THE street on which I lived as a child was very wide. It was made at the turn of the century to accommodate large homes, expansive lawns, and big elm trees. The elm trees got so big that at one time they arched over Western Avenue, creating in the fall a tunnel of bright leaves and branches. When the Dutch elm blight took many of them away, it left more open space, more room to see the houses. One of those houses belonged to Dr. Sehring. His house was up the street from my house, on the other side. It wa s the last house that I could see from my bedroom window in winter, when the leaves on the big trees had fallen.
I liked to go up past Dr. Sehring's house to a big square block of concrete by the side of the street. The block had served as a platform where carriages would come and pick up or deliver people. There were steps on one side going down to the street, and a large round iron loop on top. I sat on the block, played with the iron ring, and thought about the carriage days on Western Avenue.
One fall day I walked up the sidewalk to sit on the platform and let my mind wander. As I approached Dr. Sehring's house, I saw him on the sidewalk. I stopped and spoke to him and told him who I was, in case he hadn't remembered. I had met him once on the elevator in my dad's office building; he had his office there too. He and my dad were both doctors, and they happened to be specialists in the same field.
Dr. Sehring was a generation older than my father, and old enough to be my grandfather. I was drawn toward older people since I had no grandparents at hand; my father's parents were no longer alive, and my mother's parents lived very far away. After I had met Dr. Sehring on the elevator, I listened when Dad talked about him. I had created an imaginative picture of what his life was like behind the beautiful wrought-iron fence that ran across the front of his home.
Now, on the street, we spoke. He told me about his son who was a banker, and about his daughter who lived in the house behind his. He was proud that she was married to a lawyer who had gone to Princeton. He was glad they lived so close. He asked me about myself, and he listened to me. Then I left him to go sit on the block of cement, play with the horse ring, and add what I had heard that day to what I had imagined about this grandfatherly man.
Not long afterward, it snowed. I woke up that morning and knew that my first task of the day (since it was Saturday) would be shoveling the sidewalk. I uncovered the long, curving approach to our house from the street. When I was finished at home, I did something else. I went up the street and shoveled Dr. Sehring's sidewalk.
I usually hated doing work like this: My mother was regularly reduced to begging me to do yardwork. But something was different that morning. I wanted to shovel that sidewalk for the old man, so I did it. About halfway through, Dr. Sehring came out and gently wondered aloud at my action. I told him that it was something that I just wanted to do for him, and he accepted that without question. We talked, I finished, and he slipped me a dollar. That was OK, but it wasn't why I was there. I was there because
I wanted to continue by my initiative the connection that our recent conversation had begun.
Later, Dr. Sehring saw my dad on the elevator, and he mentioned what I had done and what a nice boy I was. What he never knew, and what I have only begun to see is that on that snowy morning long ago, I began to harken to my clues - those nudges to do something I don't fully understand at the time, but which I feel to be appropriate and necessary.
It never snows where I live now. And I do not know when or if I shall ever see that wide avenue again. But what I learned there I live now, harkening to my clues and living by their leadings.
Maybe I needed a grandfather and was looking for that kind of attention when I went up the street and did a job which, by nature, I was disinclined to do. And who knows what deep inner needs have subsequently impelled my choice of profession, of my mate, of being a dad, or of taking the time today to think and write about a brief moment in my childhood? But whatever these needs have been, are, and will be, I honor them. However obscure their roots remain, I want the clues as to who I am to keep coming.
How do the clues come? With an image and an urge, with seeing in my mind's eye an old man's sidewalk swept of snow and wondering how it would feel to enact the image ... and then doing it. They come with vivid yet unsought memories of brief moments from my childhood and the urge to give them away in words ... and then doing so, but for reasons that I do not so much apprehend (and certainly do not control) as simply honor. Honoring my clues gets me to where I need to go, even back to the meaning of moment s within a matrix of relationships which no longer exists as it once did, except within me. The places may have changed, and the people may have gone. But the clues keep coming, irresistibly.