The Birthplace of America.
I don’t really know how he got his name. Was he always Big Ole? He was to me. He was just always there. Could it be that we were really the birthplace of America? We had the Rhunestone too. Or a copy. We never spoke of it in school, never read of it in books – but there it was – the claim that was so large, Birthplace of America. True or not- everything that happened was on either side of Big Ole. So, it was right in that sense. It was our birthplace. It was all we new of America. Of our dream.
I have a memory of a neighborhood. For it was a neighborhood, you see, we had neighborhoods back then. Do we still? We had houses and people that matched them. Cars that matched the houses and the people. We knew the houses and cars and the people, and the wood, the linoleum, the carpeting, the clotheslines. We knew the jobs, the gardens.
Mrs. Muzik lived next door to the Nortons. She had a daughter. Melody. Say it in your head, Melody Muzik. Mrs. Muzik had the greenest lawn. We all had the same weather, yet it favored her. Her lawn was always freshly cut, thick and luxurious. You weren’t allowed to walk on it. I didn’t want to. Not because my summer bare feet didn’t imagine it to be magical. I didn’t want to because there was no Mr. Muzik. I never asked where he was. I assumed he died. Until my own father left, I had no reason to believe that anyone did, or would. Just knowing that a Mr. Muzik was missing, I remember thinking, but she has this, this green lawn, these perfect flowers. She should have this. This was hers. I didn’t walk on her lawn.
Dyndas lived across the street from them. It was Frank and Sylvia Dynda, with his parents, Grandma and Grandpa Dynda. It was a neighborhood. It felt right to call them Grandma and Grandpa Dynda. It was not too familiar. It was just familiar. Oh how glorious it was to be familiar. To walk in between the sheets that Sylvia had hanging on the line. To let them brush, cool and wet against your sun drenched legs, to walk through the open screen door, to say, hello Grandma, and to get a cookie that she had made, to answer her grandma-like questions, and leave through the same screen door, never worrying of when you would see her again. Nothing was disposable.
Alf drove the oldest pickup in the neighborhood. He might have scared children from a different neighborhood, but I, and maybe we, had thought his name was Elf. An Elf wasn’t scary. An old Elf on Van Dyke Road. He lived next to the Schultz’s and the Weiss’s. The Shultz boys would give us all a good reason to behave. Most of us, under the age of 10, were threatened when rooms were left uncleaned and beds undone, “Do you want to go live with the Shulz boys?” The Weiss family was older than the Nortons, younger than Elf – Alf. They were quiet and reliable. As quiet as the peach that colored their quiet house. Then the Mullens. Maybe it was Carol Mullen that drowned out the sound of the Mr. and Mrs. Weiss. She had the loudest voice for the dinner call. “Patsy!!!! Patsy!!!” She had three children, but I only remember her calling for Patsy. She was the only one to stray I guess.
As I rode my bike further down Van Dyke road, the names became less familiar, but some stood out – The Lords, The Lees, The Vaceks. And how comforting to put a “the” in front of these houses and cars and people. Because they were the families. Each family had cupboards of cereal and single-line telephones and one television and tables and grocery bags from Olson’s super market and we knew them. We knew who and how many and how long and where the baby aspirin was kept, and the color of bikes and the grades in school and the wet hair and the bus… we were part of something, behind Big Ole. We were a neighborhood. We were people listening to “open-line” on the radio, running barefoot, through swinging doors, not just your own, and we were home. That’s what I tried to stuff in my pocket. That’s what I stuffed into both pockets, my lungs, my toes, deep inside my heart, when I rode my bike home from volleyball practice and there was a sold sign in our driveway. My father had walked away. Sold the house. My mother and I would move to the other side of Big Ole. To an apartment. With Van Dyke road still on my shoes.
The Norton girls anchored Van Dyke Road. They were the team leaders – without the five of them – there was no kickball, no kick the can, no softball. They led us each summer night to the empty field next to Dynda’s house, and we played until the sun lay low. And a little longer. Until our parents called us home. And a little longer. They were the gatekeepers of the North End. The last to get on the big yellow school bus. The Tech School student studying law enforcement, who drove the bus, turned us around in their driveway, and brought us back up the gravel road. I don’t think there was a time when all five Norton girls were on the bus together. The driver would open the door and one, two, maybe three would run in with books and wet hair, smelling of shampoo and the fresh air that clung to it. We didn’t take selfies. It would have been absurd to take a picture of someone on the bus and then take the film to Peterson Drug store and wait for a week to see an out-of-focus girl hiding behind her books, with a glazed look of sugared cereal. We didn’t text. We didn’t have Google. We had to be curious. If we wondered who was the actor who played Peter on The Brady Bunch, we had to wait a week until the next episode and watch the credits. We also had mystery. I didn’t know what was in the North End, though my imagination had conjured up many stories of runaways and robbers and other various Nancy Drew cases. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I needed them. The Norton girls. They were pretty and athletic and accessible. They were older and younger and I found myself wedged in the middle. It was familiar, and possible. I can hear the creaks on their staircase. The screams running down their backyard. The running. The biking. The breathless racing of secrets and time. And the bus door would open, with the certainty that one Norton girl would get on board. I needed that. We all did. We needed each other. We needed the lawns and the fields and stories and this building of lives. This neighborhood. We claimed each other. We grew up together. This was the birthplace of our America. Our pockets were full.
Sometimes I stop myself and think, did it all really matter that much? Did it change us to know the wood work, the bed times… and the linoleum? The linoleum. Decades later, at the Atlanta Gift Mart – 7.1 million square feet hosting over 200,000 people, I would run into Melody in the passing crowd. With instant recognition and a calm that only a shared past can contain, I simply said, “Oh, hi Melody,” as if she just got off the bus in front of her house on Van Dyke Road. Did it matter to remember the sound of lawn mowers and cards in bicycle wheels? Decades later, changing in every way, every direction, even moving to another country, I would come home for a visit and Lynn Norton would pass as I climbed a tree over Lake Agnes wearing my mother’s coat. I would see her the next day and she would say, “Didn’t I see you up a tree yesterday?” It did matter. To be known. To be seen. To be held in the arms of 5 girls, an empty lot, an unrelated grandparent, and the swing of a summer screen door — it mattered. It still does.