Island Girl

islandbearThe first real memory I can recall was of walking into our house on the navy base in Puerto Rico. I was four years old. It was as if there was nothing before and my life began in that instant, the instant that I walked through the door into the living room and saw the white walls bathed in striped sunlight and the exotic, temporary wicker furniture that filled it. You would think that I would remember the plane ride to the island, but I don’t. However, I certainly was awestruck by that house. It was like a sort of dream or fairy tale, real but unreal. I remember it seemed strange, exotic and oh, so exciting! For a first memory that’s not too bad, but a door opened in my mind as well as that house that day. I lived there for about four years. For a little girl, there couldn’t have been a more magical place to be.

From front to back, our yard was a jungle and a playground. On the concrete half wall that separated the porch from the yard, it was common to see iguanas sunning themselves among the rhododendron. You might have also seen me, a little girl with cats eye glasses and dark pigtails, a striped t-shirt and red cowboy boots jumping off the wall, pretending to be a superhero, gifted with the capability of flight. Or maybe I was learning to skate on Christmas day holding onto that wall, my security blanket against skinned knees, stoically scuffling under the winter sun.

In the backyard was an almond tree with the unfortunate addition of a swing hanging from it. Nobody thought to warn me that lawn mowers can pick up and throw almonds. They can throw them very, very hard. I’m sure I blamed my brother at the time, but I hope he realizes that is a grudge I’ve outgrown. It was also the backyard where I left my favorite bear, BooBoo, out in the rain and jumped the reedy ditch at the border. Just beyond the yard was the base’s Family Pool where I learned to swim. Doing torpedoes underwater was my favorite and I was proud of my ability to open my eyes underwater. I still kind of am.

Under the carport, where more rhododendrons closed in like a fragrant fortress, my daddy stored the rocking horse I rode for hours on end, and when it rained, the gap between the gutter and the roof would create a horizontal curtain of water like a waterfall. In the little river that gathered and ran under the curtain I played with my little animals until my knobby knees were stiff and my hands, raisins. That tiny stream was an ocean of ideas to fill my animals’ imaginary lives, but my mother saw it as a possible source of Schistosomiasis. I still see it as a rain forest oasis filled with mist, rain and the sweetness of honeysuckle.

To venture out of the carport and onto the grass was to risk sands spurs and ant bites, but the reward could be a coconut to take inside. I knew very well the taste of fresh milk and the sweetness of fresh coconut on one of my mother’s cakes. There were coconut palms everywhere on Cowpens Drive.

Our house was at the bottom of a hill that rose steeply enough to cause inexperienced bike riders to end up with serious road rash at the end, and at the top w as the way to “The Rocks”, an area of cliffs and rocky coast on which my friends and I would risk our necks regularly. If you turned right from the driveway instead of left, it wasn’t a long walk to a white sand beach complete with shelters, grills and playground equipment, the perfect place to make frog houses and catch hermit crabs. It was also where, when drifting lazily in shallow water on a driftwood log, thinking of lunch, that I saw a barracuda swim by my leg. I got out of that water so fast I must’ve looked like I have suddenly been gifted with the ability to walk on water. It occurred to me, I guess, that the barracuda might have also been thinking about lunch.

But the real story of my childhood is inside the house, where I sprawled on the living room floor watching Bugs Bunny in Spanish and developed my first crush on Captain Kirk. In that house a little girl shared a room with big brother, had a dog named Bo, and celebrated the day she was able to reach the Popsicles in the freezer. This same little girl galloped on all fours around the dining room table until mom got a migraine. She sat sullenly in the hall to protest unwanted bed times. She tried to hatch lizard eggs in dresser drawers and listened to Lambchop on her sisters’ record player, refused to wear dresses, and tortured naked Barbie dolls with homemade haircuts.

We moved away when I was 9, when my father retired from the Navy. That plane ride I do remember. It took me from something that can never be replaced. Everything has changed, years have passed and even if I decided to visit, the house is no longer there. But something tells me, after a few more years have gone by and the grass has grown over and the buildings crumbled and the land is taken over once again by palms and sand spurs, you will be to glimpse the ghost of a little girl in red boots and braids galloping among the iguanas.

 

 

blindsImage Info

Manipulated in Photoshop.  Distributed under license here.

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