I learned to ride a bicycle quite late. I partly blame my mother, as usual, though if you ask her she will roll her eyes audibly and tell you all about the many maddening hours that she spent trying to teach me. The real fault lies with the dirt roads we lived on, with their sharp stones and dried up, flattened frogs and garter snakes always menacing from below. When you walked along the road to our house, which we did a lot, you never looked down. When you were on a bicycle, trying to balance, you could look nowhere but. I believe that I still have bits of that gravel road embedded in my knees and elbows, despite a lot of time dedicated to picking them out.
“DO NOT LET GO”, I would yell to my mother, whose sure-fire method of two wheel bicycle instruction was to run along behind me holding the seat “steady” until I had enough momentum to stay upright and then give me a little extra push and let go. So far this method had not worked on me. It had worked on my sister, who was by then pedaling in long circles back and forth around this tragic scene, annoyed that she still had no-one to ride bikes with except Hans, the nearest child neighbor at three miles away (and even further down the dirt road). Hans was also the child of hippies, but his hippies were the book reading, bee keeping, bread baking type and ours were the smoking, drinking, life drawing type, which created a cultural schism of sorts between him and my sister and I. Hans preferred reading books and organizing his leaf collection to whatever scab-producing activity we were usually pressing him into. I’m just remembering as I type this that Hans recently facebooked me and I haven’t gotten back to him yet. I’m curious about what he’s up to, the last time we spoke was when we were both going off to our second year of college, he was moving into a cerebral dorm at UVM known as “The German House”, because it was where you lived if you wanted to be immersed in german language and culture. I was at the State College in Johnson and planning to live in an old apartment building known as “The Halfway-Halfway House” because only its upper floors had been turned from state-funded housing into student rentals. It was where you lived if you only wanted to pay $100 a month. So not much had changed. The more I think about it the more I’m starting to suspect that Hans didn’t even have a bicycle.
“I AM NOT LETTING GO”, would be my mother’s insistent response, but I knew that she already had, because I could see her lanky shadow on the ground next to mine and that of my horrifyingly tall bicycle, all of us distorted beyond reason and playing out like a scary movie on a dirty screen made of sharp little rocks and hard dirt, my small feet so far off the ground and those thin tires so fine and wobbly, and my mother’s tall, lean figure with it’s long hair streaming behind as she galloped along, with an outstretched hand held open at the end of a long arm, reaching to just above the back of my seat, but CLEARLY NOT TOUCHING IT.
“YOU ARE SO!”, I would shout back at her, “YOU ARE SO LETTING GO!” and then I would turn to look at her with angry, knitted eyebrows one last time before closing my eyes and crashing into the shrubbery, to save myself.
It would have gone on like this for ever, I think, me becoming one of those thirty-year-old women who never learned to ride a bike (my husband tells me that there is no such thing, but I still find it hard to believe that absolutely everybody figures it out) had it not been for two developments. One, I needed an independent means of getting to the Village Store to buy candy and Two, the town paved the first mile of our road. Not the whole thing, just within town limits and just up the first, very long, steep hill that happened right after you turned off the main road coming from town. We called it The Hill. It was brutally steep, so much so that on slippery winter days my mother would sometimes have to put sandbags into the back of the car so that we wouldn't slip all over the place. The Hill was paved but not marked with painted lines, and was under a leafy tunnel of trees for most of the summer, where it stayed cool and dark and quiet. It wasn’t my imagination that the trees on this paved part of the road were noticeably greener than the ones on the gravel section, it was fact. Their trunks and leaves weren’t covered in dust anymore.
