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I was on a plane coming back to Los Angeles from a trip to New York when I opened my notebook and found myself writing the words "500 Things About My Childhood: My Life is (sic) a List," followed by a few sentences:
All my elementary school teachers had the same hand-writing.
AllI my aunts floated but none of them swam.
There were only two girls in my class who weren't Jewish.
It was an idea that seemed to have arrived full-blown, complete, out of nowhere, or perhaps out of my deepest subconscious. The rest of the flight found me frantically scribbling a list of words, names, and phrases: Hitler dream, mother's box, dumbwaiter, Francisco Raymundo, Danny Kaye, Franco-American spaghetti. By the time the plane approached LAX, the notebook was almost filled.
The process of expanding these notes into a book was equally intense, but it moved at a very different pace. It seemed that each item on my life-list, even if it was only a single sentence long, was so loaded that I could process only two or three of them a day. Some, like the idea for the book itself, came fully formed; others required shaping and amplification; some of the longer ones I returned to again and again (pondering over such significant issues as did I really hate Betty Grable or did I just think her nose was too close to her mouth?). I gathered around me all the family photos (of which I have somehow been made the extended family's designated custodian, receiving batches every time someone dies or empties out a basement) I could find, and whatever childhood memorabilia had miraculously been preserved (the report cards, clippings, and letters thathad survived my mother's moves and mine), and I found that staring at them would bring me into contact with feelings, experiences, relationships, and people I hadn't thought about since childhood. As a Bronx Realist, I could never say I made a spiritual connection, but these things did form a kind of skeleton key into what I once called (in a poem I wrote when I was thirteen) my memory attic.
As one recollection triggered another, patterns began to form and I could see interconnections (that required the use of a lot of parentheses), memories building upon each other, I saw the symbiotic relationship between Mommy and me in a way I never had quite seen it before, I saw that my early years were a lot more "Jewish" than I would have thought, and I also saw a little girl who was a network of not always so admirable contradictions. As the book built, piece by piece, I added and subtracted ele-ments until I reached the number that seemed right for me, knowing that when I arrived at the point where my sister was born and I got my period, my childhood was essentially over.
Through all this, the thought struck me several times that in a sense this was an exercise that would be interesting and revealing for other people to try doing, in their own way. It is a process I can heartily recommend.