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FIRST PERSON

Memories of Youth's Crazy Possibilities

May 22, 1997|SUSAN CAMPBELL | THE HARTFORD COURANT

I am speeding up a lonesome stretch of Will Rogers Turnpike with the sun setting behind my left shoulder and the full moon rising to my right, and I feel like crying, right here in Oklahoma.

Is it the sunset or the moon that's making me this way? Or is it the thunderstorm straight ahead, the kind of gully-washing toad-strangler you only see on the Oklahoma plains? Racing along under darkening skies, I watch as lightning flash-threads its way through purple clouds, and I crack the window so I can smell the wet dirt.

My traveling companion has put his seat back in order to sleep, and that's fine. We worked hard for this vacation. We drove 11 hours two days in a row through snow and fog to get from Connecticut to the Missouri Ozarks, and here we've tacked on a few more hours of driving to see my sister and her twin boys, born premature but making it, thank you. And now we're heading back to Missouri by twilight so both of us can get some sleep. I don't blame my traveling companion for napping. I don't mind, either, because it leaves me alone with my thoughts.

I take one last look behind me as the sun slips beneath the ridge, and there, on that ridge, is a little house silhouetted black in the sun. The house is surrounded by a grove of short trees that I bet some farmer's wife put out 100 years ago. Farmhouses are always surrounded by a grove out here, and then that's surrounded by acres and acres of plowed fields or pasture. I can't see from the road, but I bet the yard has daffodils, too, and a grape arbor. It looks like the farmers did their best to re-create the Indiana farm the family came from. I wonder if there are tulips.

I don't mean to think it--I don't mean to think anything, but there you have it, goofy nostalgia--and I think, "If I could just live in that little house, I'd be all right."

*

That's the nostalgia talking. I'm wrong, of course.

Later in the visit, we go to Fred & Red's Chili Parlor, where only out-of-towners skip the pickles and onions with their Spaghetti Red. Years ago, the woman whose place I was taking at the local newspaper brought me here for dinner on my first night of writing obituaries. She had horrifically decayed teeth and she smoked like a stove, and I thought she was cool, in a rough-trade kind of way.

Oh, God, I'm home, and it's all rushing back: the smell of the dogwood, the garages made out of red rocks, the cracks in the street where I rode my bike, the endless and senseless possibilities.

I am stricken by nostalgia because if I'm not careful, I erroneously and deeply believe that if I could just go back and do it again, this time I would do it right. I would say yes to that boy, no to that job. I'd stay in church, eat my greens and avoid the sun so that now, as I kiss middle-age on the lips, I would have something to show for it.

Later still, I'm sitting at a light watching a young couple out for an evening walk. They're holding hands and embroiled in some big discussion. The car behind me honks because the light has changed. I look at the couple as I drive by. What are they talking about? Which stereo to buy? Whether to eat at his mother's on Sunday? I envy them, and then I feel stupid. I remember those days, when the biggest discussion was from which pound we'd get our puppy. We planned to get a puppy to try out the parenting skills we'd need for our subsequent baby, and now the puppy is dead and the subsequent baby's voice is changing.

I'm fighting it. I really am.

A few years ago, we bought our Connecticut house from a family with five teenagers. The teenagers are bigger now, and one is getting married. I know this because he--like his siblings, one by one--drove back to the old house to stand in the yard and talk to us, only the whole time he and his siblings were talking to us they were looking at our house and yard.

Those former teenagers want to come back and touch something that touched them, and I am always happy to see them. I want to show them how well we're taking care of things, but I don't know why. I wonder if when we're not home sometimes they drive by to look at the tulips, too.

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