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   y o u r    f o r m a t i v e    y e a r    a t    t h e    h o l i d a y    i n n

--- S A R A H   W E R H A N   B U T T E N W I E S E R

This happened before cable.

In those days, there was pinball in the basement, next to two vending machines, one for soda, one for peanut butter crackers, M&M's and Wrigley's Spearmint gum. The soda machine had buttons you pushed, while food required pulling plastic knobs, then waiting until the desired item careened to the metal gully below, like a barrel going over falls. The ice machine hummed, a white noise device. Green carpet--that chemical shade used on golf courses being the flagship color for Holiday Inn--lined the hallway.

For a quarter you got five tries. By week thirteen, you always got a least two free balls, so the coin lasted a while, like red licorice if you sucked but did not chew. Your younger sister watched you be better a pinball. It set you up for a life of conflict together: the combination of things between you being unfair while she remained mesmerized by you. You smugly pulled your elbow back with what you imagined was finesse and released a silver ball to travel through an impossible maze of flashing lights and buzzing bells.

Another activity was riding the elevator. Since this Holiday Inn was situated just off the expressway that ran between suburbia and the city, across the street from a local television station and a hospital and a restaurant, it did not have fancy aspirations: no glass elevators, no orbiting restaurant with a spectacular view. From the hotel, you could not see the muddy river festooned by ribbons of overcrowded and pitholed highway. For kids who liked to jump down as many stairs as possible at their mothers--and recently their father's--house the elevators stood for something. At first you were not allowed to ride them on your own. Your father relaxed though, and the two of you, or you alone, could travel up and down as often as you liked. It was fun, although during the course of this year elevators lost their mystique.

There was room service, which you often called on school nights or if everyone seemed cranky. The menu went on for pages and pages, including many cocktails that you knew were disgusting. Your father didn't drink. Usually, your father and sister had hamburgers or steak. French fries for you and your sister. You dad always ordered applesauce with his meat. The food came garnished with a sprig of parsley and a beet-red slice of spiced apple. They served Heinz ketchup, the only ketchup that counted. The food came on wheeled tables under silver domes to keep it warm. Lifting the domes always felt special. Room service sometimes delivered breakfast, too: toast and cereal, bacon, fresh fruit. On school days, you didn't have time for complicated breakfasts like French toast or pancakes before you piled into the backseat of your father's car.

Parking was not difficult at this Holiday Inn. Your father could leave the red sedan either in the front of the hotel or in the parking garage. There was nothing particularly unique about this parking lot and garage, other than the fact that the ground seemed to slope in the direction of the river. You were never once nervous in the parking areas of strangers or the dark. So many things have become more dangerous, but that's not the point. What's important here is that parking was simple. Some things had to be.

Your father seemed sad. He was a little man spending almost every night alone in a tall hotel, a building in which the unit allocated to each person was as small as a cubby in the hulking structure, with shiny windows and a big revolving sign in front. There were so many windows it was impossible to know which room was his if you searched the front of the hotel.

Your mother, who wanted him back, didn't want to want him back. When he dropped you off, she did not smile because she hated to see him. She had to be waiting; you were too young to have your own key. Your sister, for one, would be scared to be home alone. Your sister toted her stuffed armadillo with her everywhere, the odd, grey creature your grandmother brought back from a trip to Arizona. You couldn't understand how such an uncuddly animal comforted her. You'd stick to bears, thanks very much. Bears didn't seem to help, though. Loneliness didn't bring you close, just glued you all into the same arena of stickiness, the way insects got caught in a web. Each person's aloneness was separately experienced.

That green--accented by gold--pervaded the entire Holiday Inn: carpets, writing on napkins and room service menus, bedspreads, walls, furniture in the lobby, the astroturf around the front entrance that was in vogue that the turn of seventies before real grass made a renaissance. Green represented money, growth, go at a stoplight. To you, it seemed to signal frivolity and loneliness. For the all the fun you had at the Holiday Inn, you can't say you were never really happy there. It seems dated now, that overly-bright-but-not-quite-neon shade.

It was fun to watch television in bed. This was before your parents dreamed of having more than one set. In those days, there was a room in many houses called den. Now that room has been replaced, modernized by more specialized terms, such as recreation room, exercise room, home office, dressing room. Dens and sewing rooms have, for the most part, gone by the wayside. Time marches on.

