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Far away from then

Puffballs, soda crackers and the power of ice-cold Fresca.

When I am a kid in Ottawa, summers are about four billion years long. Not like now, when the seasons and years stream by in an accelerating blur, in a freight train of blinks. When I am eight years old, I feel like I am eight. I feel I have my place in time. Now that I have turned 65, I am dazed and confused. How can this be? Yesterday morning I was 37. The day before I was 13. The chaos of aging.

When I am a kid, things seem to be in a terrific clarity. I am a kid who, when left to her own devices, sees far. Sitting on the stoop watching the pulsing of the sheet lightning behind the clouds. Exploring the big field behind our street, where a few of us seriously think we can dig a hole to China. We get so far I bet you any money we could go look today, and there will still be a depression in the ground. This is the field where my father looks for puffballs, like giant mushrooms when they are still big and soft and not yet the dried shrunken pods sending out brown spores to the four winds. I happen to know a human brain smells like a puffball. I know this because Eddie Campbell's dad is a doctor and Eddie brings a real brain for show and tell. It is in thick slices, mounted on a board, covered with plastic wrap. It really smells.

We play hide and seek in the dusk, as the sky darkens from azure to ultramarine to midnight blue.

There are a few other kids on our street, a small dead-end street where the houses mostly were built in 1959. The neighbour kids are mostly girls, mostly closer friends with my slightly younger sister, and there are enough of us for games of Statue or Red Light, Green Light, but we call in additional troops from the cul-de-sac down a ways, for the big games like Red Rover. Sometimes I go out at night, by myself, to the big puffball field, to the hill there, and I call out to the space people, my arms spread high and wide like Andy Dufresne when he makes it out of Shawshank and embraces the rain and air. I call out to the space people, "Take me! Take me!" I think very seriously about this and if they come down to get me will I really go? I feel that I will.

There is nothing really bad or difficult that I want to escape from. My parents are doing what they can. We get smacked but not too much. We are comfortable in our bungalow. The walk to school is OK; the school days fine. My grandmother tells us not to eat honey in August: Too intense. So we don't. She says to always unplug the TV during a thunderstorm.

I read a terrific number of books. Mostly I get a row of soda crackers from the kitchen cupboard and eat them dry while I splay myself out on my bed, slurping up Nancy Drew or magazines, or books about volcanoes and horses and writing in secret code. Eventually, the pattern of tufts on my blue and pink chenille bedspread leaves pressure marks on my belly. I have the best naps in the world with a book or two as a pillow, which gives me a secret kinship with the ancient Egyptians and their stone headrests.

As a pint-sized world traveller I go off often, and alone. I walk to the nearest library, a long walk for a little kid–maybe an hour each way, through residential streets and then commercial streets.

We have a wonderful tabby cat named Boo, and when I go down to the Kilborn Confectionary, Boo walks across the big field and then sits down and stays. I go on for green gummy spearmint leaves (two for a cent) or a chunk of that dry golden sponge toffee—sugar, syrup and baking soda (five cents, I think)—and then I walk back and Boo is waiting there, 30 or 40 minutes later, and we walk the rest of the way home together.

I walk or bike to unfamiliar neighbourhoods, far away from where people know me, from streets with names I know. To places where I have no idea what the good side of the curtains looks like. At home we go through vats of Beep and Freshie. Both of those drinks have a slick chemical aftertaste. On my solo adventures I step up my game. Once I have reached the zenith of my journey, tired and hot, a little miserable because I have walked a bit too far and now I have to get back home, I go into a corner store, with those round red Coca-Cola signs framing the name of the store. A store new to me, with stuff in places different from what I am used to. Maybe with a kind of candy I haven't seen before. I always get a Fresca, in its lovely green bottle. I love that colour. I get the shopkeeper to lever off the cork-lined cap and I sit outside on the bench if there is one, or the curb, slugging away. Fresca seems exotic, like the mixers my parents used for cocktail hour, a complex (or so I think) blend of grapefruit and lime, the two best flavours in the world.

Even now, so far away from then, when I swallow that first slug of Fresca, I am blown back to a hot curb and the coolness of the green glass in my hand.

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