By the time I was four years old, I was allowed to cross the street, our street, by myself. My mother taught me to stand at the edge, where the sidewalk, such as it was, broke into the street, and to look in both directions, right and then left. And then right again. And then to dash across safely to the other side to visit Mrs. Burgess.
Mrs. Burgess was a friend of my grandmother and, like my grandmother, she seemed ancient, belonging to another world, a world of wood-fired cookstoves and ice boxes into which the ice man dropped a large chunk of pond ice that slowly melted over the course of a week, cooling the ice box contents until the next delivery. Mrs. Burgess would pull her famous yeast rolls hot from the oven, split one open, smear it with a lump of chilled butter, and silently pass it to the four-year-old waiting with her mouth slightly open in anticipation. Truly, as they used to say in the old Michelin guides, mérite le voyage, even the relatively dangerous crossing of Mechanic Street.
Truth to tell, there were not that many cars passing on our street back then, but much later, when I had a four-year-old of my own, I thought back to the insouciant way my mother trained me in the skills of reaching Mrs. Burgess’s kitchen. My mother, it seems to me from a later perspective, was surprisingly nonchalant about child-rearing in general but maybe that’s a reflection of the inherent safety of a kid’s life in a small town on the coast of Maine, as well as of a much less anxiety-ridden time in our nation as a whole. Whatever the reason, it still seems extraordinary that later that same year, after I had successfully mastered crossing Mechanic Street, she sent me downtown. On my own.
It was a straight shot from our house down the hill to town, but to get there I had to cross Free Street where, well trained, I stopped and looked, back and forth and back again, and dashed across, and then Washington Street where there was a traffic light, the only one in town (as it still is), which went from red to yellow to green and then to yellow and red again. On the green, I knew I could safely cross. And then I came to the end of Mechanic Street, where it curved to the right in front of the movie theater. And there, I was told, I should wait for my mother’s friend Olive, who owned a ladies’ clothing shop across from the theater, to come out the back door of her place and take me by the hand across that most difficult passage.
But when I got there, Olive wasn’t there. I waited a while in front of the movie theater, looking at the posters outside. I had never been to the movies at that point and I imagined it as a place with a lot of tables with framed photographs sitting on them. To go to the movies, I thought, was to go into that building and wander among the tables looking at the moving pictures. It would be another year or two before I was taken to see Bambi which caused me to suffer nightmares of forest fires for several years after. And so I looked at the posters and waited.
But Olive wasn’t there.
This, I have to explain, was long before cell phones. There was no way to be in touch with Olive, or with my mother, and if I had been less adeventurous, I might have just turned around and marched back home. But I decided instead to try a kind of bush method that would prove effective in later years as well. “Olive!” I shouted with all the gusto my four-year-old lungs could muster, “Olive!” And then again, “Oliiiiive!”
And after a while Olive came out the back door, with her laughing eyes and wonderfully ironic smile that said, then and always after, “I can read right through you.” And took my hand and led me across the street and into Stevenson’s Candy Store where she fed me peppermints, still my favorite of all boiled sweets, and a few carefully selected chocolates–because chocolate, it was well known, could upset a four-year-old stomach.
It was my first big travel adventure, so successful in its outcome that it initiated a life of travel, not always as exotic and challenging as the first but almost always with a lesson learned (if you yell loudly enough, someone will come) and frequently, happily, with a sweet (or savory) outcome at the end.