The Neighborhood Of Memory

The neighborhood of youth, circa 1950. My cousins Allan Lager and Larry Nelson right with the bike. My dad Raymond Johnson and his sister, Marian Lager, front. My paternal grandparents Martha and Ben Johnson in the back row with Aunt Helen and Uncle Ray. Ray Nelson’s parents, second row left. Uncle Sherm Lager with cat. Submitted photo

­­Today my sister Vicky and I drove around the brick streets of the North side, looking for houses where our mother and her family had lived when they first came from Sweden in the late 20s. They moved several times during the hard years when work was haphazard and getting started in a new land was a daily job in itself. Mother remembers walking home from school at lunch with her older sister Inky and heating up a can of peas for lunch. It taught her frugality, something she never lost. Memory is its own neighborhood. I like to drive through it.

Within eight years, the Forsbergs found a really nice apartment at the corner of Stowe and Buffalo where they lived upstairs in a small but genteel place with polished woodwork, a real dining room, and an ample kitchen. It was small, but mother liked her friends to think they lived in the whole house. She was well aware of being an immigrant. She wanted no one to look down on her.

In 1935, when the union grew strong and Jamestown Metal Desk offered a good living wage to its long time workers, my grandfather was able to buy his first house on Church Street, a pretty little house that still looks storybook quaint. The Forsbergs lived there until Carl built his dream house on the Fluvanna lake shoreline in the late 40s, where he and Gunhild lived until their deaths in spring of 1977.

Where one lives is a special thing that stays with us long after childhood. Memories of our childhood there haunt us in good and bad ways forever. Mom told us of her dear friend Jean Strum who lived across the street from her in one of the Forsberg’s earliest apartments and not a nice one. The Strums were well to do, and took the little Swedish girl in with great love and care. Mom said Mrs. Strum sent her daughter Jean and my mother to the movies every Saturday with money enough for a treat too. Mom and Jean always bought a chocolate mint patty, 5 cents each. They savored little bites throughout the film. Mom and Inky often walked to the store on the corner of Stowe and Falconer at 5 p.m. to greet their mother walking home from work. They carried the groceries home. They did it because they loved their “mum” not because they had been told help with this chore. I like to imagine my grandmother Gunhild walking home in her thick heeled shoes or her winter “galoshes” always dressed nicely no matter the weather. For some years, she worked in a factory somewhere below 2nd Street until she got a job more befitting her artistic nature as the window dresser at Nelson and Butts downtown.

The neighborhood park was always full of children playing and laughing. I imagine this neighborhood of immigrants, their fears and hopes and dreams. Every day a struggle, every penny dear.

For me, the neighborhood of my youth ages 5-9 was Ivy Street and nearby Allen Park. In an instant, I am back there, touching the huge peonies usually covered in black ants, hanging upside down in the cherry tree out back, surveying the neighborhood upside down. My friend Pat Lindberg lived across the street and Eileen Anderson one house down. I’m sure no one locked doors not even at night. If there was crime, it wasn’t on our street or in our minds. Marilyn Nelson might stop by to play after school. Denise Ahlstrom and I often walked home from Fletcher School together and sometimes played in the woods between her street and mine. In the summers, my cousin Martha Larson and I rode our bikes to Allen Park. We often stopped at the Linwood Store and picked out treasures to savor in the hot sun, sitting outside on the wooden steps until we had finished our creamsicles or banana popsicles. I can feel the wood steps and the sun on our shoulders. Time stopped there for us. It’s like a part of us sits there still, all these years.

That’s the thing about old neighborhoods. They stay with us. Liz Chase grew up on South Main extension out by the city line. She recalls that she and her “three sisters along with Dickson clan have wonderful memories of Kidder farm. They sold milk and penny candy along with popsicles and fudge sicles. We’d trek up South Main with our nickel or dime for our treat and then spend time playing in the hayloft, swing from the rope and jump into the hay. We’d of course ask permission and not once were told we couldn’t. They were wonderful people, and it was a wonderful childhood. Later the Shults family moved in and were probably the best memories growing up on ‘the hill’.”

My sister Vicky, seven years younger than I, recalls well the old Fluvanna Store where she and her best friend Deb Rainer would spend their nickels and pennies. Candy was stored in glass jars, that made it all the more attractive, and the girls liked to take their time choosing gum and candy from the display case. My cousin Barb and I often sat there too on the front porch of that store, eating on a sunny day, breathing in the lake air. Childhood on such days was magical, so sweet it seems impossible to comprehend in this hard world.

But most of all I remember the two blocks of my very early childhood where we lived in a vast apartment house built by our great grandfather for his entire family. My aunts and their husbands and children lived upstairs. The three story echoing stairwells were built of polished mahogany. The bannisters of that great house were sturdy and fine; the house made me feel safe. Even now, its memory says to me, you can count on your family. Family is home. Home is sturdy. My great grandfather must have been very smart indeed.

Our neighbors the Hedins and the Andersons though not family felt like family. I spent my mornings with Ida Hedin, baking in her kitchen, or watching her make bread. In the afternoon, on any fine day or even rainy ones, I would sit on the steps of Mrs. Anderson’s lower apartment porch, looking out into the “gully” awash with ferns taller than I was, the air scented with hollyhock, dahlia and roses. But what I remember most is that long ravine stretching behind the house wet with artesian springs, ripe with wild, unfurling ferns. In the afternoons, the sun would dance the lawn to the southwest corner. I liked to watch the light-dappled grass, the yellow dandelions, the lavender Iris rising along the wall.

Mrs. Eddy next door worked at the Billings Bakery down the block. My mother and I walked there daily, she holding my hand in her gloved hand, both feeling happy, and I proud of my mother. Mrs. Eddy wore a white full apron and often had powdered sugar on her palms. Her orange cat Tillie was my daily friend. He roamed the streets and sat on the concrete wall between our houses. The neighborhood dog, Sarge, lived somewhere on Forest Avenue but visited us all daily, half Airedale, half Shepherd, the neighborhood sheriff.

Pearson’s Market carried all the important Swedish goods my mother and grandmothers needed to complete holiday meals. They bought sweet sausage called “potatiskorv” there and cloth sacks of hard brown beans from Sweden they transformed into Bruna Bonor.

That neighborhood is in my blood — the smells and sounds of it, the footsteps of my relatives on the stairs, the shuffle of the evening papers in sitting rooms, the horns blaring at the corner of Newland and Barrett, the hot days playing hopscotch on the sidewalk out front, the flowers neat and lovely encircling our lives. Everything said, life is fine. Everything is all right, little girl.

Neighborhoods are not just places we lived but environments that shaped us, microcosms of the world at large. The people who lived in our neighborhoods of childhood taught us about how to navigate the world, for good, if we were lucky. They were charitable and generous. They smiled hello. They waved goodbye. They showed us what to expect in life.

Those were the neighborhoods of our youth, but it’s different now. Most children no longer walk to and from school, and we do not hear their voices singing out in the late afternoon or early evening air as they play until the night brings them indoors. The corner stores are gone for the most part, or different now. Life is faster and more insular. But for those whose childhood years were spent in a neighborhood rich with friendships and kindness, the idea of neighborhood is never gone. When I wander the neighborhood of memory, I am reminded of how little we really need in this life — the smell of damp ferns, a familiar step, a niche of garden awash in light.