“It’s because you were born in the Year of the Monkey,” my mother liked to tell me.

That was how she made sense of my penchant for climbing. My desire to climb anything and everything all came down to the whim of the zodiac.

As a child, I had no fear of heights. If there was a ladder, I wanted to climb it. If there was a toehold pathway to the top of a cliff, I would take it. The high dive at the community swimming pool? I dove from it. The edge of a tall building? I peered over it.

My childhood ascents nearly killed me.

Now as an adult, I shiver at the many close calls. At the same time, I feel a rush of nostalgia for the little girl who knew no limits.

Memories are fragile things. They shimmer across screens of our recollections. Many are layered with the aid of photographs and family stories. The blur of silver nitrate, the wash of light and time, creep into the stories we hold in our hearts, stories told again and again, embellished, forgotten, too. My childhood memories are pressed into an old photo album I used to thumb through. The album washed away in a flood, but the memories linger. They resonate with my mother’s voice.

Author on the back porch of the Reid House.

Author on the back porch of the Reid House.

I am on the back porch of the old Reid House. That’s the house my parents moved into when they left Japan and before they bought the sprawling place on South Main Street.

I am dazzled by the sun streaming through the openings in a lattice panel. It casts a crisscross pattern like a checkerboard on the porch floor that trembles with each movement of the lush green foliage dancing in the breeze.

I imagine I stared for hours at that checkerboard, plotting my next move, dreaming of escape.

I was just an infant.

There is a photograph of me sitting in a playpen there. I’m bald-headed and round and because the photograph is over-exposed I’m nearly luminous. Since I am sitting on my own, I must be over six months old, so the photograph would have been taken sometime in August.

I am straining to escape the captivity of my playpen. I have thrust my arms through the space between the bars, my face pinioned there, smiling. In my tiny brain I am sure I can see myself slipping through those bars, like Houdini, and sliding into the summer greenery beyond the porch.

As a child, I never quite understood the relativity of size and space.
I would squeeze myself into places that were obviously too small to accommodate me. I suppose I believed if I tried to pass through them, the barriers would melt away and yield to me or that I would transgress them as easily as Casper-the-ghost.

My concept of size was as tenuous as my concept of height. I would clamber atop cabinets, lintels, and up stairways, without a second thought. Once, when I was three years old I climbed up on the sink in the bathroom and pulled a bottle of baby aspirins out of the medicine cabinet.

Baby aspirins were delicious, you may recall. They were a delicate orange. Candy-like.

My sister, Beth, found me playing with the empty bottle and sounded the alarm. Mother took me to Dr. Wilkerson’s office and had my stomach pumped. They said a high-school football player had to be brought in from the waiting room to help hold me down.

It was Christmas Eve. The doctor told Mother I would have been dead by morning if she hadn’t brought me in. I don’t remember that, of course.

Once, Mother told me, I climbed the tall staircase in the house by myself. She kept a baby gate across the stairway to prevent me from doing just that. Undeterred, I crawled along the outer edge of the stairway, on the thin space where the treads stuck out beyond the bannister. To me, it looked like it was made precisely for little feet—a separate stairway just for a child—and so I began my ascent.

Where the staircase met the second floor, though, the child’s staircase ended, abruptly. I had nowhere to go. I tried to squeeze between the bannister and the second floor but just couldn’t fit. No Casper magic for me.

There was nothing left to do but scream.

Mother came running.

She could not reach me from below as I was way over her head. She couldn’t pull me up over the bannister either. I had wedged myself too tightly.

She called my father.

On his instructions, she pried my hands loose from the railings and dangled me out by my arms away from the staircase, aiming for my father’s outstretched arms. Although he was nearly six foot four, and with a significant wing span, even he could not reach me from where he stood on the hallway below.

“Let her go, Louise,” my father coached. “I’ll catch her.”

And so I sailed down from the second floor, landing neatly in my father’s big hands.

I don’t really remember that episode, though Mother recounted it to me so many times I feel I can see it now.

“You were our little monkey,” she liked to tease.

There was one more misadventure that is still very vibrant—as vibrant as a monkey’s memory can be.

I was two or three. Given my inclination to climb and roam at will, my father had ingeniously fashioned a gate over the top of my crib. It was the same kind of accordion gate they had earlier pulled across the staircase. [It hadn’t worked then. Hope springs eternal, I guess.]

When it was time for me to sleep, my parents put me in my crib and pulled the gate across the top. I wasn’t going anywhere. They could sleep without worry.

I remember lying on my back in the crib and looking up at the gate. When pulled tight, the wooden slats formed diamond-like patterns.

I bet I can fit through one of those diamonds, I told myself.

I bet my sisters are up and having fun right now.

Let’s go!

I sat on my knees and pushed my head up through the diamond, and now my arms and shoulders. But wait? What is this? My arms went through other diamonds. I couldn’t get head and hands through the same opening. This isn’t going to work.

When I tried to pull my head back down, I couldn’t.

I was stuck.

I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t get back down.

There was nothing left to do but scream.

Mother came running.

“Well, Becky! What have you gotten yourself into now?” She tried to push my head through but I was screaming so loudly, she couldn’t get it to budge.

She called my father.

He placed his big hand over my head and twisted it back and forth until he had fit it back through the diamond opening in the gate.

“She could have hung herself, Luther!” my mother whispered.

The next morning, he took the gate off and never again tried to confine his monkey daughter.

Somehow, I managed to survive.