Like most town roads ours wound along a steeply running creek and was full of twists and odd grades, the most severe of which my mother would take with her foot on the gas, leaning into the curves with her elbows out like the driver of a get-away car, whether we were on the paved section or not. Living on a dirt road and driving fast is very hard on a car (as are running out of gas weekly, never changing your oil, and crashing into things a lot, just for the record. Mom.) and will eventually rattle every inch of it into shaky bits of junk. Your muffler will fall off first, which will make your car very loud and get you noticed when you drive through town. Next, your suspension will go and things will get very bouncy and quite fun, especially when you are allowed to ride standing on the back bumper and holding onto to the roof rack with one hand while you do the Princess Diana Wedding wave with the other (elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist) which is something that my mother ONLY allowed when we were on the dirt road, and would pull right over when we got to the start of the pavement and then we would have to get inside the car, where it was “safe”, except when she forgot about us and didn’t and kept going and found us when she pulled into the gas station with white knuckles wrapped around the roof rack (all of them, Princess Diana Waves be damned), frozen solid and quite windblown and a little deaf. It was hard to believe that my mother had ever been holding anything back in terms of speed while still on the gravel, until she hit that pavement.
I remember so clearly the way it felt every time the tires of our car left the gravel and crossed over onto blacktop. It was a random spot in the road, there was no sign or intersection. One instant you were a loud, rattling mess, yelling at one another to be heard and watching the dust shake free from the dashboard and try to settle again, windows eternally open to allow cool air (and more dust) in and my mother’s cigarette smoke out, and then you would feel the tires lift up and over the small lip, because the pavement was slightly higher than the gravel, first under your front tires and then, a split second later, under your back tires, and then suddenly, the whole world would be silent. A sort of civilized, musical, wooshing sort of silent. Unless of course you still hadn’t re-attached the bumper, in which case it would feel like a much more self conscious sort of silence that wasn’t really silent on your end at all.
All sorts of wonderful, civilized things existed on pavement: The Village Store with its penny candy and single red gas pump, the swimming pool with the diving board at my grandparents house, our elementary school, which was a place that we liked going to mostly because it was more novel than mandatory (2nd grade, as my sister puts it, was somewhere you went if everybody got up in time and the car happened to start), and the lunches were pretty good, and further down the road the grocery store with its candy bars and odd smelling meat counter. Pavement was, to us, The World. And the idea that the world was slowly moving up our hill, up our road, closer to being within reach without having to climb on the back bumper of a muffler-less car driven by my mother (there had to be a better way), well there was something worth learning to ride a bike for. Surely the pavement would soon reach all the way to our door, right? Just for the record, it hasn’t made it there yet. So learn I did. I taught myself early one morning by hucking myself down a hill and pedaling against absolutely nothing until there was some, and then more, and then a lot, of resistance. Learning to turn would take another four or five years, but for my main purposes (getting down The Hill), I was set.
There were so few cars that traveled on The Hill that when you rode down it on your bike it wasn’t really necessary to stay on the edge, or at least it didn’t seem important at the time, so you could really concentrate on speed. You had already pedaled more than two miles on the gravel, past countless flattened toads and Black Eyed Susans. When you were on the gravel you had to pedal on the straightaways, and even when the road pitched slightly forward the rough ground never allowed for any coasting, until you reached the top of The Hill and that small lip of blacktop that marked the beginning of civilization, and of speed. This was the kind of speed that children do not otherwise have the ability to assume. It was the kind of speed that you could feel in your hair and against your shirt cuffs, the kind that made your eyes water a lot, the kind that wasn’t possible (or at least sustainable) on a gravel road without a motor. And it was an almost silent speed, with a fast, smooth softness under your tires that was more something you could feel than something that you could hear. And where the road leveled out you emerged a silent, coasting statue that sometimes felt as though it were being propelled and steered by your own will. Until you started to feel the slow down and your own weight being pulled to the ground again, and had to admit that you had probably not succeeded in creating a supersonic, self propelled, previously unknown dimension of speed. And there was that fresh memory of something that as an adult you would learn to recognize as adrenaline, but for now just fit into the category of Really Fun. It also felt like freedom, especially since it landed you closer to the candy counter without adult supervision, but a lot of other things feel like freedom when you are a kid, so it doesn’t stand out as much at the time.
