Back, baby, back in time
I wanna go back when you were mine.
From “Wayside/Back in Time” by Gillian Welch
On a hot Sunday afternoon, we were walking down Delancey Street in Philadelphia with my mom, admiring the stately red brick row houses. We were on our way to the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Rosenbach Musuem. June was eating cherry tomatoes out of a plastic baggie, Mom was pointing out architectural features of the houses, and I was wondering how an enormous, gnarled wisteria vine that grew up the side of a house had emerged from the crack between the sidewalk and the house.
We were visiting my mother and stepfather for the Memorial Day weekend and spending an afternoon in the city. Mom thought the kids might enjoy seeing the exhibit of Maurice Sendak’s art, so we’d planned the day around that, with some of my childhood and teenage haunts included. The exhibit was centered on three of Sendak’s books: The Note on Rosie’s Door, Outside Over There and Brundibar. We’ve had the first two out of the library but I’d never read the last one. There were illustrations, notes, mock-ups, and handwritten drafts–all kinds of interesting materials from the making of the books. The books themselves were also there, on a low shelf, and June made a beeline for them. She sat on the floor and read the first chapter of The Note on Rosie’s Door while the rest of the rest of us browsed the two-room exhibit and then I read Outside Over There to her and I showed her alternate versions of the illustrations and we admired the mural Sendak had painted for the children of friends of his (the wall had been relocated to the museum).
From the museum we went to the Seger Park playground. I’d asked Mom if there were any parks or playgrounds near the museum and she said there was one in our old neighborhood, the one where we lived from the time I was in kindergarten to third grade. I thought I knew the one she meant. In fact, I thought Beth and I had walked past it while we were in Philadelphia for a romantic getaway last January (“Queer, Queer Fun” 1/16/12). We decided to walk from the museum as it was only eight blocks and parking is at premium in that part of the city. We went by our old house, so I could show it to the kids, and Mom and I reminisced about living there.
The playground was the one I had in mind, though the big grassy hill has shrunk considerably in the thirty-nine years since I was in kindergarten. I think I might call it a rise now. The fountain where Mom used to let Sara and me splash in our underwear was where I remembered it, but the paint was chipping and it wasn’t running. (I’ve learned since there’s a neighborhood non-profit dedicated to restoring the playground and the fountain.) June scrambled on the equipment, climbing and swinging and sliding. She demonstrated her pumping skills for Grandmom, running back to us to make sure she’d been seen and admired, and she asked Beth to help her across the monkey bars, which were somewhat more widely spaced than the ones she plays on at school. Noah mostly sat on the bench with the grown-ups (he’s getting old for playgrounds) but he did climb for a little while. When I mentioned there used to be water in the fountain he said he wished we could go back in time.
We strolled back to the car, stopping for cold beverages at Starbucks, and then we drove to West Philadelphia right up to the border of the Main Line suburbs where I lived from the time I was in eighth grade until I graduated from high school. Our destination was a Chinese restaurant where my stepfather would meet us for dinner. This was the main Chinese restaurant of my teen years. I wasn’t a vegetarian then and it’s probably been well over twenty years since I’ve been there so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the veggie menu was decent and there were versions of my old favorites—hot and sour soup, dumplings, and moo shu, so I was happy. The food was good, the place looked about as I remembered it, though Mom and Jim thought it looked a bit down at the heel. It was a very satisfactory end to a pleasant, if bittersweet, day.
Mom and Jim put the house in Lansdowne where they’ve lived for the past twenty years on the market in March and when it sells my mom will retire and they’re moving to Ashland, Oregon where my sister lives. This is sad for me because they’ll be much further away and we won’t be able to travel to see them as easily as we do now.
It’s also sad because it will essentially cut my last link to the Philadelphia area. My parents and sister and I moved there from Brooklyn in December 1972 when I was five and a half year old. I grew up in the city and its suburbs, but neither my sister nor I came back after college and my father moved away in the nineties and lived the rest of his life in New York.
Because we moved around the area a lot (out to Bucks County when I was in third grade and then back in to Montgomery County when I was in eighth grade), I used to think I didn’t have deep roots in Philadelphia. At some point in my thirties, once I’d been away long enough to gain some perspective, I realized I did. I will probably never live there again because I’ve also sunk roots in the Washington area. It’s where my kids were born and have lived all their lives and it’s home for me, too. I don’t really want to go back in time, other than for the occasional sentimental visit.
But I no longer claim I’m “not really from anywhere.” I am from Philadelphia. It’s home, too, and in a way Washington never will be. On Saturday when we were driving to Mom and Jim’s house from Takoma I felt we’d arrived when I saw a truck selling what I now call Italian ice, because painted on the side of the truck were the words “water ice.” That’s what I grew up calling that dessert. It’s what I think it should be called, even though I realize it makes no sense whatsoever. If you are from Philadelphia, too, you know what I mean.