Your den had a bright beige carpet, a low-cut shag, with a white built-in shelf unit across one wall, where toys, kids' and adult's books, a sculpture and the television shared the wooden nooks. There was a gold corduroy sofa, which folded out to an uncomfortable bed, with an iron frame nearly poking through the thin mattress. There was a rocking chair in the room, a wicker chest. Windows overlooked both the backyard and the driveway, so you could piece together a panoramic view of someone's arrival. Sometimes you'd keep an eye out for your father when he was on his way to fetch you. Sometimes, you'd gaze upon the strip of concrete driveway--a steep hill-- wishing he would come home for dinner.

In your father' room at the Holiday inn, the television, which was not, in those days, bolted to the floor, sat in front of the couch. You slept on a cot beside the couch. Your sister slept on the second of the two huge beds, beside your father's. You liked the cot; you fancied yourself a pioneering spirit to sleep there. With its wheels, light frame and narrow mattress, the cot had a mobile, compact quality, much like your life. Besides, you slept at a remove from the others, and close to the television.

The beds, by the way, were always newly made for the three of you, each day when you were out a school or doing weekend activities, like shopping or going to the movies or the playground. The sheets stretched across the mattress so tightly your sister needed help yanking them off enough to climb under the covers. The pillow were always plumped, the room always vacuumed. Across the toilet seat, a strip of paper had to be broken when you first lifted the cover. The toilet paper would be folded, like origami, into triangles at the end.

You dad would let you watch television from the under the covers while he sat on the couch. Your sister would be asleep by then, and the room would be dark but for the bright color screen. He let you watch what he liked: The Streets of San Francisco, for example, shows with gritty plots featuring drug busts and murders, upstanding cops, usually without significant social attachments Stories about cops' personal lives compete with fictional chronicles of their work lives these days but not back then. These were shows your mother didn't want you to see: too late and too violent. You didn't mind being a pawn in their fight as long as you could watch Karl Maden and Michael Douglas chase criminals around the Bay area. Your father never listened to your mother, who, in time, relented, probably during a reconciliation with him, and let you watch whatever you wanted.

Because you followed these shows together, it was like you and your dad shared them. They belonged to both of you, not a kid's thing he watched to be a good dad. Even now, there are shows you feel the same way about when the two of you discuss them. But that's nether here not there: what's important about television back then was it provided some other narrative than the surreal one that was going on, the one in which your father lived at the Holiday Inn. And it brought you together. You wanted--all of you--to be close but your time was fractioned off: two nights with him then four with your mom then one with him, three with her, two with him.

Your mother bought you and your sister each a small suitcase: fabric covered, vinyl lining. With flowery patterns, they were pretty, little girl suitcases. If you'd gone out on overnights to friends' houses, weekend trips to your grandparents, a special foray to Washington D.C. to visit the White House and the Smithsonian, you'd have loved your suitcase. In your childhood, though, the White House was the last place you'd be interested in seeing. A bad man, Richard Nixon, lived there. Everyone you knew hated him, way before his political demise. Watergate, at ten, proved to you good could conquer evil. The multi-colored overnight bag had the utility of a briefcase, something too serious for a child to love. It was your home, in a sense, because in it you carried the most important things--threads woven between your existences--like your little red diary, which could be opened only by you with your sliver of a brass key, no bigger than a thumbnail.

Many years later, you happened upon the suitcase--a relic by then--in your mother's basement. You felt sickened by nostalgia. That sensation, a memory of things loved but hated at once, defines your childhood. You've often wondered if it's your childhood alone that is remembered this way, or everyone's. Had your parents stayed together, happily, would you have radically different perspective or is childhood a mind-altering, out of body experience no matter what?

What you felt, with your father leaving, was that the family you longed for could never be repaired. Your parents wanted something they hadn't had in so long they weren't sure where they'd turned away from it, while you and your sister wanted the security of how things were when they were together. You wanted to trust them. But you never could, not ever again.

The Holiday Inn promised certain things--fresh sheets, hot showers, clear television reception, ample parking, a pleasant wake-up call before progress inserted an automated message, room service--and it delivered. Your parents uttered this oft-repeated incantation: we both love you. And it was true, just not as simple to check as the cleanliness of the rooms at the Holiday Inn. Love meanders, falters, gets interpreted in many different ways. You learned about love over time, starting that year.

Cable may make cynicism too easy. You got to cry at the end of each of Walton's episode, first run, when it was more real than reruns ever can be. Before the boom and bust of the eighties, people idealized a family sticking together through the Depression; looking back there was something almost allegorical about that show.

You lived at the Holiday Inn, out of a suitcase. It seems now that the times were so innocent, even as you were relinquishing the security people want to call childhood, before the culture took for granted that children forget that safety all the time, the rule and not the exception. Because what you lost you perceived as fragile; a tenderness still surrounds its disappearance, and somehow, that's what's protected you for all of these years.

© crossconnect 1995-2002 |
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |