The Wonder Years was an American coming-of-age tv show that starred Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold, an adolescent boy growing up in a suburban middle class family, set from 1968–1973. When I first saw it I thought, “This is my life on television!”
Kevin’s on-and-off childhood crush on Winnie Cooper provided the tension that kept viewers interested for the show’s 5-year run. A much older Kevin narrated the show from his adult point of view, with the benefit of life’s experience and perspective. From the show:
“Some people pass through your life and you never think about them again. Some you think about and wonder what ever happened to them. Some you wonder if they ever wonder what happened to you. And then there are some you wish you never had to think about again. But you do.”
My wife knew where I was going; it was no secret. And as usual, she chalked it up to “that’s just the way he is”. I was off to meet a childhood crush for another short story, some 50+ years after we had first met.
This is not a tale of love at first sight; not really a tale of love at all. I suppose it is more telling of my romantic imaginings, of how a story can write itself in the mind of a creative soul, leaving an indelible imprint without benefit of the substance of fact. I will narrate...
Off in my car I went, to meet her at Tim Horton’s. I thought, as I turned into the parking lot, that the story would be so much easier to write if she stood me up. But there she was picking up her coffee; not only on time but just a little bit early. There was no mistaking her, though I suppose I see her through the kindest filters of time; my brain computer filtering out over 50 years of age and experience, distilling down to the angelic face she had at age 6 when she was introduced to our grade one class as the newest student. And that moment is almost as clear to me today as it was in 1966, when the most beautiful girl I had ever seen - this brown-haired, dimple-cheeked, yellow tam-wearing enigma - would come into my life.
She stood facing the class, with Miss Unger’s hand on her shoulder. Behind them, a row of windows to the outside world where, until then, we’d had free reign. In front of them a rag-tag bunch of unruly rurals about to vie for her attention. She was, as it turns out, very shy and a bit nervous. But a truly shy person would stare at the ground; she scanned the room, managing to avoid eye contact. She would become the girl who every one wanted to befriend, the centre of an in-group that was not so much of her design as it was organic.
And although she didn’t know it, she was my Winnie. My grade school crush; the girl whose attention I most sought, the one whose smile would light my day, but whose indifference would characterise my childhood. Not that she was my first crush. That honour was bestowed a week or so earlier on the lovely Miss Unger, the grade one teacher. They couldn’t be more different from each other, and yet they had my infatuation in common. Go figure.
And so here we are some 50+ years later, reminiscing about growing up in south St. Vital, when we walked the same streets and played in each others’ yards, as well as our days at Minnetonka School. She produced a year book, but we found ourselves talking about life and kids, and what prompted me to ask for this get-together. I had several distinct memories of her that I wanted to share, with the sole purpose of corroboration so that I could write my story accurately.
We (I mostly) talked about the day we met. About how she liked Juicyfruit gum, and how I waited for her to ask me for a piece so I could produce a whole pack in response. A memory of a group of us hanging out in the tree fort in her back yard. The time in Joanne’s basement where a group of us dared to play spin-the-bottle for the first time, and the game abruptly ended when I spun and the bottle pointed to her. And about how I once drew our initials in the wet cement of Oakridge Bay. The mandatory Valentine card exchanges in school.
And the time she came to my birthday party.
Mom was in the hospital on my birthday. I was depressed and missed my Mom, so Dad took me to see her. He gave me a tin of butterscotch candy, presumably from the hospital gift shop, as a present (apparently he was not the birthday shopper in our family). We returned home for what was supposed to be a surprise birthday party, but depressed as hell, I walked past the balloons and streamers and went straight to my bedroom. Didn’t even see them. I was putting the tin on my dresser when I turned to see Cheryl walking towards me, with a big smile. I felt like it was a dream. Others followed in. My mood turned 180 degrees in a moment.
Times like these are burned into my memory, and I have relived them a few times over the years as I related these innocent childhood stories to my kids.
My enthusiasm to verify these stories took a hit however, when, over our Tim Hortons coffees, she shrugged her shoulders and said “I’m sorry, I just don’t remember”.
The funny thing is, it didn’t really matter if she remembered these things, after all they are MY memories. It mattered that she was there and she had made time for me. And I have a new memory to write about, in case my memory one day fades.
“Like I said, things never turn out exactly the way you planned. Growing up happens in a heartbeat. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place… a town… a house… like a lot of other houses; a yard like a lot of other yards; on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is… after all these years, I still look back… with wonder.”