February 14, 2014 by JL Walker
When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone.
–John Steinbeck, East of Eden
My mythical garden has three lilac trees, one is purple, one pink and one white. I remember counting down the days to spring and those few weeks of fragrant, heady blossoms. It has other trees too: a huge weeping willow, branches swaying and tickling the ground; a crabapple with its grafted roots growing up above the soil, two trees combined to make one; and various maples with little black and white chickadees and red-breasted robins perching and roosting, looking at me through the living room window as I turn the pages of Little Women.
It’s late afternoon on a sunny day, and I look up from my book to a clinking sound on the glass. Then another clink. A beak against the windowpane. My parents buy a black bird silhouette to keep the birds from hurting themselves. Were they interesting in what I was reading?
My Eden has other wildlife too. Garter snakes that Dad picks up by the tail-end and throws into the bushes so we won’t be scared. One day the snake eats a frog that unhinges its gaping mouth. There’s a white bunny that escaped from a neighbor’s house. We spend months trying to catch it to take care of the domestic-turned-wild rabbit. Whether it wanted to be redomesticated or not. It eventually breaks out of our prison too. Being the only white rabbit among brown rabbits is better than being the only rabbit among humans. There are also puppies at the neighbor’s who are born with their eyes closed, nuzzling their mommy to find out where to suckle.
In the garden, there are the inklings of a wider world out there but not yet the realization that my faults and my me-ness will not be accepted by everyone I meet. That knowledge would be devastating and transformative. And unexpected. I became the puppies born at the neighbor’s house, my eyes opening wide to my own vulnerability. I became Adam and Eve as they realized they were naked.
There came a day that I was physically removed from this idyllic home containing my favorite trees and childhood memories, transplanted to a new house, new school, new classmates, new town, new state, new dialect, new stage of life. I was placed among a group of strangers who knew nothing about my Eden. My journey to find the people who would like me, just as I am, began after that move. It marked the end of my innocence.
The house is still there, but thousands of miles of land and ocean separate me from it. The distance should be measured in years, not miles. Childhood lives in the thick haze of memory, the distance of time distorting people, places and experiences. Like that bird decal, time flattens everything, making it a silhouette, an outline of the real thing.
I am our pet rabbit, I can’t go back to my original home. Maybe that change prepared me to move to a foreign country full of strangers in a strange land. I’ve found my people in my new home and it just happens to be on the other side of the world, the Old World. I am accepted for who I am, without the masks I wear for the rest of the world.
Though years have passed since I’ve been there, it’s all in my mind’s eye. I’ve discovered a few places in Milano with lilac trees, so every year in early spring I take a walk, take a deep breath near the blossoms and I’m transported back to the other side of the world, in a time of wonder, discovery and innocence.
We all go through this transformation of leaving our innocence, and part of life is to seek out a copy of that place of truth and simplicity once again, though it will be a facsimile of the one we left.
The memories of my childhood home have been rehashed over and over again in my head, retold hundreds of times. They are my origin myth. What’s yours?