The month after I turned eight, my mom’s sister, Auntie Jo, invited me to her hip San Francisco apartment for Chinese food, the Nutcracker, and a sleepover. I red-lined the days on a calendar pinned to my wall, and after interminable, anguished waiting, finally crossed off the last numbered square. As I’d imagined for what felt like eons in kid years, my aunt’s yellow VW bug idled for real in the driveway. I hopped in like a Mexican jumping bean, barely waving goodbye to my mom. The acrid smell of the seats, the jerking stick shift, the lint on the carpet under my feet; it’s still in my head. So is flying down the freeway with wind in my hands and AM soft rock buzzily playing from the radio. It was my first trip away from home and an unfamiliar freedom tickled my feet.
I still see snapshots of images tamped firmly down in my cerebral cortex . A cramped booth at a brightly lit Chinese joint, a blue glow cast over silken ballerina feet, a snow-fuzzed stage, my aunt’s tiny and narrow kitchen, her spotted cat sitting on the fire escape, a bed draped in amber Indian curtains. The grown-up feeling I had as I climbed in for the night, and pulled the goose down comforter to my chin. I imagined a far-off apartment of my own someday, with zig-zagged bookcases, curry smells from the hall, and city lights twinkling through a bay window.
“There’s more tomorrow,” my aunt promised as she tucked me in.
The next morning, with shafts of sunlight spilling through the third floor windows, my aunt presented me with a set of books. Mustard yellow and black, with titles written in simple blue on the covers. I drew each book to my nose and sniffed, then relished their heft in my hands, let air blow on my fingers as I shuffled through the pages. I lined the books up and read their spines. A Wrinkle in Time, Little House in the Big Woods, Mary Poppins, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Black Stallion, and The Wonderful World of Oz. On the inside cover, written in my aunt’s distinctive script was “Deborah – Christmas 1976.”
“Use your imagination,” my aunt told me. “It’s a gift.”
That day and those words changed my life much like the night before shifted my axis. In a space measuring less than 24 hours, I’d tasted freedom and salt from relentless waves and sweat from walking hills you didn’t want to end. The previous evening, I suspected that life could be rich and full and smelly and beautiful and set with adventure, with a sea to take you anywhere, and people of all different colors and souls for me to know. But I didn’t have the words with which to paint my tickled freedom feet, and those books and my aunt gave them to me. I was transported, irretrievably.
I can’t help but say it again: That day changed everything about me. Solidly, assuredly, divinely. I still hold its psychic vibration viscerally in my deepest soul strand: When I realized my imagination could take me anywhere and I could be anything.
What a gift.
It will be passed on.