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  • Mj Pettengill

Remembering Innocence


General Store, Public Domain
General Store, Public Domain

I meandered through the tall, golden grass—the abandoned pasture—and climbed over the gray weathered fence to go to Glenn Smith’s store. The floors creaked, and the slamming of the screen door summoned a sense of comfort. This experience is more valuable than gold.

Usually bubbling with activity, it was, by nature, a gathering place—a genuine, quintessential country store. When I wasn’t there for candy or ice cream, I was getting a few staples for my mother—two quarts of milk, a loaf of bread, and the Manchester Union. She called that out so often it had become imprinted like the lyrics of an over-played song. Penny candy was a penny. Whether from a cooler inside the store or an old-school vending machine, soda came in thick glass bottles. I saved the Bazooka Joe comics inside the bubble gum wrapper, and I savored things like Smarties, candy necklaces, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. I didn’t know it then, but the familiar folks who worked in the store kept a watchful eye on us. Consumerism aside, we were as much a vital part of their lives as they were ours. Our bonds—pure elements of safety, good intention, and authenticity threaded through our families. We respected one another because we were a treasured community. I look back and say to myself, “Ahh, innocence, I remember you.” Of course, this is where innocence resides and, depending on your story, was lost. Was it perfect? Of course not. Even in an idyllic town consisting of cheerful houses, white picket fences, and tidy gardens, the human experience is far from perfect.

We were on the cusp of the quickening pace of technological advancement, lacking the distractions from life and living that rushed into our existence when we embarked on our own childbearing years. Everything simply sped up. I left this town when I was eleven years old. We moved one town over, but still, it was a significant change. Situated on a different, bigger lake, with new people, it offered more open space. It was good for me. There, I attended a two-room schoolhouse with thirty-two kids in the entire school. After one year there, I was back with my former classmates at a regional junior and senior high school.

After raising my family, I happened to return to this quaint town. At first, I was hesitant, but I could not resist the rustic nineteenth-century farmhouse or the pristine land. Being back here was much like stepping into a painting. The buildings and landscape remain the same, but without the people. The general store, gas station, and other small businesses are long abandoned. The number of children, and people in general, were greatly diminished. At first, it was unsettling. Mingled in sweetness and melancholy that continue to come back in waves, I walk around town, reconnecting with stonewalls, trees, and memories. When I was eight, I climbed my magic tree and suffered an injurious fall. When I wrote my latest book, Down from the Tree, I discovered that I had left a part of my soul there in its heart. It still stands at the edge of the field where I visit often. It waited for my return. So, is this progress? With the recent turn of global, social events, there is merely a faint echo of the distant past. I can only conjure up a vision of what was once a thriving community. Yes, I am deep in the woods. It works for me—the perennial hermitess. However, it brings about a unique haunting only understood by those who rode their bikes around the ring, listened for the church bells to know when it was time to go home, and waved to Pete Burnham, the friendly dump man. These ghosts still wander, reminding me of who we were in what seemed to be another lifetime. Is this what everyone experiences? We grow, evolve, de-evolve, and grow some more before comprehending what once was? With many questions pressed upon me, I struggle between longing and grief—gratitude and knowing. My return to this town has awakened a new chord in my heart.

For now, I give thanks for those times. The memories remain protected and cherished deeply within. During a time of unprecedented separation and uncertainty wrapped in limitless faith, it is where my dreams take me, where peace reigns in my heart. Recently, I have not written as often as I would like. However, I am all the better for the telling of this story. In the fire of my own courage, I continue to find my way. (Ballad of a Sandwich Girl: Memoir Unpublished)