There are people who are known to have memories long like an elephant’s, which makes me wonder what the opposite would be. “Ah, that Arielle, her memory is short like a cow’s.” I squint hard and can make the past ten or so years come into focus, but beyond that it dulls and fades to almost transparent. What a wonder those people who remember not only the story but also their exact age, their teacher’s first and last names and the clothes worn by the boy who sat next to them in class. Against theirs, my own childhood memories are a tumbling wash of single socks and holey t-shirts, a censored book with more chapters cut out than left in.
All this to say that when I sat down with my childhood best friend Lizzie a few years back and was told a story about us, dripping in detail, that I had no recollection of, I was not surprised. Rather, I happily took my place as the honored guest to a movie screening about my own life, waiting on the edge of my seat for the finale.
Elizabeth Rose Quinn lived across the street from me on Middlefield Rd. in the Berkeley hills. Her large Catholic family had been there years before and remained years after my mother and I lived in the white house with the Japanese Maples kitty corner from their house. My first impression of this small girl was that of a wild animal doing paces between the zoo’s fences.
The Quinn residence was loud and full, with kids in and out all day long, good biblical named children who were beautiful and confident. From Joseph I learned about The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. From Mary I experienced my first love of musicals during her high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. There was an omnipresent father - the deeply intellectual and brightly witty UC Berkeley professor and author Arthur. But best of all there was Barney. A woman as no nonsense as only a mother of four rambunctious children can be. The way she talked to me was a revelation: “Oh honey, I can’t see your face. Let’s pull those bangs back. And do not chew that gum with your mouth open my dear.”
Barney was different from my mother in every way I could think of - my beautiful mother with the big smile, dimples and radiance, my mother with the little BMW and the George Michael cassettes, my mother of StairMaster and Lean Cuisine, my mother of Maharishi, meditation and always searching, my mother of PhD and books, my beautiful mother. Across the street from all this floaty beauty I reveled in Barney’s sharp tongued critiques, hard and fast rules, etiquette lessons paralleled with a lack of attention for her youngest who was bound to survive as the other three had and so running free on our safe streets was better than being inside underfoot.
I knew that Lizzie took refuge in my quiet home as much as I did in her boisterous one. There she didn’t have to compete to be heard or for her favorite TV show. Hers was the loudest voice in our house and my mom and I both delighted in the noise. Sitting together all these years later near her bungalow in Hollywood, where she works as a comedy writer, I felt for maybe the first time how important we were to her in those days.
“When you were gone in the summers visiting your dad, sometimes your mom would let me come along as she ran errands, just the two of us cruising around Berkeley together,” she said between chopstick bites of green scallion pancake.
“She never told me that! That’s a really sweet image.”
“The best was the afternoon that I crawled in through an open window and she came home to find me in the TV room just having a ball. Flipping around the stations, talking to myself. Kid in a candy shop.”
“You broke into our house? Damn, you were bold.”
“Honestly, I don’t think I ever even thought about it as breaking in. She was so much of a parent to me it just felt like letting myself awkwardly in to my own house. When she found me she howled with that great laugh of hers until tears ran down her face.”
“Yes that laugh! Nothing like it. Tell me about what you and my mom would talk about.”
“She asked me all kinds of questions. No adult had ever done that before, expressed actual interest in how I thought and what I did. She asked about being the youngest of four; I told her I felt like one of those little bouncy air filled guys in front of the oil change place, waving around madly trying to grab someone’s attention, anyone’s. She asked me how my relationship with my dad was. I got the impression she didn’t have such a good one with her’s, plus you and your dad were difficult at the time. She seemed pretty relieved that we were close and I wasn’t scared of him, even though I could have been with how he barked at people who interrupted him in the study.”
“I remember being petrified of going down to the basement when he was there. I was sure we would make him mad somehow. Like tip toeing around the bear’s lair.”
“Yeah, but we really liked going places we weren’t allowed, didn’t we? All that playing spy in the street and sneaking around.”
“I would never have dared to do those things on my own, I was so painfully shy! But together I was much be bolder.”
“Your mom loved us together so much. Jelly Bean and Lizzie Bear.”
“She gave us those nicknames, didn’t she?”
“Thank god you lived across the street from me.”
“You mean kitty corners?”
“Yeah, kitty corners. Where the hell did that saying come from anyway? Well what I mean is, even though I didn’t have any siblings it’s like you were one, because you shared her too. I’ve always been jealous of families who could reminisce together, build on each other’s memory gaps and fill in the holes. It’s been hard remembering so little of her, or questioning my memory. Lucky for me we wound up across the street from you. Even after all these years it’s so easy to pick up right there were we left off.”
We sat finishing up our dumplings and the last dregs of wine as the meal had already stretched late into the afternoon. One of those warm Los Angeles afternoons where you really have nothing to do and nowhere to be.