Spark of Memory

James B. Nicola

© Copyright 2019 by James B. Nicola


Photo of two children in sandbox. (c) by Pixabay.
A singular story about school days dedicated to those playmates and classmates of early childhood whom we may never see again, but never quite forget.

          The day Susan Clark
               got back her spark
               I remember like yesterday . . . .

What happened was that Susan Clark got new eyeglasses.

They had lenses so thick you couldnít see her eyes through them.

The day I first saw them was the day Miss Cawley took Susan Clark around to all the classrooms in Rice School and told us that these eyeglasses with really thick lenses were the culmination of some fabulous innovation in optometry. Not necessarily in those words, of course. I don't really remember the exact words Miss Cawley used. But we understood.

I remember it said by various parents over the years that Miss Cawley knew every student she ever had by name. I also remember, whenever I heard this, thinking to myself something like I doubt that, sheís the principal, not a teacher, so itís not like she sees us every day. And sheís been principal for 50 or 60 years already. Or 40, I donít really remember. But I do remember hearing that a few years later at some testimonial event like a retirement dinner to which I was not invited (not because of my surly skepticism but because I wasnít anywhere close to being an adult) Miss Cawley proved all those gossiping parents right by remembering every≠bodyís name. Even students from 50 or 60 years earlier. Or 40. Or 30.

I also remember the day Miss Cawley had picked me out in the cafeteria line for my exemplary postureóby name. Of course I was embarrassed as all hell but more to the point I was surprised she knew my name and it made me feel even taller for a while. This might have been during first grade but it might have been second or third, I donít remember. But it canít have been as late as fifth grade because the day Susan Clark showed everyone her new glasses, I remember, I was in grade four. I also remember finding out that day that Susan Clark was still in grade two. Iím pretty sure it was Miss Cawley who said so, there with Susan Clark in tow, and I remember feeling terrible for Susan and hoping that Miss Cawley wasnít embarrassing her the same way she had embarrassed me (that day in the cafeteria) which seemed to be Miss Cawleyís mission in life, or at least at Rice School. So my day of embarrassment had to be some time be≠fore the day Susan Clark showed everybody her new eyeglasses.

               We used to play
               hours a day
               back when we
               were three.
               Susan Clark had a sandbox in her back yard, you see.
               (I didnít, in mine.) And that was enough for me.

I remember that it didnít matter to me that Susan Clark was missing some fingers on the one hand she had. (I do not re≠member how many.) Or that one side of her face was scrunched up and looked like the skin were all burnt. Or that when she spoke, the words came out as grunts. (Or semi-grunts, but in a baritone register. Still, she made herself understood.) Or that her eyesight was very very poor. Or even that she was a girl. None of these things matters a whole heckuva lot when youíre three. Girls are different, everyone is different, thatís the way it is, no big deal.

But Mrs. Clark had had German measles in 1958, the year that Susan and I were born. I remember my mom telling me this information, but not exactly when. It might not have been till I was in first grade, the year of the German measles epidemic. Since I donít remember thinking of German measles every time I saw Susan Clark before the first grade, though, this is probably correct. I do remember that the vaccine finally came out years later, at which time everyone learned that German measles was more properly known as rubella, which was also the official name of the vaccine. I also remember at about that time hearing the expression birth defects and putting two and two together and realizing that if Susan Clark had been born at least nine months after the vaccine came out she would have had two hands and better vision but then we wouldn't have been the same age and played together in her sandbox.

My mom and Mrs. Clark were friends, and Susanís older sister Laurel and my older brother were in the same grade, I think, so they were friends. And the Clarks lived katycorner across the house right behind ours (I donít remember whose because there were no kids to play with in the house behind ours till the Del≠aneys moved in a few years later with four daughters, or three, I don't remember exactly). So, since Susan Clark had a sandbox in her back yard, and three-year-olds like to play in sand even when not at the beach, that was that.

It could be that we had started playing in her sandbox at the age of two, I suppose, because I have seen two-year-olds playing in sandboxes since then. But not unsupervised. Plus if this were the case, my mother would have had to have taken me along with her, say, when visiting her friend Mrs. Clark. And that very pos≠sibly happened, I donít really remember. I do remember crossing the street by myself to Harry Ost≠lund's house by the age of three, though (Harry was the same age), so navigating the single-street-crossing course to Susan Clarkís sandbox without a grownup in tow would have likewise been no sweat.

