It was a fall day, not cold but cool… a brisk and breezy day, full of that feeling you have when a peppermint melts in your mouth and your nose suddenly wakes up. Except this feeling affects your entire body, your mind and your emotions. I remember that feeling from when I was a child and it always made going back to school seem special.
But this was an ordinary school day for me; I was in the fourth or fifth grade. Life was wonderful then, every day was a joy, going to school and seeing friends and learning new things. My brother, Lance, was a year older than me and we would wait together at the end of the day for our mom to pick us up after school. He was always looking out for me, his little sister. I remember him pushing a bully for trying to kiss me in the second grade, I really didn’t understand what was going on, just that I was lucky to have someone looking out for me.
My dad established a new business that year and our mom was sometimes late picking us up from school, so we would wait together sitting on the concrete steps facing the parking lot in front of the school, our books and lunch boxes scattered around us. This day she was especially late and all the other kids were gone. There were no cars in the parking lot—the school buses were all gone and the kids who lived nearby were home.
So it was just the two of us, me and Lance and cool fall wind kicking up the bronze and coppery leaves around us. What did we talk about? Maybe the new TV series or the brownies our grandmother would bake for us when we got home.
Whatever the important topic was to kids in the 1960’s was suddenly forgotten with Lance’s shout of “Look! What is that???” I had never seen a swirling, spinning wind before like the one that blew past us carrying bits of autumn leaves, pine needles and even an empty gum wrapper. It seemed so mysteriously enchanting as it ignored our awe and wonder. We easily forgot our schoolbooks and lunch boxes to run after it in utter abandon. Spellbound, we ran dancing and laughing after it to the edge of the empty parking lot and onto the playground wanting only to hold on to its frenetic energy.
Suddenly, Lance pulled off his lightweight jacket and in a spur of the moment effort to connect with this mysterious force, threw it into the rushing, revolving wind. Of course his jacket was dropped immediately… along with our spirits and dreams of somehow connecting with this magnificent wonder. We watched as it spun seemingly with purpose and determination away from us, the quiet playground, the silent water fountains and the empty schoolyard. The mysterious object had its own agenda that didn’t include us. We were silent as Lance picked up his jacket, brushed off the dirt and we ran towards my Mother’s waiting car, gathering up our abandoned schoolbooks along the way.
Years later, as a teenager, I drove my family’s car to a desolate area by some railroad tracks, wanting to be alone to think and to clear my head after a particularly difficult fourth of July weekend. I remember that physical ache that stayed with me and wouldn’t leave for years. I just needed to see where it all happened.
I spotted and picked up a small scrap of denim from the edge of the railroad tracks where the paramedics had left it in their futile attempts to save a young life. As I held it, caked with mud and blood, my mind went back to that day on the playground and being overwhelmed by the seemingly unbounded energy of the whirlwind and how, even after spinning out of my sight, that force still continued to exist somewhere—full of energy and hope but irrevocably out of this life in a place I could not follow, ignoring my entreaties for it to stay or take me with it.
Often in life there are things that we love and admire—a pet, a performance, a friend—that seem ethereal. They quickly pass through our lives just as that spinning wind did on that perfect fall day, and as much as we would like, they are impossible to grasp and hold on to. They continue to spin and gain strength in our memory, yet all we can hold is that memory as we, too, move forward on our journey.
Now, much later in my life, I understand that we, much as that elusive whirlwind, spin through our lives picking up bits and pieces that we carry with us. The things that are too heavy or cumbersome we learn to drop and leave behind—much like Lance’s jacket. We have little choice but to continue. There are bits of dirt and debris that with luck we learn to shake off and forget. Some are tiny bits of gold and copper—bits of joy and love so worth holding on to. These precious jewels of memory are all we are truly allowed to possess yet are all we really need to continue to move forward as we learn to embrace all the moments we have been given.
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