When I was in my third year at State College my friend Mark, who was always on his bike, had to go home to be with his family for a few months because his mother was very sick. The night he got back to school we stayed up late and talked in the dark about his trip. I’d asked him how it was, but now sat terrified, feeling totally unequipped to be having this conversation about something that was obviously so difficult for him to talk about. He slowly described a series of long days spent indoors at his suburban New Jersey home, he hadn’t felt like he could or wanted to go anywhere or see old friends and didn’t want to be away from his mom during waking hours. But at night, when she was sleeping, he would get on his bike and ride in fast loops around his silent neighborhood, just listening to the sound of his tires on the smooth, dark pavement. I could hear him smiling when he described this part. He asked me if I knew what he meant by “that sound” and I told him yes, that I did, and I felt tremendous relief because up until then I hadn’t been able to offer a single sentence that could convince him that I or anyone else in our twenty-year old world could possibly relate to what he had spent the last few weeks facing. But that sound, and the sense of freedom and peace that it could still bring, that I could remember and understand. And it was therefore nearly possible for me to try to imagine what the far opposite might feel like, the weight and noisy burden of such a painful thing as a terminally ill mother. And then I started wondering, if I stayed off a bike for another five, ten, thirty years, would I eventually stop being able to remember that sound and that feeling? Don’t answer that, I’ve since decided that I don’t actually want to know.
This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, that power of being able to remember what something feels like. Nostalgia, it could be called. I’ve been on a hiatus from waxing nostalgic about my childhood or generating anything autobiographical since January, when this happened. It wasn’t even an intentional hiatus, it just felt like I had burned my hand on the stove and was opting to use the toaster oven instead for a while. I’ve seen this happen on other blogs, people get a little scalded or hurt or freaked out and you just lose motivation to post for a bit. My mother, of all people, was the first to complain. “I have no idea what’s going on in your life because you only talk about work on your JOURNAL now”. She likes referring to my blog as my “journal” because she still hasn’t apologized for reading (and publicly broadcasting the contents of) my diary when I was a teenager and can now smugly point out that I “let everybody read my JOURNAL” and therefore "can’t possibly still be upset about THAT (insert dismissive hand wave with lit cigarette)".
In the end, it wasn’t the accusation that I had been unfortunately and unintentionally insensitive that I could argue with. I can’t imagine that any of us, no matter how much we would like to think that we have enlightened ourselves through “close reading” (whatever the hell that means, they did NOT teach in State College) beyond the limitations of our own narrow perspectives and prejudices, is capable of avoiding entirely for the simple reason that each of us is nothing more than a big sac of bones and water, some DNA, and our own autobiographies. Nope. I wasn’t really willing or able to argue with that, and said that I was sorry that I had offended, and pointed out that the artwork was autobiographical, which I really thought would clarify things but obviously didn’t at all, which is when I decided to leave it alone. Mostly.
What really shut me up and got me questioning my own existence for a while, though, was the small subset of comments that were made about the “dangers of nostalgia”, and the accusation that I was depicting a childhood in my art that could never have existed, my “playing horses” drawing compared by one commenter to the kitschy depictions of perfect, tiny waisted, deliriously happy 1950’s housewives that drove my mother’s generation into bloody revolt and comfy bras. That’s what really stung. It took me about six months to look at that drawing of my sister and my cousin and I and to remember that, wait, I did play with little plastic horses. And it was wonderful. I did have a little western shirt with pearl snaps that I loved more than anything in the whole world. And thinking about them makes me happy, makes me glad that I grew up the way that I did, makes me love my mother even though she has really been pissing me off lately, makes me forgive her for forgetting that I was still standing on the back bumper when she hit the gas instead of the brake, and for not recognizing that her method of two-wheeled bicycle instruction was so clearly flawed, and makes me long to see my cousin and to send her little girl some glossy plastic horses and pair of red cowboy boots (which I must admit, I never had but would have loved until they were nothing but dust). And how is any of that, I must ask at the risk of generating a discussion that I am not qualified to be (or interested in, to be honest) facilitating, a bad thing?
Don’t answer that. I’ve decided that I don’t actually want to know.