It had been so long since the three of us were together that we could not exactly pinpoint the last time…but it was over 35 years ago, I’m sure. Carolyn and I had kept in touch over the years, having dinner from time to time, attending a couple of reunions, exchanging annual birthday cards and occasional phone calls. But Janie was somewhere “far away,” moving with her husband and children, teaching, making other friends-all the things we do over time-lost to us, for all practical purposes.
We’ve all been to a reunion or two, but, apparently, never to the same ones. Janie was moving while the big 50th reunion plans were being made, and did not connect with the information. We missed her again.
But we recently met up for lunch at a nice restaurant in east Memphis. It was a sweet occasion, with stories told and pictures exchanged, and I’m very happy I made the long drive to be there. I know that the opportunities to have a day like that are slipping away from me, and I want to have as many as possible. The restaurant was only a few yards from our high school, and a few more miles from the east Memphis neighborhood where I lived for 14 years, from elementary school to Pharmacy school. Being somewhat overcome with nostalgic thoughts of the past, I decided to make the tour of my old neighborhood. Perhaps I should have ‘left well-enough alone’ and ended the day on its high note.
The neighborhood was barely established when my family moved there, several miles down gravel roads, far outside the city limits, constantly under construction; the location of Janie’s future home was still an open field with big trees and water moccasins. Houses were being built so rapidly that my dad (fascinated by the building process, but inept at actually building anything) swore he missed watching the raising of a whole house. According to him, there was only a foundation when Mom called him inside for lunch, but the roof was going up when he returned to the porch after eating.
The area has budded, bloomed and begun to wither on the vine during my lifetime. It is not a stately historic district, or a cute little enclave like the “scrubby Dutch” section of St. Louis, or a well preserved mix of small rental and owner-occupied homes like “little Italy” in Kansas City. I wondered if people even feel safe living there, a place we roamed from morning till night, totally unsupervised, foraging in the fields for wild plums, picking up turtles and stray kittens, even fishing in the backwaters whenever the Wolf River overflowed its banks almost to our front door.
The little shopping center where my dad was (however inappropriately) employed as the manager of a hardware store, is scarily seedy. The hardware store has been replaced with a big new structure that proclaims itself “the ultimate strip club.” First wave businesses have been replaced with the liquor stores, junk stores and check cashing joints that forecast the ultimate doom of any area where they become dominant. The schools have seen better days. The roads are now paved and four lanes wide, but so pitifully pot-holed that driving is dangerous. Some of the houses are still well looked after, with polished yards and other signs of care, but those occupants are clearly fighting an uphill battle.
My friends and I have aged, in my opinion, with a fair amount of grace. We’ve all three had our crises, our family problems, our health issues, our losses. But we have endured, and we all have positive new interests and directions to explore. It’s sad when our neighborhoods aren’t afforded the same opportunity find positive new directions and grow older with a little dignity. Memphis will always have a place in my heart, but today it is in big trouble.