I’ve been thinking quite a bit about family the past few weeks. I suppose that’s only natural as I just spent a few days in the little town where I was born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Just driving through the town had my mind reeling with memories. We lived in an apartment above a restaurant where my mother worked, until I was 11. I ate breakfast in this very same restaurant last week, and was astounded that in almost 60 years, not very much has changed. I stood in this restaurant and let my eyes cover every inch of the place. The pinball machine that stood along the wall is gone, but I swear I could hear it. The counter is still there with its chrome stools, and vinyl seat coverings. I’m sure the covers have been replaced but the stools themselves are the originals. I closed my eyes and imagined the faces of the men who sat on those stools every day of my 11 years in this place I called home. These men would sit on the same stool every day, order the same breakfast, smoke their Camels or Pall Malls drink their coffee, crack their jokes, and tease my mother. I was sure I could smell the smoke from their cigarettes and the scent of the hot, strong coffee as I stood there staring at what was my past.
For the first time, I understood how rich my life was as a child, how lucky I was to have all of these people in my life on a daily basis. I didn’t understand it then, I only remember my mother making me work! But now I get it… All of these people cared about me, loved me, helped me grow and learn about the world. The man who told the same WWII war stories over and over – how I wish I could hear them one more time. The man who sat at the end of the counter with his little railroad hat on and always smelled of kerosene; who spoke of his deceased wife like she was still at home waiting for him… I’d love to hear about her, and of his adventures on the railroad just one more time.
As I stood in the parking lot and looked at the steps leading to the back door of the restaurant, I could feel my face breaking into this smile as I remembered my mother placing me on these steps with this huge empty barrel of vanilla ice cream and a spoon. It was my “job” to make sure the barrel was empty before it got thrown out! The barrel was almost as tall as I was, so I had to stand up and lean over to get to the bottom on the barrel. I remember clearly that a bath usually followed the cleaning of the ice cream barrel.
I walked from the parking lot to the alley that goes between the restaurant and the house next door. A great deal of my youth was spent in that alley. I stopped in the middle of the alley and just stood still and quiet. I smiled as I remembered running and riding my little red tricycle. I remember a baby carriage that my mother was so thrilled I was playing with until she came out and saw it was filled with dirt and sticks and cigarette butts I had picked up in the alley! I was once again a little girl in that alley, with my sweet little friends, riding bikes, kicking cans, throwing rocks, watching parades, eating ice cream. I walked to the end of the alley and looked down the street. It was like I was 5 again riding my tricycle down the street – nothing had really changed.
I never really thought of my life being enriched by living above that restaurant or by the people who entered that restaurant on a daily basis. I blamed that restaurant for the fact that I can’t stand the smell of hot cooking oil because that smell was everywhere when I was a child, and there was this film of oil on everything. I never imagined that living there helped to shape this person I’ve become as an adult. I just thought my mother made me work too hard and all I wanted to do was play the pinball machine! I never imagined that this restaurant and those people who came there every day would give me a balance and an understanding about the world – I just thought they were people who smelled funny and told the same stories over and over and over.
As I stood there with tears in my eyes, I finally got it all. Home isn’t where you live physically – it’s what you carry with you as you go from place to place in your life. It’s those sweet memories that make you smile, and the lessons you learned from the not so sweet memories…
As I was walking back through the alley to my car I found myself looking down at the ground and discovered that without realizing it, I was looking for cigarette butts and I wondered to myself; whatever happened to that baby carriage?