I’m often asking people where they played as children. It’s the quickest and most powerful way to dredge up those memories, to remind people of that peculiar way of seeing things that belongs to children. When I try to conjure up my own memories of childhood, however, they sometimes seem baffling, baffled – as if I’m listening to them through a cardboard tube.
When in California this summer, I visited some of my places where I was young for the first time as an adult. It’s a true cliche they seem small, but they astonished me with their depth of meaning. All of a sudden, it was as though the cardboard tube had become a telescope, bringing distant memories into bright and sudden proximity.
It was not the beach that I remembered, but the tidepools. Not the tidepool, but the tiny shells that nestled tight together within each little crevice. I remembered thinking of them as individual creatures, coming together in friendships and whole cities, and how with enough attention these small places came alive with drama.
The one memory that I call up most often though, cannot be revisited. It makes so little sense that I had to go to my Mum for confirmation that it even happened.
Near our house was a sidewalk that ran beside a busy road, and off to one side of it was a grassy patch. There were a couple of bushes, perhaps, and papery wildflowers waving on thin stems. It was scrubland, where my Mum and I paused from time to time but which I had never particularly loved.
Then, one strange and miraculous day, a door appeared there. Inexplicable, but perfectly built, the door had an fully working frame and a knob which turned and closed with a click. Open, it framed the world behind it, making it altogether different. It created a threshold, a voyage, an opportunity for transformation of world and self.
I told myself that people had come here to build a house, but had discovered that this place was an Indian graveyard, so they’d left so quick that the door stayed behind. Opening it and closing it, crossing through and back again, I played for hours with the changes that it made possible, with the idea that the world entered through the door was invisibly but fundamentally different to the one I’d left behind.
Leaving it, I remember wondering if I had been somehow changed by my passage through the door. I wondered which world I was now in – the one I’d started in, or the new one that had been created? How would I ever know for sure? I looked up at my Mum, who smiled back, and even she seemed suddenly strange to me.
The thing was, my world and myself had already been changed – by the discovery that this ordinary world was one in which a perfect door could appear, without explanation, and make all sorts of new ideas possible.