Jefferson, the little country school about a mile north and a little east of the Paxton place, the one where I spent kindergarten, is no more; but I can still see its iconic structure, black trim with white wooden siding, shaded by huge elms and pines on two sides, a ways back from the roads on the south and the west. Beautiful white steps, three, it seemed to me, and a playground to the east, the side that if I could move in time I would gaze at the house on the hill that we lived in during part of my sophomore and junior year, the Botna place. I don’t know to whom we paid rent for that place. If it existed now as it did then, it would have to be condemned by county officials, I’m sure.
The entryway was a strange geometric space. The opening to the main room where we were taught and where Christmas pageants was at a diagonal, the door only shut during blizzards and cold winds. There was no door that set off the coat room from the rest of the school. We would walk directly in the coat room, take off our five-buckle overshoes, if we had them on, which was always advisable, set them with their heels against the wall under the coat rack, and then hang up our coats on the pegs. A small pedestal sink with pink soap in a cradle by the faucet was on the far side of the coatroom, next to another opening that led into the one-room classroom.
At Jefferson there was only one Christmas pageant of which I was a part as were all of the other students. Every year the students put on a Christmas show for our parents and siblings, friends, and neighbors: acting and singing, carols, games, deserts after. I don’t think it was that Christmas pageant in which I first acted but it could have been, but I do have memories of singing “Silent Night” for every Christmas pageant except the sixth-grade one at Greeley. The parents snuck in gifts to put under the tree as if Santa Claus magically appeared and disappeared with a nod. That one Christmas the only thing that I remember was this toy, a pull toy of a wooden black dog with some white spots, not a dalmatian, more like a dachshund. It was about a foot long, its body a slinky, a string on its nose that I held onto as I pulled it around the room. I delighted in its clackling legs. I was my mom and dad’s first born. My oldest sister was my mother’s from her first husband, a husband who died from tuberculosis. Betty was not at the party, as far as I can remember.
Years later in Sioux Falls, soon after leaving my second husband, after an afternoon of garage sailing, I stopped at this one house south of McKennan Park. My children weren’t with me, thank god. I parked on the east side of the street and walked across into an older garage with a cracked cement floor. Some of the items for sale were vintage toys: a metal top, the more you pumped it, the faster it would go; a slinky dog like the one I received at Christmas; old play trucks and cars. There in the middle of that garage as I stood in front of the black slinky toy dog displayed on a chest-high table, I experienced a completely disorientating anxiety attack, one that resulted in my not remembering who or where I was. All I knew is that I had to leave. I stared out the opening and recognized my car, but instead of walking towards it, I backed out of the garage; then turned around and ran to my car. Once inside I locked the door. The separation and the impending divorce were harrowing, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the anxiety attack. Something had happened to me as a child and the toy that I had, something that only exists in the far reaches of my memory, unable to be touched or witnessed again.