I’ve been swapping long-forgotten childhood memories with my husband a lot this summer. I’m not sure what’s brought on this sudden rush of memories. If I had to guess a reason, it would probably be my baby boy’s impending first birthday, and my reluctant anticipation of his childhood that’s somehow stirred up recollections of my own.
Like, the other day I remembered how the summer mornings would go when our family planned a drive up to my Great Aunt’s house in the country for a swim in her pool and a barbecue dinner. I’d eagerly ask my mom at breakfast what time we planned to leave. She’d usually respond with some reasonable-sounding-to-an-adult hour, like, “12:00.” But I’d be a complete pain-in-the-neck all morning, grumbling (not sure if this was out loud or in my head) about how late we’d get there, calculating and recalculating exactly how much time I’d have in the pool depending on a) traffic, b) time spent wasted getting out to eat and use the bathroom, c) additional time wasted staying out 15 minutes after eating “so I didn’t get cramps” (ugh!) and d) the hour of sunset.
Once in the pool, I was never sure exactly what time my mother’s final “Now!” would come, but I remember how I loved staying in the pool as the sky darkened, hoping my mother wouldn’t notice, as the lights below the water’s surface would come on, my two brown stick legs kicking and shining in the aqua light, and my wrinkled fingers stretching for more and more and more weightless floating joy.
Today I remembered the Paper Pillow. Growing up, I had the distinct feeling that some of the things that were weird about our family—our funny customs and ways—were because we didn’t have that much money. And while it’s true that we didn’t really have any money, now that I have an adult perspective, I’m not sure that’s the reason for everything. Every family has quirky customs and objects. Take for example, the Paper Pillow.
The Paper Pillow was my pillow. I’d had it for as long as I could remember. Before that it was probably my mom’s pillow for a long time, too. Anyway, the important thing about the Paper Pillow is that it was down pillow. And because we’d had it for a long time, the down was very, very compressed. Sure, you could shake it all to the end to make a pillow-like ball that you could lay your head on fairly comfortably, but by night’s end, your head would be laying flat again on the bed… flat as a piece of paper, as my sister not-so-kindly would point out to me quite frequently.
The thing about the Paper Pillow was, it wasn’t that great for sleeping on. But there was one thing that it was very, very good for: pillow fights. Shaking all those crumpled down feathers into one corner and then twisting the resulting empty case on top into a conveniently long and effectual handle, one could already taste victory. The Paper Pillow was almost too good in a pillow fight; the few times it got snatched away from me, I could feel the kinks in my neck from the blows to my head for days afterward.
As an adult, of course, I revisit my childhood perceptions anew. Why did we keep the Paper Pillow if it was so awful for sleeping on? My childhood narrative was always that we couldn’t afford to replace it. Hmm… maybe. But I’ve got new eyes now—those of a new, tired, working mom—and so now I wonder if maybe it wasn’t that my mom just didn’t have the spare hour/mental energy it would take to get to the store to get me a new pillow with a full-time job and three young kids at home? And I certainly seemed happy as a clam with the pillow as it was, so no harm no foul…
Whatever the reason, the truth was, as much as my sister made fun of me, I was happy as a clam with that dumb Paper Pillow. I couldn’t really explain to you why. I suppose I liked that it had been mine as long as I could remember. Though it didn’t quite work the way a prototypical pillow should, it comforted me in the lonely darkness all the same. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mine, and amidst all of the uncertainties and powerlessness of childhood, that seemed to count for something.