Memory

There’s this game I used to play when I was a little girl – maybe 10 or 12. My grandmother lived about 15 minutes from us by car through narrow, cobblestone streets, neighborhoods of small, square houses with messy gardens and metal gates.

We visited her almost every Sunday. My brother and I sat in the back of our little Trabi, bouncing around as we made our way through the city. I am sure I played this game on summer days too, but now that I think back I can only see those streets on dark, gray afternoons. We passed whole rows of these little houses, all exactly alike, except maybe one was cream, another a faded brick, maybe brown. Wooden shutters on the windows, tile roofs, cracked pavement out in front. Brick walkways lead from the gate to the front door.

I would press my face to the window of the car and imagine myself and my life in one of those little houses. I would imagine the weight of a big, metal key in my hand as it opened the gate. The pull of the grocery bags on my arm, full of pastries and cheese and fruit. I imagined what it felt like to come home to a family – not my parents and my brother – but a husband and children.

I loved to think about filling kitchen cupboards and the fridge and feeding all of us at a big, round table under a warm light. I imagined the sound of plates as they touched the table, the clink muffled by a tablecloth, the sound of milk glug-glugging into a glass, chairs being pulled closer to the table. Warm chatter, laughter, dishes in the sink, the sound of TV in the living room, newspaper rustling, the washing machine quietly humming.

It made me shiver to think about what it would be like to own it all. It wasn’t the ownership that excited me – I didn’t know or understand what that was about. What I wanted I think was the responsibility, the weight of adult life in my hands, to be busy with small, important things like ironing shirts and washing sheets.

Sitting in that cold car these thoughts always made me feel so warm and cozy. I could see myself so clearly as an adult and I so relished this imaginary life with its everyday noises and smells. Whatever doubt or questions I had about where my life was heading floated away during those short car trips, because in my mind there I was, settled, grown up. Ready.

I haven’t thought about this game for years – or decades even – until a few weeks ago when we were once again on our way to my grandmother’s flat, crammed into the back seat of a rental car with my brother and his wife.

We had just left the cemetery where my grandmother’s ashes were scattered in a fountain. The city was especially cold and foggy and my little neighborhood seemed small and dirty.

We stopped at a light in front of one of the houses and suddenly it occurred to me that I have everything I imagined back when I was little – a small square house, the big table I share with a man and a little boy, the full cupboards, the humdrum of quiet evenings at home. It’s all there – far away from where I first imagined it, but there.

It is everything I ever wanted. It’s nothing like I ever imagined.

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