It’s a pleasure to introduce Cynthia Newberry Martin’s lovely contribution to the Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essay series. Cynthia is an author, a current Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student and publisher of the terrific writing blog Catching Days, one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” where among other delightful things she has a terrific series of posts called “How We Spend Our Days” in which well known writers give readers the lowdown on a typical working day. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in Contrary Magazine, Storyglossia and Six Sentences, among other places. She has been an NC supporter from the very beginning and has contributed also to our “What it’s like living here” series.
by Cynthia Newberry Martin
“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her…That there is some line running through her body like a wick.”
–Mary Gordon, The Rest of Life
You’re four. You’re living in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 20th, you stand by your parent’s bed, just taller than the mattress. You stare at your mother. She turns you toward the TV. Look, she says. You’ll want to remember this. That’s John Glenn in a space ship, going around the earth.
You’re five. It’s your first day of kindergarten at Spring Street Elementary School. You wait with the other kids under the awning. The principal rings the bell. You line up. At recess, you ask a girl her name. Dee, she says. You will be best friends until seventh grade when you switch to a private school because your parents say desegregation and busing are going to change things. You play troll dolls at Dee’s house after school. Her grandparents are there, but not her mother who is divorced and works. Henry’s mother comes to the classroom to give puppet shows in French. You love the sound and the magic of the words. Sixteen years later you will major in French and Linguistics. It’s Sunday, June 3rd, and everyone is quiet. Even outside you have to be quiet. Across the street are cars. Miss May’s sister died in the plane crash. In Paris. Hundreds of people from Atlanta are dead. Your parents will never let you fly on a chartered flight. You will see the cross when you fly into Orly Airport five years later and again ten years after that.
You’re six. You ride to school with your next-door neighbor, Nancy, who is much older, in seventh grade. What did you have for breakfast, she asks. You want a purse like hers. A Varsity hamburger, you say. Left over from last night. John Romain is the name of the purse—brown leather and tweed, although, wanting to spell the name correctly, you search Google for Johnny Tremain purses, confusing the book with the purse. Nancy’s older brother will die in Vietnam in his twenties. Nancy will die in Peachtree City in her thirties. Decapitated in a car accident. You will be the older one. It’s Friday, November 22nd. You answer the beige rotary phone in the room by the kitchen. It’s your aunt. The President has been shot. You look down the red-carpeted hall for someone to tell, but no one is there.
You’re seven. Your teacher thinks your headaches are coming from your headbands. You stay at school longer, but you have naptime. Your mother makes you stop wearing headbands. The headaches continue.
You’re eight. Pop never got to meet Beth, did he? you ask from the way back of the station wagon in front of the church in Russellville, Kentucky. Shush, your mother says. Here comes your grandmother. At school, you make dioramas and go with some of the kids to a different room to take French. You have a French name you don’t remember now, written on construction paper and folded like a tent on your desk.
You’re nine. Your grandparents give you The Bobbsey Twins’ Adventure in the Country, and they write in the front: To our dear Cindy, Happy Birthday! April 1, 1966 From PawPaw and Lilli. The Monkees are on TV. You love Davy Jones. You’re friends with Donzaleigh Abernathy, but you don’t go home with her. You’re not supposed to go in the front yard, your younger sister says, standing there in her madras pedal pushers. It’s dangerous, she says, as you climb the fence in your white Keds. And then, I’m going to tell. But when you look at her from the other side, she’s watching, her hands on her hips.
You’re ten. You go home with Susi, only Susi doesn’t live in a house but instead up some steps. Her sister is older. She’s listening to the Beatles. The rooms are dark and smell sweet. Strawberry fields forever. On August 12th, your grandfather takes you to a Monkees’ concert at the Municipal Auditorium in Mobile, Alabama. You and Dee write The Mystery of the Missing Letter, a novel of twenty-eight notebook pages. You put it in a green folder, and the girls in the class check it out like a real library book. It will be the only non-required writing you will do for—imagine the coincidence—twenty-eight years.
You’re eleven. You’re watching TV by yourself in the basement when the show is interrupted. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been assassinated. The others are upstairs. You run. Marty is in your class. Two days later, you take money to school for flowers to be sent from the grade. Marty doesn’t come back. Diego wants you to meet him behind the playground. You tell Dee. At lunch, Dee blurts it out to Mrs. McIver, who says, I’m sure Cindy is not the kind of girl to meet a boy behind anything. And that’s how you know what kind of girl you are. It’s summer. The President’s brother is shot. The next morning, you’re sleeping in the front room when your father comes in and sits down on the bed to tell you he died. You ask why. And who will be next.
