Linneman Street. Glenview, Illinois. 1976. This was the locale of an eight year old boy’s perfect year. The boy was me. 1976 was my Golden Year.
From informal discussions with friends and acquaintances and a theory I’ve been working on in the privacy and dusty rooms of my own head, I think everyone has had a Golden Year, a year which stands out as a particularly memorable one, a year so delicious in its entirety that at times of trouble when you’re an adult, your mind travels back to that year in order to calm and reassure yourself that no matter how shitty or troubling life gets, it is possible to have a perfect year. After all, your memory and senses and quiet smiles in the car when recalling that year tells you that it is entirely possible, because you had one.
I don’t want it to sound like I compare every year to that year, but when I ruminate about the topography of my life and the different psychic, physical and mental terrains I have passed through, over and under, bumped up against and retreated from, I do know that I once was an inhabitant of Atlantis and it was located in a particular space and time, Glenview, 1976, on a particular street, Linneman, and within the confines of a house I can still draw out with accuracy to a degree that any savant might envy. But, like Atlantis, the year is now buried beneath oceans of time.
I just spent a few days with a handful of cousins, now all, like me, into their forties. They flew into Arizona from all over the country to help their parents, my uncle and aunt, surrogate parents in my heart, celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary. My cousins, unlike me, now all have families of their own and lead respectable lives. All their children, my second cousins, were here and peppered the occasion with the kind of energy that quickly brought me back to the time in my life when I, too, was carefree.
My uncle and aunt now live in Arizona after having lived in Chicago a majority of their lives. During our little family reunion at the end of December, standard recollections of shared childhood moments arose. I remembered some things they didn’t and they recalled incidents which seem foreign to me. Over games of Hearts, the memories came back with a clarity that surprised me with their specificity.
In 1976, my brother and I were dumped in Illinois while my parents were getting divorced. We were unwilling participants in the clinical dissection of our four person family unit. After 1976, my mother would become a summer visit, a nightly reason to cry myself to sleep for many years, nine months of phonecalls every single year, a woman living only through an inner strength I cannot now imagine exists, an organ removed from me that would be two thousand miles away, her in an apartment in Maryland wallpapered with sadness, my father, brother and I in a house in Scottsdale living, my dad often said, as The Three Musketeers. Post-1976 was a family reorganization which I never quite negotiated.
Before 1976, The Year 1976 and All The Years After 1976. This is how I have chaptered my life, into three parts. Without my Golden Year, I’m convinced I would have never pushed through. 1976 somehow served, serves, to kick me along.
That year, my brother and I were welcomed into a house that was remarkably normal by anyone’s standards. It was no country club existence, no exotic paradise, no moneyed affair, no year to write about, really, but it was this:
- Paper routes where I learned that sometimes work is just work and it is cold and unforgiving and rote but it is your responsibility.
- An aunt and uncle who took us in as if we were their own and cemented in me the idea that love is sometimes just letting someone into your home for an indeterminate amount of time and giving them a regular place at the dinner table.
- Not seeing Jaws because my aunt had the common sense to not let an eight-year old boy be frightened to death. I’ve still never seen the film and have avoided it just to keep the memory of someone being concerned for my safety alive in my mind.
- Six cousins who became like siblings to my brother and I by no choice of their own and welcomed us with objections that remain, if there were any, thankfully uncommunicated.
- Summer days so hot and humid that as many kids as could, would lay out sleeping bags on the floor of the air-conditioned and coolest room in the house, my uncle’s studio, puzzling ourselves on the floor and, when having to pee in the middle of the night, stepping gingerly through a maze of arms and legs.
- A basement laundry room so dank and constantly in use, I’m surprised the house didn’t sink into the wet, linty earth underneath.
- Buttermilk and the way it left a mucousy sheen on my uncle’s glass at the breakfast table and the joy with which he glugged it down.
- A long, thin one-car wide garage, designed by someone who must have chuckled to himself when he imagined a three car family.
- Haircuts given by my uncle, the artist, that I remember being observed by a stack of children’s eyes through the vertical slit in the doors of his studio.
- Family dinners that, because of space limitations, would sometimes be regulated by repeat-elbows-on-the-table offenders being looped over the arms with a restrictive chain that would hold your elbows firmly at your sides. I still relish even this awkward eating situation, because there I was, firmly entrenched in family.
- Olga Korbut and Nadia Komeneci and the Summer Olympics, because some of my girl cousins were little gymnasts themselves and we all watched the gymnastics exhibition with a feeling of insider knowledge.
- Learning about the word ‘literal’, when my uncle asked us, ‘How much mashed potatoes do you want?’ and, when we said, ‘A little,’ receiving on our plate a dollop the size of a sucking candy, or, when asked how many peas and saying just a few, receiving three lonely green specks on our dinner plate. This always ended in the whole table laughing the kinds of laughs that I barely recall before or since.
- Girl cousins who slathered themselves in baby oil, slipped through a window in the hallway outside the room I shared with my brother and various boy cousins, and crisped themselves to adolescent tanned perfection.
- Hours of gin rummy at the top of the stairs with a revolving cast of opponents, hours that made me think card games are the perfect way for enemies and friends alike to find neutral ground.
- Showers in bathing suits from a hose attached to the side of the house with my uncle and cousins, showers so cold I shiver thinking about them now.
- A VW bus we’d all cram into to take road trips to Ottumwa, Iowa, to visit Grandma Sonia and be properly stuffed with food so old-country and delicious it would now warrant a cholesterol alarm.
- A doorjamb littered with the changing heights of so many kids. Every eighth-inch from three feet to six feet was hashmarked and identified by name and dated.
- One of my cousins skilled feet walking on our backs, cracking them with a kind of precision that a practitioner of natural healing techniques would envy.
- Juggling shower time with military precision or having to suffer one with hot water that was gone three kids ago.
- Always, always, having someone to confide in because in a household of eight kids, there is no way in hell you can be at battle with all of them at the same time. In a household of two, that’s not always possible.
- Lazy days marching through Sullivan’s field behind our house, picking weeds and sticking them in our mouths like we were in a Norman Rockwell painting.
- Boyhood crushes on my three girl cousins because they all struck me, with their primping and awareness of their own boy craziness, as an absolutely foreign and fascinating quilt of behaviors. They’ve all since grown into women as beautiful and smart and amazing as you’d ask for if given a choice of family.
Not all fireworks and amusement rides, but it was a solid time. That was my Golden Year. If I were granted wizard powers, I’d make sure every person on earth had at least one.