Not long ago I received a USPS package.
Inside were two pieces of concrete from a demolished road.
Let me explain.
I was recently hired by a friend, Brian, to edit an article he wrote for a collection that will become a book.
I grew up living next door to Brian and his family. When I was five, my parents bought an old summer cabin next door to them. We spent entire summers there for the next few of years, testing whether my father would be okay with the extra commuting distance if we lived there full time. He was. My older brothers and I loved living on a lake – swimming, water skiing, boating. There was even a harbor seal. (Long, fascinating story for another time.)
The cabin was demolished and burned under the supervision of the local fire department as a training event before our new house was built. We moved in the middle of my fourth-grade year.
Brian is a year younger than me, and his brother two years younger than him. As kids we were all acquainted and sometimes joined in neighborhood games of hide and seek or kick the can.
When I was a junior in high school my parents divorced. Our house on the lake was sold to facilitate a division of assets. I didn’t see Brian or his family again for decades.
Turns out Brian has a penchant for staying in touch with people, including those he knew growing up. Facebook has made that easy. Sometime in the late-2000s I became Facebook friends with Brian, and through him, a few of the other “kids” who lived in our lakeside neighborhood as well. It’s fun to see how people are doing.
In early 2009, when I left Idaho temporarily to return to my hometown to take a job and ride out the recession, Brian got in touch. He wanted his daughter to meet me. That was the first time I’d seen Brian in person since we were kids.
When my book came out in 2014, Brian got in touch again. He wanted to buy several autographed copies to give to family and friends. He also arranged for me to give a book presentation to his group of antique tractor enthusiasts. (Who knew, but there’s significant crossover between tractor and airplane nuts.) I appreciated his support.
Over the years, Brian would occasionally send me photos of my childhood home, taken when visiting his parents who still live next door. Photos of the replaced deck, of solar panels added to the roof. At one point he even put me in touch with the current owners, the same people who bought the house from my father. They graciously invited me to come by and see my former home any time I was in town. (A supremely generous invitation I’ve not yet had the opportunity to accept. Part of me wonders if I could handle the emotions stirred by such a visit.)
Most recently, Brian shared photos of how the county was finally removing the old road and bike path along that stretch of lake, upgrading and replacing it.
Okay. I admit, that’s a lot of seemingly random and unimportant background, but now you’ll see how it comes into play.
When the editing job was done and Brian asked for the invoice, he emailed to say he’d send me a check along with some pieces of concrete from the demolished lake road above our childhood homes.
After smiling at the quirky yet generous offer, I had a brief worry that Brian would send me a huge, unwieldy piece of concrete, spending too much money to ship it and what would I do with it? So, I replied that one or two small pieces would be welcome mementos.
Days later the USPS box arrived. Inside, in addition to a check, I found two pieces of West Lake Sammamish Parkway, the road of my childhood.
Oh, the memories that were instantly sparked as I held those chunks of concrete in my hands! I marveled at the smooth, rounded rocks that comprise the mix of materials on the underside of the road surface, which was worn smooth after so many decades of use. One piece had a bit of yellow striping paint.
I immediately thanked Brian for the unexpectedly meaningful gift. I then asked if he could take photos of the driveway to my old house. It has a similar concrete surface, and was an equally significant memory trigger.
A few days later, two photos arrived via email from Brian, one taken from the top of the driveway looking down at the house, the other looking up from a few yards below the top, an effort to show just how steep the driveway is.
Another flood of memories and emotions washed over me.
There was a ditch on the far side of the road. In spring it filled with runoff water, nourishing the eggs left by tree frogs. As a child, I spent hours hunched over that ditch, watching tadpoles as they hatched from their slimy eggs, later looking for ones that had sprouted legs, catching a few in a jar to take home, hoping they would turn into frogs before my eyes. And they did!
Those tadpoles fostered an enduring fascination with and desire to be up close and personal with nature and wildlife of all sorts.
Blackberries. They’re common in western Washington. I love blackberries, and enjoyed picking them when they ripened, eating many and bringing more home in a bowl to be added as a topping to homemade ice cream. One summer, while we still had the cabin, my maternal grandparents from Kansas visited. Returning from a blackberry picking foray across the road where the tadpoles roamed, I walked into the cabin and held up my dark-red berry-stained hands to my grandmother and said, “Grandma, I fell down!” She gasped in concern, rushing to help me, thinking it was blood on my hands, until I laughed and assured her it was only blackberry juice.
