The most vivid memories aren't those carved in stone but the ones etched in the mind. Memory deepens with the years, the way a river carves through rock, slowly creating canyons, revealing old layers, unveiling pain you'd kept decently covered before, bringing it all back. Sometimes the river cannot be contained and will overflow its banks. You feel the emotions swelling. Maybe on an anniversary, or when you hear a certain song, or for no discernible reason at all. And it all comes back, the joy and anguish of the past cresting in your mind.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I think of the old lady in black. She was a fixture of my childhood, never speaking, but always there in one of the little shops up the street just a few doors from ours in Shreveport. Texas Avenue was lined with such shops, many with living quarters above. Every family had its own history, customs, story to tell -- whether Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Syrian (as we called them then rather than Lebanese), or just Other.
The thriving black downtown was a couple of long blocks away, complete with its own stores, restaurants and cafés, newspaper office, movie theater and night life. A different, off-limits world that smelled different, sounded different, looked different, not in any way you could put your finger on, but that was palpable. For white folks, there might as well have been a sign up where that stretch of the avenue began: Not For You.
In short, mine was a typical, all-American neighborhood. We kids spent a lot of time underfoot in other families' kitchens. Long before I learned it was called baklava when bought at a bakery, I watched Aunt Lillie up the street -- Aunt Lillie Beiruti because she was from Beirut -- roll out and stretch the philo dough again and again for baklewi, she called it in Arabic. It covered the whole kitchen table and drooped over the edge -- to be filled with nuts and fruit before being baked to a flaky brown. The first taste was served fresh out of the oven, dripping honeyed goodness. There is nothing like food as a preservative of memory. I have never tasted anything as good. Childhood memory go deep and stay vivid. I can feel my taste buds come alive just writing about baklewi.
Years later, I would learn that Texas Avenue was considered a rough neighborhood in those days, which came as a surprise. To a little boy, it was just the way life was. I would have been surprised to learn that my world was anything but warm and homey.