I donít really remember if we played together every day, once a week, once a month, or what. There were no "play dates" in those days, you just played. I do remember that the year before Kin≠dergarten, Story Hour at the Library was just for an hour, and not every day, I donít think. And I remember that Kindergarten not only occurred five days a week, but was also over at noon. So there would have been plenty of time to play in a sandbox just about every afternoon. But Elementary School lasted till three p.m., maybe even 3:15 or 3:30, I donít remember exactly, only being told, once, that the times had to be staggered with the Junior High and High School because of school buses. Still, we might have played together after school albeit briefly and on weekends during that whole year of first grade, except winter, of course. But I also remember making new friends, which was of course part of the point of first grade. And Susan Clark and I had been placed in separate classes, after all. But I donít remember particularly not being Susan Clarkís friend anymore. I do remember not hearing the phrase ďmentally retardedĒ for the first time though until years after first grade. It might have been the fourth grade, actually, maybe soon after the day Susan Clark got new eyeglasses. That would make sense, come to think of it, but I donít really remember.

Anyway, from age two or three to six, five, or four, you could find me every so often, I donít remember how often, with Susan Clark in her backyard sandbox two houses and one street cross≠ing away from my house. And I remember not thinking anything of it. After all it was the Baby Boom so there were plenty of kids to play War or Whiffle Ball or Capture the Flag or Red Rover or to go biking with or practice somersaults or pick blueberries. But out of all the kids in the neighborhood, only Susan Clark had a sandbox in her back yard.

I remember that by the time I was in grade four I had outgrown sandboxes. But Iíd see Susan Clark in the cafeteria every so of≠ten, I donít remember how often, and one day I noticed that her half-scrunched face had gone, well, dim. Like a switch had been turned off.

And I remember once or twice in the cafeteria, over the years, thinking of saying Hi, Susan, remember me? but deciding not to, not because I thought other kids would razz me for having once been friends with Susan Clark. (After all there was a girl in the fifth grade with only one arm, too. I remember watching, fascin≠ated and impressed, how this girl navigated her lunch tray.) It was because I knew embarrassment, you remember, and I didnít really want to em≠barrass Susan Clark in case she couldnít tell who I was. Or had forgotten who I was.

Because she didnít seem to recognize me those few times she walked right by. Once I even waved, or half-waved in such a way that she wouldnít necessarily have to wave back if she didnít remember me. Or I thought I waved, but of course maybe I just thought of waving and didnít actually wave, I donít really re≠member. What I do remember is the very reasonable explanation for Susan's behavior, which I didnít know at the time.

               Susan Clark
               had lost her spark
               not just in her mind;
               she was going blind.

But that day she showed everyone her new glasses, I remember Miss Cawley invoking the power of the principal and interrupt≠ing Mrs. Starrís fourth grade class, my class, with Susan Clark in tow. And that just like in the cafeteria, I didnít say Hi, Susan, re≠member me? or anythingóthere were 30 kids in the room after all (or 25, I donít remember exactly) and lots of other class≠rooms still to go for Miss Cawley to take Susan to and visit. But I really remember how Susan Clark looked up and smiled and showed us she could see and read everything on the walls, albeit at a grade two reading level. I remember thinking that I hadn't seen Susan Clark look upward at all before, not ever, even in the sandbox. It made her lookótaller. Lit up. She still half-grunted in a baritone voice, of course, but we understood because we could see and read along with her. Or we just plain understood.

51 years later, just last week (I donít remember why even though it was only a week ago), I mentioned Susan Clark and that day to my older brother. He was in Junior High by then, not Rice School, but he remembers it, too, it turns out, which surprised me no end since it was just one day out of a mil≠lion or so from childhood that we had never talked about be≠fore. Because he had seen Laurel and Susan in their front yard on his way home from Junior High or something, and they were showing Susanís new glasses to himóto all the kids who passed by, in factówhat with all their innovative optometric technology and lenses about an inch thick.

My brotherís the one who used the phrase ďlit up,Ē by the way, to describe what happened to Susan Clark's face when she dem≠onstrated her new eyeglasses to him. (I'll never forget how his own face lit up when he said it.) And Iíve used it too to de≠scribe what happened when Miss Cawley brought Susan to Mrs. Starrís fourth grade classroom to demonstrate them to us, even though nobody could see her eyes through those lenses. Susan Clark lit up, and lit up the entire classroom. I really remember now.

               The day Susan Clark
               got back her spark
               I remember like yesterday.
               Though whether she
               Remembers meó
               I really cannot say.

James B. Nicolaís poetry and prose have appeared in the Antioch, Southwest, Green Mountains, and Atlanta Reviews; Rattle; Barrow Street; Tar River; and Poetry East, garnering two Willow Review awards, a Dana Literary award, and six Pushcart nominations. His full-length collections are Manhattan Plaza (2014), Stage to Page (2016), Wind in the Cave (2017), Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists (2018) and Quickening: Poems from Before and Beyond (2019). His nonfiction book Playing the Audience won a Choice award. He is facilitator for the Hell's Kitchen International Writers' Roundtable, which meets twice monthly at Manhattan's Columbus Library: walk-ins welcome.

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