Recently I gave a pair of old plastic plates to charity. It’s interesting how letting go of attachments to certain things can create a cathartic release. I had those plates for 17 years — they were the symbol of an era for me —but it was the right time and place to let them go.
The plates joined our household the year we moved to Austin. One was neon green, the other electric pink. Like school cafeteria trays, they were divided into three sections to keep the food from mixing. They were perfect for Zach’s tiny hands, just learning to navigate big plates and little forks.
I paid $4 for those plates, an impressive return on investment, about 24 cents a year. The real return is thinking back to the hundreds of meals Zach and I shared on them. Marred and worn, they held their contents with unyielding, bright green and pink dignity until the end.
The year we got here was 1995. The steamy air of mid-summer clung to my skin like iron dust on a magnet as I opened the door to the borrowed, beat up van that carried us and our possessions down from north Texas. The certainty I had felt in drafting my grand plan dampened with my skin in the thick air.
What was I thinking? How was I going to get all this stuff out of the van? It was crammed top to bottom with furniture – a television (when they weighed 50 pounds), a couch, Zach’s heavy Cargo bed.
I couldn’t even lift them, let alone pry them from their precarious positions. The friends who had helped me load up hadn’t asked what the plan was once I got here. I wasn’t worried about it then.
Resolute, I tried to extricate the television from atop the stack. No luck. I tried again and again. Then I went upstairs to our one-bedroom apartment, sat in the cool air of the empty space, and bawled. After a good cry, I straightened up and went back downstairs.
As I stood at the back of the van looking foolishly perplexed, two young men walked up and asked, “¿Necesitas ayuda?” “Si, gracias,” I said with infinite gratitude. They proceeded to gently unpack the entire van and place all our belongings in the apartment without taking anything for their time and kindness.
I picked Zach and Carmen Sandiego up from my parent’s house a few days later. Carmen was a birthday present to Zach – his third birthday. If you asked him today, he’d say the cat never cared much for him, and vice versa. There is a grain of truth in his memory; their relationship was one of tolerance more than tenderness.
Petite, with a white belly, and brownish black splotches on her back and across her face, Carmen was small for a grown cat. When our lab mix puppy came home a couple years later, Carmen didn’t mind. Maybe the boy will stop trying to pick me up now, I imagined her thinking.
The balcony of our little apartment faced south and awarded us a stately view of the University of Texas law school. Being close to I-35, we were cautious and made sure Carmen wore her tags. She was free to go outside but we kept track, something Zach loved to do. Like living in the detective story, “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego,” her namesake.
One day late that fall after we were settled into our peaceful little home, we realized Carmen was nowhere to be found. She was not lounging on the futon in the living room nor under Zach’s bed. In fact, we quickly realized, she hadn’t been there when we left that morning.
We promptly put on our gumshoe thinking caps and laid out a plan. For a four year-old, Zach was impressively clever. First we walked north on Swisher, combed the parking lots of the adjacent buildings, looped around toward Red River and then south, back around to our quaint, brick complex. From there we headed east on 26th Street — now Dean Keaton — toward Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant.
“Carmen? Where are you?” we sang out. I can hear Zach’s little voice now.
We finished our caper but no luck. Zach scoured photos of Carmen while I cooked our favorite dinner, served on our fabulous new neon green and electric pink cafeteria plates. We moved out to the balcony as we did most nights for al fresco dining with a world-class view of majestic oak trees and the UT training facility, and the resonant hum of I-35 in the air.
That night, we made posters and hung them on every pole we could find. Still no word. “She has tags, Zach,” I said. “Someone will call.”
Several months passed before we got the call from Dougherty Arts Center on Barton Springs Road. “Do you own a cat?” asked the caller.
“Yes, she’s been missing for months.”
“Well, I’ve got a very dirty little feline sitting here and she looks like she’d like to go home.”
Where in the city is Carmen Sandiego? Past the university campus, through downtown and across the river! Having Carmen home just in time for our first holiday in Austin made the lights on 37th Street that much brighter.
That same Cargo bed those young men unloaded from the van now sits discreetly in my home office behind a screen. It is made up with grownup linens and dressed like a day bed so it doesn’t look like kids’ furniture.
Well, maybe that’s true, but I’m also attached. Like I was to those plastic plates that symbolized a simpler time of togetherness and adventure. I must have tucked Zach in his bed thousands of times.
It might be time to find that cathartic release, make room for a new era and say good-bye to that bed. On the other hand, maybe just putting it in storage will do.
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