You’re twelve. Susi’s sister is listening to Abbey Road. After supper, your father drives the whole family up and down Tenth Street to look at the hippies. Here comes the sun…You stare from the back seat of the station wagon. In Mobile on July 20th, you stay up late and at eleven run outside to wave to Neil Armstrong. You remember another dark night on a driveway in Russellville, Kentucky, when your father held you and pointed to the moon. Someday, he said, there’ll be a man up there. In August, three days of peace and music at Woodstock. Free love. “We are stardust, we are golden…”
You’re thirteen. One morning before breakfast, you kick your mother. Your father takes off his belt. You threaten to leave. Where will you go, he asks. Tenth Street, you say. How will you live, he asks. There are ways, you say. Instead of spankings, you will now have consequences. Four dead in Ohio. A month later, you set off for Vermont on your own. Someone from the French camp is supposed to help you change planes at the Newark Airport, but no one is there. You find the other gate by yourself.
You’re fourteen. Finances are tight, but you know now your mother jokingly told your father, either she goes or I go. You return to Vermont for camp. Your counselor has a record player. You hear Carole King and James Taylor for the first time. You’ve got a friend… Your memory told you this was the first summer you were at camp, but when you check release dates, it has to be this summer. You are friends with the girl counselors, especially Patty or is memory again bending to other forces? You find a letter from Patty to your parents dated 8/20/71—proof: She may have mentioned that we got along particularly well: it was odd, but we often seemed to be on the same wavelength. You return home and buy Tapestry and Mud Slide Slim.
You’re fifteen. You start dating one boy in particular. You take driver’s ed and return to Vermont for one last summer of camp. This summer you are friends with the guy counselors. You kiss two of them, and on a motorcycle, put your arms around a third. The next year you will paste some of these very same baby pictures in a scrapbook for that boy. Your mother will be angry. You won’t even be going out with him in a year, she’ll say. You’ll show her. He will follow you to college. You will marry him. Then, cutting your losses, you will divorce him. But, as 1972 draws to a close, you don’t know any of that. You are stardust and golden. And everywhere there is song.
Sometimes you have to spread the pictures out in a line to prove to yourself that was you. That is you.
—by Cynthia Newberry Martin
(Post layout by Natalia Sarkissian)
Really beautiful. What a wonderful closing:
“Sometimes you have to spread the pictures out in a line to prove to yourself that was you. That is you.”
Thanks for bringing this to NC.
Thanks, Rich. And really I do. It’s kind of hard to believe.
So enjoyed this. You captured the essence of the era beautifully, while clearly looking through your own prism.
p.s. I loved Peter Tork. 😉
Thanks, Carin. And thanks for sharing on Twitter! Peter was taller, but how could you resist Sleepy Jean?
I remember wondering at the time what all the fuss was about The Beatles… who (in my oh-so-enlightened) never quite measured up!
BTW, you realize Daydream Believer is now going to be stuck in my head all day…
Look out, Here Comes Tomorrow…
The year by year progression along with the weaving of the historical and personal was very compelling. Well-wrought!
Thanks, Brad. I appreciate your comment.
Triggers my own memories…Carol King and summer camp. Love the mother/daughter thread throughout. And, it seems you found a way to return to Vermont for a few more summers. 🙂
Thanks, Jodi! I love that the Vermont thread continues…
History, life & music woven together so nicely. What an era…I don’t know that my generation could tell an effective autobiography through song.
Robin, I wondered about that. Thanks for your comment.
Cynthia captures how the news used to be somewhat limited. As kids, we were told of tragic events by our parents and teachers, who wore somber expressions and spoke in grave tones. Perhaps we watched a small bit of it on TV.
Very limited. Although I did watch the evening news with my parents almost every night–brings back reports from Vietnam…
I watched the news and stayed home from school to see Nixon leave office. I remember the night of the ceasefire in Vietnam. I remember waking up and seeing that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. We didn’t talk about “bad” things at our house – but we watched the news. I even remember the photo on the front page of The Chicago Tribune the day after Janice Joplin overdosed – the newspaper picked one that made you think she should have died. Jim Morrison’s on the other hand was beautiful – hair perfectly coifffed. But newspapers reported news back then.
Yes. I remember wondering what the news would be like after the ceasefire…Thanks for your comment, Beebee.
This is wonderfully evocative! The black and white photos colorizing over time, your growing awareness of music, your changing relationship with your parents and the world. Those headache headbands! My favorite lines: “Diego wants you to meet him behind the playground. You tell Dee. At lunch, Dee blurts it out to Mrs. McIver, who says, I’m sure Cindy is not the kind of girl to meet a boy behind anything. And that’s how you know what kind of girl you are.” Loved it!
Libby, thanks for reading and for your comment!
Fantastic! I am just four years behind you, but a world away when it comes to any real awareness about the world during the sixties. You took me right there with you though…
Thanks, Lisa. And thanks also for sharing on FB. Of course, you know what they say, if you can remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there…
And you were “the kind of girl” whose grade school novel got checked out like a library book!
