Hashtag Throwback Thursday. I am throwing it back in honor of the beginning of the school year. Here I am on the east side of Buffalo, New York. It is the first day of school. I have not yet mastered the art of tying my shoes or buttoning my coat, but that is no matter. The day is monumental in my mind. Up to this point in my life, I was relegated to watching my brothers and sister from the front window as they walked to school. I observed them closely as they ate their breakfast in their little uniforms. When the door closed, I hurried to the couch that ran along the front windows, bent over the back, and pulled the curtain. There they went, beneath the red maple tree to school. School. It was a mystery. In my mind I imagined it a place of properness. Of books and learning. Of transformation. I wanted to know the names of the things in my life to give them definition and bring them into focus and make them clear. I was a serious child. I studied the words in the books my brothers and my sister brought back trying to make sense of them and my brothers saw this and used it to their advantage. Taunting me with words I didn’t know until I cried, which buoyed them and allowed them to continue their torment. Here is a photograph of the beginning of the end of the torment. Here is a photograph of the beginning of the definitions to the words I didn’t know. My mother is in my buttons and hat. She tells me to look at the camera and in that instant summer is washed away on an autumn wind, and with it, the mystery of school, the mystery of the world. I have taken flight. I walk on my stick legs two blocks to the mayhem of the schoolyard. I follow my sister who walks with purpose while my brothers lag behind, kicking at stones. At the corner I hear the shouts and yells from the yard and it becomes an orchestra warming up. We turn to the red brick of the building that seems to hold the blood of generations. I stand in awe and my brother pushes me forward into the undulating mass of school children who stop at a bell and get into line yammering until that too is silenced by a nun and we are ushered in quietly to the learning and becoming.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me in the St. Gerard’s parking lot circa 1983. It is springtime on the east side of Buffalo, New York. There is not much to say about this photograph. I am wearing the hand-me-down sweater of my older brother, Michael. I cannot recall who the older boy is who has stolen our ball and poses triumphantly. Heather is little red riding hood. Monica is a wet-plastered smile. The excesses of summer are hinted at in the soaking rain that washes winter away. The scribblings of the darkness of youth are on the walls. There is nothing more than this square of pavement of the now with its lure of sweaty hands and smiles. In an instant this will disappear though we will have no inkling of the disappearance or even what has disappeared until it is too late. Instead, the moment is an interminable lull between now and the great future of hope and success and impossible dreams. Then minute succumbs to minute to month to years and you find yourself standing in an impossibly long line at the Department of Vital Statistics to get a certified copy of your birth certificate. It having been lost in some minor life destruction. The green-haired girl two up ahead checks her phone, then checks her phone again for a message that will never come. The young mother with sad eyes soothes her son who has grown impatient with the waiting. The government has been so kind as to spell out in big block letters the directives on the wall:
Form A for Birth.
Form B for Death.
Below these signs are the wire baskets with the photocopied sheets that we are all holding. Through the plate glass window, the unknowable sky can’t seem to decide between rain or more rain and that view brings you back to those disappeared moments in the parking lot of your youth as the line does not move. The woman with the walker drops her dull pencil for everyone’s interest until the man with the tear tattoo on his face bends in kindness for her, like a smile after rain. The man with the thinning hair towards the front with the cat-haired shirt is muttering because he thinks he has been here the longest. Shifting from foot to foot, each of us waiting in turn for the proof of our existence or the thin slip that says we once were here - in the sigh and sigh and sigh of lines. In the way we inch forward and wait with all of the grace the moment calls for.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. This is not a photograph of me, it is the photograph of two of my classmates from the Catholic grade school I attended on the east side of Buffalo, New York. As I have described before the east side of my youth was predominately Catholic. The old Polish and Italian women in their thin dresses praying the rosary in the vastness of the basilica like church named for the Saint, Gerard, patron of children and mothers. It is not for nostalgia that I try to remember or at least try not to forget all of those moments spent on those few city blocks. It is, instead, the looking and seeing of what it was that helped shape me. It is all of those grey Ash Wednesdays that differentiated an ordinary winter day into something more, a stopping to recognize that we are here for a brief moment and then we are gone. This comes back to me sometimes, most acutely in the south where the sight of a person with ashes on their head is all the more striking on Ash Wednesday because they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, but it happens other times too. At the scraping away of an old building. At a saddle shoe on a Sunday. At the dim reminders that surround us of a past that continually recedes. There was a piece of orange yarn laying in the street nearer the curb. It brought me back to the time of tube socks, Topps hockey cards, and pay telephones. Sometimes that is all it takes, a piece of string to bring me back to a grammar school parking lot at recess. To the moments that shaped me and made me who I am. In that piece of yarn in the gutter were two pig-tailed girls on a red rail holding a bit of string. Their fingers move and their foreheads narrow in lines of concentration. The old women are in the church while the children run and swear outside. In the midst of all the yelling from the jumping of the ropes and the hockey game I am watching them and everything turns silent when they run through a series of string figures passed down to them from their grandmothers. The fish in a dish to candles to the cat's eye. They were holding in the palms of their hands the secret. That bit of string that they held became the thin threads that connect one generation to the next.