A bicycle has always been more than a machine, as close to flight as possible. Two wheels inspires daydreams and freedom, I believe. I watched my parents teach my brother how to ride in a parking lot, both of them focused on him balancing until he got it. I taught myself on his bike, starting up hill from my house, coasting down the sidewalk in gradually longer increments before tipping over, escaping speed by turning into the alley by our house. The first time I went past the house was exciting and fearful, wobbly, narrowly missing obstacles on both sides of the sidewalk. Rich learned when he was older, when a friend spent the time giving him a push as he tried to find his balance. He remembers after a dozen times telling his friend, “ok, you can let go now.” Not hearing a reply, he quickly looked back to see his friend way far back in the distance.
A child of the 60’s growing up in the 70’s, I was nicknamed Anna Bandana, a flower child wearing my brother’s patched hand-me down bell-bottom jeans, often sporting a hippie-style kerchief to cover my hair if it hadn’t been washed that day. I kept a K-mart special plastic skateboard by the front door, next to a pair of skates that clamped-on my Buster Brown shoes. My pride was a girl’s banana-seat Huffy bicycle, white, with sissy bars, coaster brakes, and rainbow tassles. Discovered in the back of St. Vincent’s Thrift Shop, it was tangled with an assortment of bikes leaning tired against each other in variously rusty conditions; mine was pulled from the middle. A quick hop on the seat and arms stretched to the wide bars verified it was the perfect fit. Even though a little scratched and dented, it was new for me.
To be painfully honest, my name was Anna Banana, which bugged me so much I wanted my name to be Ann. If I so insisted, my nickname became Annie Granny, so I just quit insisting. Mom said she almost named me Louisa Anna, after her. Thank God no. In reality, what she actually called out the door when it was time to come home was, “hey you guys!” or “kids!” so I grew up sorta plural, with some gender identity issues from the beginning. I used to prefer the name “Ann,” short, concise, honest, and simple. When I tried it on, voicing out loud, “my name is Ann,” mom insisted no. Thus, I heard “Anna” when I was in trouble or when something was expected of me. “Anna” had to go to school, toe the line, get beat up by my brother, do chores, be exposed, do what was expected, live up to high standards, attract attention, and fail. If voiced with sarcasm or inflected disappointment, the name “Anna” was like a barb that could pierce right through layers of self-protecting armor straight to my heart. “Ann” became my inner self that I could protect and shelter from scrutiny, and safe. I shared it only with people who would honor the fact that I had introduced myself that way, for no other reason. My confusion only came about later, after the brain injury, when there was too much confusion involved in my identity, as if there was a decision to be made who I was. “Ann” was safe and uninteresting, a muted brown, understated, patient, female, like a bird. Now I prefer “Anna,” a mixed bag of complexity, way more interesting as a completely imperfect package.
Our family owned a boxy hi-fi record player with shoe-box sized speakers that folded out, perched on top of my brother’s dresser. I owned a handful of 45s including Muskrat Love and Jesse’s Girl, and two albums. One was Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Greatest Hits that I won at a 5th grade math game, going “around the world” and so could pick something out from the miscellaneous things the teacher had arranged on the chalk tray as prizes. It was a trophy more than a record, I can’t even remember what it sounded like.
The other record was a stand up comedy recording with a skip in one of the tracks that always stopped the monologue at a particular point, repeating over and over if I wasn’t right there to nudge the needle arm. This repeat has ingrained into memory, over and over, without a clue of the rest of the routine, something about go-carts…
And then there was my mom’s Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Album. So many hours I spent, laying on my back on the floor with my legs straight up the dresser, hours of listening led to knowing every song of the entire album note by note, including the pauses in between. Some of the things I would ponder: Mom said she was at a party in New York when she heard one of the songs for the first time, and had a vision of St. Lucy surrounded by sparkling stars. The band had called out, “what should we name it?” and so she enthusiastically exclaimed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!” She bought the album when she saw the song on the cover. Is that how it happened? I used to wonder. Schizophrenia deposits a mind into their own world, but the details she remembered were so specific and detailed, leading to the reality we shared, most of the time. Where did her insanity begin, the vision, or the memory? Or did she make the entire thing up? Who would I be as a daughter to tell her, that is crazy but that is not? I understood what her “Delusions of Grandeur” could lead to, but where did they begin? Was she attending sophisticated NY parties? I barely believe my mom could be that cool, as we were surrounded by poverty in a tiny apartment in a dirt town. If she had been privileged to hear the Beatles just getting started, how or why would St. Lucy be flying in? Had someone slipped LSD into her drink? I was nine years old pondering those things.
Back then, the “When I’m 64” song seemed quaint… Now, as I’m writing this, that burnt-orange sculpted carpet at my back and antique solid wood dresser rising Escher-esque at my feet seems far away. My second husband (soulmate) is three years shy of his 64th birthday and so here we are at the song. Are we sending Valentines and birthday greetings? Nope, so done with that. Instead, every day we stay together is a minor miracle. Birthday greetings? Cards are hit-and-miss from year to year; just showing up expresses volumes. A bottle of wine? His budget is squarely at ten dollars a bottle, and drinking the smallest glass gives me hot flashes. If he showed up at a quarter to three in the morning, would I lock the door? Nah, he likes the casinos, and sometimes it takes him a day or two. Was my gambling with an art studio, teaching myself business, any different? What about that garden? The landlord’s yard crew sprayed my last one with Round-up, even when I hid it in back. I am not allowed to have a garden in this world. Besides, that’s putting down too many roots. How about Sunday mornings, going for a ride? This grampa and grandma ride our mtn bikes through singletrack with bears.
I attended catholic school on a scholarship, a school that didn’t send a bus to the poor side of town. This meant I rode my bike every day, in all weather, for a hurried 45 minutes every morning. Five miles seemed a long way through each neighborhood to the nicer part of town, and it was, venturing from Scholarship Territory across town to the Land of Privilege where most kids got rides. I’d pull up on the rattling bike and lock it to the rack rain or shine, seeing the steady progression of cars with kids tumbling out. Winter mornings meant peeling cold fingers from the grips, trying to warm a cold nose without too much sniffling, and thawing uncooperative fingers around awkward pencils first class. Getting to school felt like a whip was cracking to get there on time, yet the bike allowed me a few free hours after school exploring detours or stopping at the tiny library to read another science fiction book. A car-ride to school would have meant giving that up; I was happy with the arrangement.
The Huffy was uncomplicated and tough enough to fix with a crescent wrench, hammer, and screwdriver. Changing so many flats, a new tube was finally purchased when so many patches started to overlap. Summers permitted excursions to the library, where they even had a Beta video player with huge clunky, tinny headphones, and a selection of inspiring episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Expeditions went to the city limits and sometimes beyond, off the map with a lunch packed and extra water. As the road stretched out to the unknown, senses heightened. Heat rose visibly from a golden-dry field while ancient oaks by the road offered cool sanctuary. Riding through scent eddies of breezy sage, or occasionally the acrid smell of a unfortunate small animal wafting from the dry ditch. The discordant screech of cicadas rose and fell in the lonely distance, punctuated by encouraging meadowlarks. Going as far as courage allowed, arriving at the unfamiliar horizons of a much larger world, I would stop to eat and look around, absorbing how small I felt, alone, then pedal back to the familiar.