wanted to us to come back in the morning to re-do a blood test. The first one had revealed a very high (or was it low?) white cell count and they needed to confirm the results. I called my mom, the registered nurse and asked her what this meant and she hesitated before I pressed her. “Well, it could mean leukemia, but…” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The next morning, they got her right in and drew blood and my wife and I sat with her in an exam room waiting very nervously. Visions of losing my baby girl to some awful disease filled me with dread as we waited. The doctor popped in and without hesitation said “Everything is fine.” The original test had been faulty. By then, Emily was running about like a normal kid again, but I felt like I had aged.

Looking back I can pick out two things about which I was incredibly naive when it came to parenting. The first was my assumption that everything we had learned raising the first child would be applicable to the second child. Not even close. I remember trying to give Emily a pacifier, which Nico had taken to as if his life depended on it. Emily kept spitting it out and looking at me as if to say, “Why do you insist on sticking this piece of plastic in my mouth?” Everything was different. We were five years older. Emily had a sibling to contend with which Nico never did. Her temperament was entirely different.

My second grand misconception was that my job as a parent was pretty much over once I had gotten them off to college. Wow, was I wrong about that. It wasn’t just the financial support; it was everything. I’ve come to believe that kids need more parenting in their twenties than maybe at any other time in their lives. As my father-in-law used to say: “Little people, little problems; big people, big problems.”

I’m proud of the adults they have become. If anything, I would worry that I had made them boring and overly-cautious like I am, but they seem anything but. They seem to be enjoying life and making their way just fine, despite broken bones and purple buttons.