4. The Notches

Those summers they’d come spilling out of the car: my three older cousins pent up in a station wagon for the eight-hour drive from Cleveland to Perth Amboy. My brother and I would sit in my grandparents’ tiny living room and keep watch at the window, veiled in lace curtains. When the station wagon pulled up to the curb three spindly figures would come running up the steps. We waved and yelled from far away, but up close we greeted each other by measuring ourselves—how tall did you get?—first face to face and then back to back, in pairs. Then grandpa got out the butcher knife, and everyone fell quiet. One by one he called us over to stand in the kitchen doorway with our backs against the wall. “W—-,” he’d call. “C—-.” Each in turn, each as still as we’d ever been in our lives, as he tapped the knife into the door frame right above our heads. We each got a new notch in the wood. None of them were marked. Each year we knew who owned the one on top but the rest were claimed by memory or lore or sheer insistence as the definitive measures of old and new and of how much we’d grown.

I think of the notches now, not often; of the notchmaker dying and the house having been sold. I imagine a remodeled kitchen and a knicked-up piece of varnished molding discarded on a pile at the curb. I feel the weight and disorder of debris. I want to find, and will never find, the strange safety of being small, of being held against a wall with a hand on my stomach and a knife blade overhead.

March 4, 2012