One of my earliest and vividest memories is the time I sneaked out of bed and into the dim hallway with a box of crayons. The flickering television screen in the adjacent living room cast just enough light to let me see what I was doing. I chose the blue and red crayons and set to work on my vast canvas of a wall. On one end there was grandma's house in the United States, and on the other our new apartment in Germany. Between the two I drew a series of squiggly lines depicting our recent journey. In my view it had been a very long, confusing trip, so the more squiggles the better. Cars had been involved, and planes. And trains. And lefts and rights and straight aheads and circles and who even knows what else.
I added more squiggles for good measure.
I have a problem.
I like to steal glass and ceramic wares from restaurants. I couldn't even bring myself steal a pack of gum with my cousin when I was a kid, and here I am sneaking crockery in my bag.
My biggest weakness is for bar glasses — especially cocktail-style. I have been known to take other things, like a ridiculously tiny vintage-looking plate for which I can't ever imagine myself having a need. Yet I don't even need to use them. I just like to think about them. And therein, my friends, lies my downfall. I’m a sucker for things that make me think of other times and other lives. Illicit tokens of nostalgia, if you will.
Far and away my most nostalgic piece of dishware is a mug. It formerly lived a life of hard, greasy service at Chuck and Jane's restaurant in Port Austin, Michigan.
I was on my seventh circuit around the kitchen table. Past the rotary telephone mounted on the wall; below the tiered wire basket holding one lonely and very overripe banana; making a hard right at the cupboard where the off-brand Cocoa Krispies bought especially for me were kept; steering wide of the sink that reeked of loamy well water; past the stove you had to light with matches and the rusted refrigerator; and under the dangling fly strip.
“Grandma, I’m gonna go outside,” I announced to her back as she hunched over the sink with a vegetable peeler in hand. “Don’t stay out too long,” she replied. “We’ll have Popeye when you get back.”
“Okay!” I called, already bounding down the steps, through the breezeway, and outside. The screen door had just whooshed shut behind me when I stopped dead in my tracks to wonder: Popeye?
Fifth grade. I am standing in a courtyard between buildings. I am wearing glasses, a white and red t-shirt printed with illustrated dalmatian puppies and hearts, and pink cotton leggings tucked into purposefully mismatched socks: one white, one red. I am very proud of how well-coordinated my outfit is. Suddenly, from across the grass, a sixth-grader with long golden hair approaches me. She is flanked by two friends.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED
Sixth-grader: [loudly and indignantly] "Are those your socks?"
Friends: [giggling in anticipation]
Me: [reluctantly] "... Yes."
Sixth-grader: "That is so stupid."
Friends: "HA HA HA HA HA HA!"
When I was six, my parents and I moved back to the U.S. after being stationed in Germany for three years. What followed was a sincere attempt on the part of our extended family to reassimilate us into American pop culture, where we rightfully belonged. My aunt actually used her brand-new camcorder to film my parents watching television in the living room of her suburban New Jersey home, as if they were the subjects of an anthropological study of people raised in cultural isolation. I saw the footage years later: "Here's a car commercial," my aunt narrates off-camera as a classically 1980s car commercial featuring a loud, obnoxious voice personality appears on the screen. "Huh," my mother mutters, arms crossed on the couch. My dad looks on in bemusement. And six-year-old me is writhing around spastically on the carpet in front of them, pulling every amateur acrobatic trick in the book, because OMG, I have an audience and look at me look at me watch.