Saturday, March 18, 2017
The First Home, Atyah Lane
I don’t remember exactly which house I grew up in, of the few that I remember. Most of my memories though go back to Atyah Lane, though some of my memories go back further, rooted in the old colonial house that we lived in, huge, a bit moldy and old, a grand staircase, and tales of ghosts due to the rumor (or fact?) that WWII soldiers were buried beneath or near the house. Still others, perhaps the most recent, go back to the village house shared with family in a village. One very distinct memory I have of the colonial house is of a scorpion scuttling across the cold marble floor. The house was English in every way, except that it was built on Burmese soil, surrounded by Buddhist culture and a tropical climate. In fact, the tropical climate seemed to have overtaken the old home. It bore signs of mold on the outside and had a certain dark caste to it. I always see the house in shadows or on a dark, rainy day, the white marble staircase and exterior contrasted with green tropical foliage, growth and mold.
But Atyah Lane was not in any way dark, unless you consider living on the edge of a cemetery dark. Atyah Lane was a sunny place, in any case. It was wide open to its environs, the countryside, or suburb if you will, around Rangoon. You came upon it along a dusty, flat road full of scrubby plants and active life – dogs and people going into town and back – and turned into a circular driveway where you would see my father’s jeep, the army green landrover, and a black dog, Chabo, running to greet you, barking. Behind the house there was a Buddhist cemetery. I remember seeing burning pires, and smelling the rituals of Buddhist funerals. I would peer over the fence, wondering. My brother played soccer on the other side of that fence, I think. The earth there looked dry and reddish gold. There was a sense of peace and beauty about the place.
I don’t remember the inside of the Atyah Lane house at all. There was a gardener and a dog and many flowers, along the circular drive, that I now know as a variety called “glass flowers” in a shade of delicate lavender with feathery leaves. I was fascinated by those flowers and I still associate them with the sun, and reddish gold earth and – monsoons!
I don’t remember my sister’s presence, so would guess that she hadn’t yet been born when we lived there. So I must have been about 4 years old. My brother and I played near the cemetery and on swings. He loved to tease me mercilessly and I remember the few times he got carried away. He pushed me on the swings, higher and higher until I was terrified. At one point I fell from the swing and cut something, maybe my arm or back? It hurt and I was scared. I think Richard felt bad about it. I know that soon after the injury my mother was looking me over. I survived.
Richard and I loved to go out and play in the rain. We would run out onto the muddy golden driveway, the mud claylike and crawling with tropical worms the size of large stick pretzels. Richard would pick up the fat brown worms and drape them from his mouth to disgust me or chase me, teasing, then fling the worms in my face. I remember the warm rain, like a bath, a shower coming down hard, without any wind, and the sun peeking through. It was a rainbow rain, perfect for wet play. The feel of mud beneath, squishy golden clean mud and the glistening rain warmed by the sun, eternal and blissful. I shall never forget the joy of playing in it all. However, I did develop a terrible fear, a phobia really, of earthworms. I am so grateful that my parents, my mother especially, never prevented us from playing in all kinds of weather and conditions. I’m convinced that it contributed to our creativity, to this day, and our sense of playfulness and humor. Richard, Janet and I share those qualities. If you want to understand someone better, ask them how they played as children.
Atyah Lane had the jeep in front of the house, ready for adventures. How my father loved driving that jeep and how much we loved tagging along. One day, my father took us three kids (or maybe just the two of us, me and Richard?) to a lake, maybe Inye Lake. It was not a shoreline within Rangoon, but more remote and there was no one else there that I can recall. It almost seemed like an ocean shoreline, but it was most definitely a lake. My father drove the jeep slightly into the water, with a sense of adventure and daring and it gave me the oddest feeling of driving on water, into water – the incongruity of it, the contrast – it felt scary and weird, freaky, but thrilling too. We parked on the shore of the lake and my father built a fire and suspended a pot over it and boiled split peas in water. I think he was intending to make dahl but it tasted like slightly raw split pea soup with no salt or seasonings. It actually tasted good within that spirit of adventure, roughing it on the shore of a Burmese lake, in the company of just my father and brother and possibly my little sister as well.
When I was about 5 years old, I wandered out to the dusty road to play. Coming towards me along the dusty road was a black dog. As he got closer, I could see that he was not normal in the sense that dogs are friendly creatures. And when he got close and tried to “kiss” me, it was with a frothy mouth and glazed eyes. He tottered away, unsteady on his legs. Later, at dinner, my maternal grandmother insisted to my parents that I had been licked by a mad, rabid dog and that I would need immediate treatment for rabies. So my parents took me to the hospital where I had been born, the Rangoon Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. Over the course of the next few weeks, I had daily injections directly into my abdomen. The needle was the size of a knitting needle. After the first couple of times, the mere sight of the hospital sent me into a panic. I was filled with terror of the white coats that stood waiting on the inside of the hospital to inject me as I lay helpless, my abdomen exposed. The needle looked scary but the shot was more painful than the fear. By the third or fourth time we pulled up in front of the hospital I knew very well what awaited me inside and I would screech, kick and try to get away. My parents decided half way through the shots that I would have no more of them. They would risk rabies to save my young mind, consumed with dread. I still fear doctors, hospitals, the smell of disinfectant, and those white coated saints waiting to heal by inflicting pain.