Dana VanderLugt | Teacher & Writer

What I Remember

by | Jan 23, 2019 | On living, On teaching, On Writing | 0 comments

This past fall, on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, I attended a writing workshop with my college poetry professor, Jack Ridl. We were cozied into a small church hall and given permission to dig into our memories and free write and start pieces that maybe we’d finish one day and maybe we wouldn’t. As a middle school teacher, I loved free writing alongside my students. There’s usually something surprising that happens when you give yourself 10 minutes, a pen, and a prompt. Here’s one of my free writes from that fall Saturday, when asked to think about the era in which I grew up, for me the 80s and spilling into the early 90s of adolescence.

We wore plastic earrings, charm necklaces. We listened to Tiffany and Debbie Gibson on Saturday nights, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on Sundays. We watched our first-grade teacher cry when a space shuttle blew up and tried to figure out why our sixth-grade teacher was so excited about some crumbling wall in Germany.

Our group of 26 had been together for each year of elementary school, and we were mostly kind to each other, except I felt sorry for Simon — on his birthday everyone turned up their noses and refused to eat his birthday treat because it was made with goat’s milk from his parents’ farm. Rollerskating parties were the social events of the year and two weeks of recess scheming would determine who went with whom for each couple’s skate, especially for ladies’ choice. My palms still sweat to think about it.

On warm days, I laced up my own roller skates and twirled circles around the small cement pad by our garage with a baton in my hand, golden streamers attached to the end. The rest of the driveway was gravel and I walked on it without shoes. My feet were tough and flip-flops had not found their way to our closets, yet. We doctored mixtapes and talked to our friends on the phone with long, slinky-like cords stretched into our closets, our bedrooms. We were kind and always rewound the videos we rented. My family was the last I knew to get a VCR, a microwave. I remember my dad slicing his hand opening the box and saying it was a bad omen. Food isn’t meant for radiation anyway.

Our playhouse in the backyard had a swing set inside a sandbox. We begged for the hose and a chance to flood it, to create lakes and rivers under the swings, around the glider and slide. Inside the cornfield that surrounded our house, we found empty patches where the corn failed to grow and pretended we were the BoxCar children and we were living alone, just trying to survive, live off the land. We gleaned cucumbers from the garden and cut them with dull knives, made beds out of corn stalks, and bickered over whose turn it was to bring back water. Once, my little brother snuck in matches to our cornfield hiding spot and started a fire that almost brought down the whole field.

At suppertime, I sat by the window and watched for my dad’s car to come up the hill in the distance, counting down from ten over and over, each time willing it to show up when I arrived triumphantly at one. My heart fluttered when I finally saw him coming, like a tiny matchbox car making its way toward us.

On Friday nights, we piled in the Caprice Classic, me in the center of the back seat because I was least likely to smack my siblings, and go out for dinner: Pizza Hut or a Dutch burger joint named Russ’ (think Big Boy with wooden shoes).  On Saturdays, my dad and brother spent the days working with Grandpa, dad’s dad, on his orchard. My mom, sisters, and I cleaned the house, and then picked up Grandma, mom’s mom, to drive two towns over to the mall. It smelled like pizza by the slice and cinnamon rolls as big as my head. I never bought much, maybe a trinket or two from the Dollar Tree with money I had earned babysitting. I stopped at the Deb store, looked longingly at the prom dresses, and prayed my Sunday School teacher was wrong and Jesus wouldn’t come back before I got to wear one.

The author in braces and bibs, 1988.

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