Mary Poppins, Fried Clams & Saving My Finger (And Mr. Banks)

Outside the grand Victorian home of my friend Suzie, perched midway up Locust Avenue in Amsterdam, NY, a snowstorm rages. The roads have become, for the next few hours, impassable. My mother, who dropped me off earlier in the day to play with Suzie, phones and says she can’t come to pick me up for a while. At the top of the winding staircase, I pause and look into the family room, feeling the first tears of fear and abandonment creep out of my eyes. I will them to stop, and Suzie’s Mom puts a comforting arm around me. I can’t be more than five years old, and it is one of the first memories that will stay with me for my entire life.

It’s a memory that melds with other memories of that stately house on Locust, where we spent our Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, where we spent most of Suzie’s younger birthdays, where I played in the garden and shared grape taffy beneath a grape arbor. The sweet spring scents of bearded iris and peonies still bring me back to those days. A love of flowers was nurtured there, my love of gardening too. And my familial friendship with Suzie. She came to mind as I sat watching ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ the other day. I loved the film, mostly because I had such a love of ‘Mary Poppins.’ And fried clams. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and making a shambles of this narrative. Let’s go back again ~ to the first time I saw ‘Mary Poppins,’ and fittingly it was with Suzie.

It can’t have been too long before or after the opening memory. If my parents trusted me with anyone it was their closest friends, Dr. and Mrs. Ko (Suzie’s parents). Since Suzie was born two months before me, we were destined to be friends, though in actuality we were more like brother and older sister. It was one of the first trips I can remember taking without my mother, and it must have been half an hour away in Colonie, because we were going to have lunch first at Friendly’s. As we neared the mall, my fingers resting on the slightly ajar backseat window, enjoying the rushing air, Suzie decided to close the window. I felt the quick pinch but pulled my finger out just in time. (She was always cruel like that:) To this day, I will bring up that incident whenever I feel I may have been too mean about something, and always in jest. It’s a running joke – like red lobsters, hambones, and Japanese lanterns. Inside jokes, all of them.

At Friendly’s, I think I ordered a hot dog – well, I know I ordered a hot dog, because that’s all I would have ordered then. Suzie, though, was more daring, opting for the fried clams. I scoffed, if a five-year-old can scoff (and I probably could), but she insisted I try one. One turned into five, and before I knew it I was hooked. (Clearly it didn’t take much to appeal to my virgin tongue, considering how fried clams at Friendly’s must compare to something like this.) That was the day I learned to love fried clams – another milestone for which I had Suzie to thank.

But the big event was yet to come ~ ‘Mary Poppins’ ~ and once the movie began I forgot all about crushed fingers and fried food, and entered a magical world where escapism and fantasy were the only ways to deal with unconcerned parents, frightening bank executives, and other scary adults.

I returned to that world as I watched ‘Saving Mr. Banks.’ Only now there were other concerns, greater concerns, that couldn’t be solved by a song or a spoonful of sugar or a simple night of safe slumber. ‘Feed the Birds’ took on new nuances, deeper and darker meanings, and it seemed that certain demons unleashed in childhood could not be conquered merely by growing up. The ever-elusive happy ending dangled its kite tail high in the sky, far out of reach, well beyond a little boy’s grasp.

Oddly enough, I realized then that no magical nanny was going to fly in on the East wind, that one day I would need to create my own magic, fill my own carpet bag, and jump into my own chalk-drawn fairy tale. I knew too that sooner or later, like Mary Poppins herself, my time to fly away would always be just around the corner. The wind would eventually change. I would eventually come to be unwanted.

What I didn’t comprehend then was why I would cry over ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’. I thought it could only be because Mary Poppins leaves at that point. Now I understand that it’s a little bit more.

“It’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination, we instill hope again and again and again.”

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