Our driveway, from road to house, was really steep. At the top, adjacent to our driveway, my father had commissioned the construction of an open shed structure that would keep us kids dry as we waited for the school bus on days when it rained or snowed. I remember having to run up that driveway, hell bent for leather, to avoid missing the bus on too many mornings. Nothing made my mother more unhappy than one of us missing the bus, as it meant her driving us to school, a good 20-30 minutes away. Reflecting back, I guess those sprints up the driveway were the start of my running addiction.
The driveway was too steep to ride a bike up, so anytime I wanted to ride on the bike path adjacent to the road, I had to push my bike to the top. Once on the road, though, the riding was level, safe and fun. Returning home, riding down the driveway was a thrill, the brakes (often squealing) were barely able to control my speed at the bottom. An enjoyment of cycling was cemented (pun intended) in those early years and carried into my adulthood.
The driveway became part of our family lore. Because it was perpendicular to the road, and incredibly steep, when one turned their vehicle off the road to head down the driveway, for a few brief seconds they couldn’t see it ahead and below them. All they could see were the trees along both sides the driveway and the lake far beyond. They had to trust that the driveway would appear as they launched their vehicle downward. Not for the faint of heart. On rare occasions, someone driving up would see a car starting down. The car near the bottom always backed down and out of the way, the easier and safer alternative.
Any time we gave someone directions to our house, we included a detailed explanation of the driveway and its challenges. If I knew someone was due to arrive, I’d often go outside and stand at the bottom, watching. First-timers always drove really slowly down the hill. Invariably, after safely arriving at our house, visitors would describe how scary the experience was while laughing with relief. Like a rite of passage. My parents would chuckle while making them feel brave and accomplished.
When I was fifteen and learning to drive, I finally understood the visitors’ fear. Even though I knew our driveway intimately, having run up and down it throughout my childhood, the first time I turned off the road above and pointed the hood of our enormous Buick station wagon (also known as “the tank”) toward the lake, my hands gripping the steering wheel and my heart beating rapidly, I felt fear for those few seconds before the front wheels tracked the driveway, the car’s nose pointed down, and I could see we were on the right path. My father – my co-pilot on those training drives – remained remarkably calm, trusting me to be careful. He did tease me about squeezing the steering wheel so hard, though.
It astounds me how a simple gesture on Brian’s part – collecting and sending me pieces of a demolished road – brought such fond memories of my childhood. More crucially, his generosity reminded me how important it is to maintain and sustain connections with our past and the people who shared it. Happy memories become so much more important – and elusive – as we age. Losing the people who shared them with us – as I lost one of my brothers last year – they become even more precious.
I’ve added the two pieces of West Lake Sammamish Road to a collection of rocks that have been sitting on a work bench in my garage for the past few years. They’re rocks representing special places in Idaho’s forests that I’ve visited with my dogs, initially with Maia and Meadow, the two Alaskan Malamutes who were with me when I moved to Idaho in 2005 and my eager guides as we explored the forest trails. I built small memorial cairns in those places after they passed in 2013, leaving portions of their cremains.
Carrying the rocks home in my running backpack, or to my car parked nearby, I told myself I would use them to build a cairn in my wildflower garden, adding the last of the girls’ cremains, memorializing our connection to this house, this piece of ground of Idaho. But I never built that cairn in my garden. The cremains remain in a box on a shelf in a bedroom. I don’t know why I didn’t follow through. Instead, I use the pointed end of a triangular rock at the base of the pile as a hanger for the boys’ Don’t Hunt Me orange vests.
Maybe I knew, deep down, that we wouldn’t be staying. That I would be leaving, the boys going with me. That I would want something of the girls, and Idaho, to take with me.
As I ponder my move to…Vermont?…I know that I will be taking one particularly heavy box that contains this heap of rocks. Wherever the boys and I end up, I will build a cairn at our new home, memorializing the girls and our time in Idaho, tucking the last of their cremains under the base of the cairn so that they’re still and always with me.
And now, thanks to Brian, two pieces of West Lake Sammamish Parkway are part of the cairn and always will be, wherever it might reside.
Feature photo: Conall checking out the pieces of concrete.