I woke up early the morning of our departure and panicked when my mom said today was the day. I tried to stuff piles of coloring books into a tiny canvas bag that was much too small to hold them. I was four years old when my family drove across the country to Connecticut for my dad’s sabbatical at Yale.
I mostly remember motel rooms and McDonald’s as we crossed the country. I sat on the red Gott cooler full of ice water that my parents kept between the bucket seats in the front of the big brown van. This must have predated the seatbelt laws. I liked sitting there so I could follow along with my parents’ conversation and because I had questions about everything.
I only remember three cassette tapes making the trip from Utah to New England with us: The Beach Boys, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and Simon and Garfunkel. It’s disappointing to me now that as a preschooler, I preferred The Beach Boys to the other two. You can listen to three cassette tapes a whole lot of times if you’re driving back East.
My parents were brave to take five little girls all over the country for several months. I can appreciate this now that I have four little boys who don’t travel well, who thrive on routines and structure. People in the Eastern states were unused to seeing large families traipsing around. When we walked into grocery stores or restaurants, people would stop what they were doing and openly count children in my family.
A four-year-old only notices the grandest or the most banal things. I remember climbing the endless circular metal stairs to the top of the Statue of Liberty. I remember picking up a discarded beer can at the beach and telling my mom I was going to take it home and wash it out, and make it my very own.
I remember a lighthouse in Maine. I didn’t want to leave—there was something magnetic about that cold beach lined by dark fir trees, with a gleaming white lighthouse standing on the rocky point.
I recall a massive garden next to a tiny house set against an abrupt hillside. The little house was parenthetical against the terraced garden of saturated red, yellow, and orange blooming plants.
I remember my dad buying me polished seashells from a touristy shop, and showing me how to hold a conch to my ear to hear the ocean.
I remember the house across from our rental cottage on Long Island Sound. Their house literally sat in the middle of the street. The street split and went around their house on either side, before rejoining into a single strip of asphalt beyond their backyard.
Our land lady’s name was Mrs. McGillicuddy. She wasn’t scared of the family of seven with five little girls, like other rental owners were.
I remember the old woman in the house next to our rental slapping her kitchen window and yelling at us to get out of her backyard, which incidentally was connected to ours and to all the other backyards. I remember spending most evenings playing in the yard of the house in the middle of our street.
We visited Sturbridge Village, which recreated colonial life. That place enamored my history-loving mother. I climbed up on the stocks in the center of the square, meant in times past for criminals or witches or whoever. I slipped and hit my head on the metal fittings of the stocks, which gave me a goose egg and a headache and effectively ended my interest that day in all things colonial.
I remember seeing the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and touring Monticello in Virginia. We visited Hershey, Pennsylvania and ate chocolate. But because I was just four years old, the memories are flashes, just moments really. I can remember how the floorboards looked in Carthage Jail near Nauvoo on our journey back home. There was a deep red stain on the wooden floor of an upstairs room in the jail.
My oldest sister turned nine while we were in Connecticut. My youngest sister, aged one, produced enough hair to make two bitty blonde piggy tails on each side of her head. My mother still had a long, brunette mane then. She was younger than I am now.
Who was I before I was this mother of boys? Who was I before disabilities altered my trajectory?
I was a little girl. The earlier me. I was me before all this.
Sometimes I forget.