The late musicologist and audiophile Edward Tatnall Canby used to say that the length of your perceived memories is a constant, that as you get older the years get closer and closer together, like the calibrations on a VU meter as the volume — as your volume — diminishes into inaudibility.

Before I fall off the scale, therefore, I want to mention a few things that simply must be preserved for posterity.

1961: "Legare" is an Old Charleston sort of name, and Old Charleston did things differently, so you shouldn't be surprised that it's pronounced "luh-GREE". Like Simon. George Legare had been a Congressman in the previous century, and for some reason Charleston County chose to name a public housing project after him. Across the road was a "separate-but-equal" facility for persons of African-American descent, this one named for a Senator, in this case "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, one of South Carolina's most blatant white racists. One of the state's little jokes, I suppose. But I was too young to understand all these details; I was busy colonizing a series of abandoned culverts just off the edge of the project, and playing the occasional game of hopscotch. In fact, one of the neighborhood girls and I spent the better part of a summer day creating an Olympic-size hopscotch court. Forget jumping to ten, or even twenty; to negotiate this course, you had to complete nearly two hundred squares, circles, and whatever other polygons we saw fit. And we were about to do exactly that when the rain started and all our hard work and most of our chalk washed away into the grass.

1973: The old Boston Public Library scowled down on Copley Square, and the interior, all rosewood walls and gooseneck lamps and murals, was a scary sort of place for a kid away from home. And around the corner was the library's annex, which struck me at the time as a domestic version of those modern soulless bunkers you'd see housing the proletariat in Eastern Europe. In between was a courtyard, seemingly miles, even years, away from the noises on Boylston Street, stuck in the Twilight Zone between the old and the new. I was twenty years old and very uneasy about everything, but here, for a few moments each weekend, I found a measure of peace.

1978: This was the first time anyone had actually used the word "stillbirth", and we were absolutely horrified. "We're still not getting any readings," they said, pointing to the fetal-monitoring apparatus. How could this be? "Sometimes they strangle themselves on the cord." Fighting back the tears, we resolved to get on with the delivery; there would be time enough for mental anguish later.

And then came the shift change. "Goodness," said the new arrival. "Doesn't anyone know how to hook these things up correctly?" A bit of prestidigitation, and suddenly the room was filled with beeps and whirs and more than a little invective, which was put aside long enough to tend to a more immediate need.

When she was born, she gave out with one sharp, piercing shriek, and then suddenly quieted down. I could be wrong, but I could swear she was smiling. "Write me off, will you? You'll see."

We did, too.

The Vent

#226
25 December 2000

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