And so proud… I still have the check-out slip that I taped in the back with the names of the kids who read it–that’s how I know it was only girls!
Wow, I love this. Beautiful, Cynthia!
… Mrs. McIver, who says, I’m sure Cindy is not the kind of girl to meet a boy behind anything. And that’s how you know what kind of girl you are.
I love this.
Beautiful essay, Cynthia.
Thank you, Tricia. I’ll be by soon to see what you’ve been writing…
Cynthia, I loved reading this — and especially seeing the image of THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING LETTER.
Thanks, Dory. I pulled out that green cover, and I could still see it sitting on top of the bookshelf, under the windows, at the back of the room…
So much suggested so quickly, so effortlessly. Most, I admire your courage in digging up and reviewing old childhood pictures.
Gary, I appreciate your comment. Re the photos, I did have to dig for those. In a box of my grandmother’s I found one that I’d never seen before.
wow, love this. makes me want to write my own “Childhood”!
Thanks, Angela. I recommend the process.
Thanks, Darrelyn. I have to say I really enjoyed writing this piece.
This was a pleasure to read. When I look back on my own young self I have a similar was-that-really-me? feeling that you express so well.
We are the same vintage: “news” was synonymous with “vietnam” and one of my first albums was Tapestry (miraculously I still have it). I may have been a Monkey’s fan but I have definitely not matured enough to admit it yet. Enjoyed your essay. Thank you.
Ha! Thanks, Lynne.
And didn’t Walter Cronkite announce the number of Americans killed in Vietnam every night at the end of the broadcast?
Wonderful piece. The last line is perfect.
Fantastic ending, Cynthnia. Picture-perfect, as it were. Thanks for posting.
Thanks, Court. I’ve enjoyed reading your pieces here as well.
I love this Cindy. The alternation of image and text is so perfect and I love the 2nd person. It’s lovely. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Katherine! I appreciate your leaving a comment.
Excellent work Cynthia!
I love this piece! You inspire me to lay out childhood pictures and begin writing, to see what comes, what threads of then continue now.
I’m so glad, Cherry! I hope you will. And then please share on your blog.
Wow, Cynthia. Deft. Great structure. Beautiful from epigraph to end.
Dear Cynthia… Oh my… I’ve wondered about you over the years and where life had taken you. I even attempted to find you on the Internet, but only knew your name as Cindy Newberry. Then tonight as I goggled my name, a picture of your face, as the little girl that I remembered came up on my search. I followed your picture which led me to your short story and instantaneously, I was back at Spring Street and it was 1965.
Your words, your thoughts, memories and photographs are so compelling. You magically transported me back to when we first met, to your best friend Dee, to the classrooms and teachers from 3rd grade to 7th grade, to our Principal Mrs. Douglass, to the upper and lower playgrounds, to the cafeteria, to handsome Diego, to the Art Room, the Library, the French room, the 3rd floor bathrooms, to the main staircase and the bully that I had to confront daily to protect my sensitive older sister who was traumatized, to the devastating affect of Martin’s death on young Martin (Marty) and Yolanda, and to your parents’ home in Ansley Park. I remember how you used to speak often about your Grandfather and I wondered how wonderful it must feel to know one’s Grandfather. I remember a wonderful party that your parents gave for you at their home and our class was invited. Your home was beautiful!!
Yes, we were friends, but you did not come to my house. I wish that I could have shared my home, but it was a different era in our Nation’s history. I was told by one girl in our class that we could be friends during school, but that when her parents arrived to pick her up, that they must never see us talking to each other or think that we were friends. And so, I kept to myself and did my school work. I ran fast in PE and found refuge in the Art room. I remember when some boys stole your purse, hid it in the boys bathroom and blamed me for taking it. Thankfully, I looked everywhere, then had the courage to walk in the boys bathroom with everyone watching as the boys screamed and exited with your purse in hand. I still see the shocked faces of those boys today.
So many memories…
Thank you for sharing your memories, which led me to you.
Thank you Cynthia (Cindy)!!
Donzaleigh!!! Can you see me smiling? I’ve thought of YOU so often. I can’t believe we’ve finally caught up with each other. Spring Street School was so long ago and far away that it sometimes seems as if I made it all up. But you are real and so was handsome Diego. And so is your signature that I still have on the sign-out slip in the back of that novel Dee and I wrote–you checked it out on 12-12-67.
It WAS a different era, and as I was remembering it to write this essay, I knew only that I had never been to your house–but not whether it was for lack of an invitation or lack of permission. I have no memory of the purse incident, and yet I can see you exiting the boys’ bathroom in triumph. Good for you. I do remember standing on the playground by the door to the basement in 4th grade and you introducing me to Andy Young.
Thank you for taking the time to leave such a wonderful, memory-full comment. I want to give you a great big hug. Please email me at cnewberrymartin at gmail. We have lots to talk about.