Some mischief came my way this past Saturday, and I wasn’t even looking for it. It was suddenly there, right in front of me, at a most unexpected moment.
I had driven up to Tempe for a gala luncheon that was to happen right in the lobby of Grady Gammage Auditorium. It would be fifty people eating lunch with the visiting composer who was giving a piano concert in the hall that evening.
Grady Gammage is part of Arizona State University, which is where I did my graduate work way back when. Since I got there about an hour before the luncheon was to start, I decided to go pay my respects to the house my three little girls and I lived in for those years. They were 3, 6, and 8 years old when we left our life in Berkeley-in-the-Sixties and arrived in Tempe, Arizona, of all places.
I drove along the three miles that I used to bike to and from school every day. I not only didn’t recognize a single thing, I also realized I would never want to ride a bike on those streets now, they’re much too crowded with cars going much too fast. Back then Tempe was a sleepy little town. In the mornings I’d get Katie and Susan off on their school bus and then hoist Emily onto the little back seat on my bike and off we’d go to her nursery school. As we whizzed along we made up songs, singing to each other instead of talking. She became a professional musician, and songs still pour out of her. Come to think of it, Katie was already writing novels in those days and Susan already dancing, and I was often greeted on coming home in the late afternoons by an amazing performance of one kind or another: a play, a dance, a parade, a concert, and usually all the neighborhood kids had been rallied to take part too. I’m so lucky that I got to raise children before digital devices were invented.
Wildermuth Road was only three blocks long, running along the side of a forty acre corn field. All the houses were tiny and jerry-built, owned mostly by Mexicans or Native Americans. I rented our house from an Iranian family who had moved away. It was cheap, there was lots of room for kids to play, and, after Berkeley, I liked the idea of living amongst people who were different from us.
The cornfield is now a housing development, and all the little houses around ours have fallen into further disrepair. Our house has been replaced by another slump-block house, but this one has not a single hint of charm, and already it’s looking old and worn. I stopped the car and got out, trying to find a familiar detail somewhere. Nothing. I felt strangely betrayed.
My memories of our years there in that house are vivid and full of pulsing life. I loved our life on Wildermuth, it all came flooding back to me as I stood there. My memories all appeared in bright kodachrome colors, accompanied by lively singing, chattering voices. The reality in front of me was all in dark shades of gray, silent, not a person to be seen anywhere. I was overcome by that strange feeling we call nostalgia.
I call it strange because really, what is it? Not for a moment, standing there on Wildermuth, did I want to be living there again, working three days a week for my subsistence NIMH grant, jumping through all the ridiculous, time-consuming graduate school hoops: classes, papers, internship, theses, oral exams, comprehensive exams, dissertation, even a language exam for godssake, never having enough time for my girls.
But there on the spot that had been home for us I was filled with a longing, a sense of loss. Remembering myself as such a determined, energetic and very young woman made me viscerally aware of time marching on, non-stop, and I got a momentary blast of reality: it does end, all of it, finally and forever. Maybe nostalgia is the safe way we can feel our sadness about our mortality.
Thank goodness I still had my surprise moment of mischief up ahead.
When I got back to Grady Gammage people were standing around in the lobby holding wine glasses, all in small groups talking and talking. I wandered through them, listening for a conversation I might want to join in on, but found none, so I decided to find a ladies’ room instead. Except for the lobby the whole first floor was empty. I walked down many little hallways, all of them leading to a door opening into different parts of the auditorium itself.
Finally I opened one door and was looking straight out onto the stage, on which stood the piano that our luncheon guest would be playing that evening. The immense hall was completely empty and silent. All those voices in the lobby could not be heard. What an opportunity! Should I? It took me only a second to decide. I walked onto the stage and over to the piano. I looked out at the audience: it’s a beautiful hall, the building is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last designs. I sat down and played, ever so badly, the few little snatches of pieces I could remember. I took a low bow as the audience cheered and threw flowers. I laughed at the picture of the lone woman in the huge empty hall, enjoying herself so thoroughly.
I continued to smile to myself all through what turned out to be a long boring lunch. I had been naughty! I had behaved in a childish way! I’d done something I shouldn’t have! No-one had caught me! I had a secret!
God I felt good!