My earliest memories are of my mother and have their origin in the brief period of time my family lived in central New Jersey. I was still too young to tell where my dreams left off and my waking hours began and there was no urgency to figuring out what the difference was anyway. The border between the two is where the very young exist; inhabiting a dreamworld they carry with them, portable and full of black corners and white fog, of faces framed in coronas. Daydreaming beats all else as a way to pass the time.
It was a housing development. One-story, thrown-together houses. Starter houses they called them. Ranch houses. We were among the first to move in. The place was lonely and treeless, the lawns little more than strips of sod hastily rolled out and abandoned to their own devices. That was as far as the developers were willing to go. It was left to the homeowners to water and plant trees. My father had a faded snapshot of the place he trotted out on odd occasions. I don’t know if this is actually a memory or a memory of the photo. Or an actual memory prompted by the photo.
My parents took even less interest than usual in tending the place; we were in a strictly temporary situation while my father looked for a house closer to New York City where he was going to find a job and make a lot of money. This they told me later, I had no idea at the time.
They hadn’t even built all the houses when we moved in. Down at the end of the street, three or four doors down, there was a great all-day hammering of nails, a whining of power saws. Past that, beyond the ditch that marked the current end of the road, were earth movers and front loaders, coughing black exhaust as they strained to clear and level the earth for still more new houses. Each time they finished a house they moved the ditch a little further down the street—part of the great post-war housing boom. I would stand on the sidewalk and watch the heavy equipment.
“You stay here,” my mother said when she caught me watching, “I don’t want you going down there, it’s dangerous.”
I can remember this in flashes, scraps and shreds. I was maybe three or four. I didn’t know anything.
I was wearing galoshes; I was not supposed to get dirty or wet. Sometimes my mother would let me go outside after it rained and play in the water pooled at the curb.
“Right from the git-go the streets didn’t drain properly,” my old man would recall whenever the subject of that house came up; he was a detail man with an unusually long memory.
When someone up the street was watering or washing their car I would run alongside the water as it advanced, picking up all the tiny things in the gutter and floating them downstream. Frogs and fish and tadpoles were undoubtedly what I was looking for and I knew even then, however dimly, they were unlikely to turn up in the gutter, but I watched for them anyway, imagining how joyful it would be to find one. All my life I can’t see a pond or a puddle or a wet ditch without looking for signs of life; it follows that was what I was doing then. Looking for stuff that wasn’t there got boring pretty quickly so playing in the water ended up consisting of jumping off the curb and making splashes. Which explains the galoshes.
My mother always made sure to close all the clips on my galoshes—every one—and she admonished me not to undo them. She was that way; she wasn’t about to have me hanging around in plain view of God and the neighbors with incompletely clipped galoshes. I remember hating them; they looked stupid and made my feet feel too big. I hated them until I was old enough to make my own decisions and I never wore them, or anything like them, again. I don’t remember ever not hating them.
My boot, my galosh, was stuck in the mud at the bottom of the ditch at the end of the road. I couldn’t pull it out. The only thing my eyes could see was that one boot, stuck, everything else was shrouded in a terrified, fizzing mist—panic like snow on the television.
There was maybe an inch of water and, under that, quicksand—or so it felt—the more I pulled the more stuck I got. I wasn’t supposed to go near the ditch at the end of the road but the way it drew me couldn’t be resisted. I started to snivel, feeling sorry for myself, not because I couldn’t pull my foot out of the mud but because I knew I was going to get caught where I didn’t belong, and my mother would be angry. Mostly the second part.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” she yelled as she strode toward me, taking long steps, each foot hitting the asphalt with a determined clop. My sniveling turned into outright bawling as she neared; I was a staked goat, about to be dragged off into the jungle by a marauding tiger. Our neighbor had seen my struggle out the front window and called her to report my predicament.
“Just unbuckle the clips,” she said, standing over me in her apron, fists on her hips.
I couldn’t do it. I was too little. My hands were cold. My hands weren’t strong enough. I was too scared. All those things.
In my old man’s photo, it looks cold and overcast and that’s how I always remember it, lacking other information. Our old Buick sits under the carport, dented and blue, half-falling apart, the only car in the neighborhood.
“Here, I’ll do it,” she said in a voice weighted with frustration and anger.
“I’ve got a cake in the oven and I can’t leave it there all day while I fool around with you,” she said.
She inched down the embankment, being careful of her clothes, her shoes, leaned over the water and began unbuckling my galosh. I think I can recall the strength in her angry fingers as she felt for the submerged buckles. Her foot slid in the muck. She caught herself and after a big sigh went back to unbuckling. She slipped again and struggled for her balance twisting and sliding in the wet. I remember giggling at the sight; she looked like Wile E. Coyote, running on the air before plunging into the canyon below.
This time she ended up on her fanny in the clammy mud, her skirt wet and filthy, nylons ruined, her shoes caked. She regained her feet quickly, and in one surprising motion she grabbed my wrist, not roughly but not tenderly either, and tugged me free. My foot came loose as she swung me up and delivered me safely to the dry ground at the edge of the ditch. Left behind was my galosh with one shoe inside it. I can still conjure that image. My mother bent to retrieve it.
I suppose I felt momentarily safe there on terra firma. I giggled again. She heard me and too late I realized my mistake. In two quick strides she topped the embankment and was suddenly looming over me. The sun was glaring through her hair, her head framed in a fierce halo, nothing behind her but dazzle. She had her arm raised across her body, cocked for a backhand. And that’s what I remember most—my earliest memory, the first memory I can claim as mine alone, unreconstructed—my mother’s face coming into focus, complete with a snarl, coming out of the fog, ready to belt me one.
When I look at my father’s photo today the landscape looks as benign and dead as ever. It must be winter; the sky is gray, the infant trees leafless, a fledgling suburb that today, I assume, teems with neighbors and friends, watering those same yards, the trees mature, towering, the sun shining all day, every day. There is no longer a ditch at the end of each road; people put in pools if they wanted water to play in. No longer does heavy equipment wheeze and gasp and beep. Instead, there’s the buzz of the occasional hedge-trimmer, a weed-whacker. There are shiny Toyotas and Hondas under the carports, not some half-wrecked Buick.
My mother changed her mind in the last second, choosing not to clobber me, but to simply march me home.
“Jesus Christ,” I remember my old man saying when my younger brother later got into similar scrapes, “he’s just a little boy.”
Perhaps this reasoning spared me as well, I have no way of knowing.
You don’t need any kind of a memory to see my mother as she walks away from the ditch, towards home, with her back to you. In one hand she holds a galosh with a shoe stuck inside, dripping mud. In the other a little boy’s wrist. If he appears to be limping its only because he’s wearing one galosh.
Byron Spooner is the author of Rounding Up a Bison (ASA Press, 2021). He is retired as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. His writing has been published on a variety of platforms and won Honorable Mention in the 2021 Dillydoun International Fiction Prize competition. He served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and on the Board of Litquake and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum.