Though I’ve never been much of a Joni Mitchell fan, I have to admit that “Big Yellow Taxi” has been a recurring theme song: “Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got / ’til it’s gone . . .” It’s a mindset that leaves you lamenting the years gone by, not fully appreciating what’s right here, and losing faith in your capacity to ever enjoy anything in the future.
Over the years my memories, even the happy ones, have been stored like rocks in a crate, the weight of time past hidden deep in the basement. You don’t want to pull them out in case they hurt too much for being over, a reminder you’re getting older. This summer, though, instead of burying and mourning lost special moments, I’ve strung them up like patio lights.
A recent experience reminded me of the times our family used to visit my aunt’s farm near Albertville. Auntie Terry’s huge farmhouse had a high second floor with lots of bedrooms and a peak-roofed spare room on one end. The old pull-up window looked out to the yard below. I would sometimes go up there by myself while everyone was busy with chores, the hot summer sun slanting through that window onto a kid alone with her thoughts. While I loved those trips, there were always lots of people around and even then I craved time by myself.
Our daughter Janice and her husband, Kalon, recently moved to a small town. Their large 100-year-old house has a verandah and an upstairs balcony — and a peak-roofed attic. During a “sisters and daughters” weekend I volunteered to sleep up there. The rustic pull-up window with three little screened holes to let in wisps of summer air freed up the memory of that childhood refuge from years ago.
In Landis trains regularly thunder by within a block or two of the house. The whistle blows long and hard, even at 3 a.m., and you can feel the house shudder ever so slightly. High above the rest of the house that night, I felt like A Little Princess in her attic. When the morning sun poured through my window, it illuminated the sweet pastel calico sleeping near my head. The aroma of Kalon’s waffles curled up the wooden stairs from the kitchen two floors below.
I still crave alone time, but I’m not so lonely anymore.
In early August I had to pick up an item from an unfamiliar address and used Google maps to help me find the place. It told me I’d reached my destination on the right. The thing was, no “1703” was in sight. I walked down the sidewalk counting down the house numbers, anticipating 1703 and muttering to myself about how inefficient Google maps can be. There was 1705, and then . . . 1701. Confusion. Even the elderly lady at whose door I knocked for some help looked at me with sympathy. I felt like Harry Potter at King’s Cross Station trying to find Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Stymied, I finally went back to the original email. 1723, right where my car was parked.
Age is being able to discern when one needs reading glasses. It’s also laughing, not cringing, at the memory of walking down a sidewalk looking for a house that doesn’t exist. Another lantern on the string.
During my summer holidays I visited family in Calgary and on one of the days we decided to have lunch at The Calgary Tower. I hadn’t been there since I was about 13, when the “Husky Tower” dwarfed everything except the Rockies visible in the distance. This tower is now just average in a congregation of skyscrapers. What those skyscrapers don’t have, however, is a glass floor. The same rush of excitement I felt as a teenager caught hold as the elevator carried us to the top. I couldn’t wait to step onto the glass floor where my stomach flipped as I looked 620 feet down to the tiny yellow taxicabs below. No “big yellow taxis” . . .
I haven’t figured out the secret of knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone, and then looking back with delight instead of despondency. It has to do with contentment, but how to find that?
I think the older you get, the more you have to look for the kid inside. The one who really was OK after all, and ask her forgiveness for all the years you were so hard on her. It’s why I bike. Not the grim spandex and helmet kind, but the rounding the corner and down a slope just fast enough kind. Something about giving myself over to the pedals and the wind helps me to find that kid, to love her, because she is still me, and there’s no contentment without love.
The search is never over, but the effort to string up more patio lights is better than collecting rocks.