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The Alley

February 21st, 2012 at 10:09 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:



A small town is pieced together with alleys.

As a teenager, I ran through shadow-filled alleys after dark, playing hide-and-seek with classmates. I hung on in the backseat as my friends, Kim and Tracy, fish-tailed their Suburban, Old Blue, through snowy alleyways at night. And then, of course, sometimes I simply walked down the alleys during daylight like a normal person.

Looking north, in the direction of my childhood home.

Recently, while looking at photographs of Pawnee Rock, I paused when I saw a picture of our family alley.

It wasn’t actually our alley; it was in the block to the south of us, but I think our family used it more than anyone else. It was one of the pathways my mom, dad, brother and I walked to get downtown, to where my mom worked – the post office and the dress shop, to my dad’s woodworking shop, to the grocery store.

When I was young, skipping alongside mom or dad, I might have chased a butterfly or stopped at a patch of clover to look for four leaves. The paths of our childhood may be where our poems begin.

We can all think of various pathways in our lives. Maybe we remember our walking route to grade school or to English 312. Perhaps you’re thinking of the worn line in the grass between the parking lot and your office. Along these trails, these sidewalks, these alleyways, we’ve carried our thoughts, our sorrow, our joys.

Downtown Pawnee Rock was only a block and a half from our house, and there were other walking routes, too. We could take the sidewalk which ran beside and in front of the Christian Church. And there was the shortcut through the church’s grassy parking lot which dropped us off in front of Willard’s welding shop where I felt like I needed to dodge blue sparks and avert my eyes lest I be blinded. So I took the alley a lot.

My favorite thing about the alley was that it was adjacent to what I called “the forest.” In Kansas, if you hold your arms straight out, spin in a circle, and hit two or more trees with your hands, that’s a forest.

I think this lot was originally a tree nursery before I was born, but in my time it was a fairly dense, tree-filled place with shaggy underbrush and even a caved-in cellar. One had to climb over a lazy fence to get in, but the forest was a good hideout for a kid, especially one who watched “Daniel Boone” and liked to pretend she was an Indian.

The other day, when I came across the photograph of that alley, I thought about how there is more meaning to this alley than is visible in a picture.

In that photo, there are things that only I can see. I recalled the day I turned eight. I was walking down that alley to get the mail and felt like the luckiest kid on the planet. My mom had just told me that a new cousin, Doug, had been born on my birthday.

I remembered one day, walking home from the Pawnee Rock Dress Shop, where I had purchased, for a dollar, a pair of tiny folding scissors in a red vinyl pouch to give to my mom for Mother’s Day. I remember thinking how excited she would be to have this little pair of scissors.

Occasionally, Mom put 61 cents into my palm and sent me on a mission. At Carris’s Grocery Store, I’d walk through the screen door and across the wooden floor to the back of the store where I’d order a pound of hamburger. At the meat counter, I watched Mr. Carris scoop red meat into a paper tray, weigh it, wrap it, and write 59 cents on the butcher paper. At the check-out counter, Mrs. Carris or one of their teenage daughters would collect the 61 cents and I’d walk home with the main ingredient for supper.

That alley took me to the post office thousands of times to collect mail from Box 7. When I got letters from my Arkansas grandma or from a pen pal, I’d open the envelopes right there and read the letters while walking home.

We’ve each left our footsteps and our thoughts on various pathways in our lives. We can go back anytime to retrieve those memories; they’re right where we left them.

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, nostalgia, small towns

  1. Roger
    February 21st, 2012 at 11:16 | #1

    Excellent, Cheryl. You column was right up my alley! Seriously another very special essay.

  2. February 21st, 2012 at 11:27 | #2

    When did they quit building alleys? The brief time I lived in Kansas City Mo as a child, I loved the alley. We apparently lived at the edge of several school districts, because after school there was quite a congregation of kids, none of us who went to the same school. Sort of a mini-United Nations. ‘Course, the dumb boys always went off and ruined their roller skates by converting them into scooters.

  3. Lucrecia Eubanks
    February 21st, 2012 at 11:36 | #3

    Great. This brought back many childhood memories.

  4. February 21st, 2012 at 11:39 | #4

    I remember walking the alley a lot as a child. We still use the alleys a lot in our Hays neighborhood even though we have sidewalks. Thanks so much for sharing your memories.

  5. Flips
    February 21st, 2012 at 11:53 | #5

    Loved it Cheryl—- “My favorite thing about the alley was that it was adjacent to what I called “the forest.” In Kansas, if you hold your arms straight out, spin in a circle, and hit two or more trees with your hands, that’s a forest.” ——Love it!!!!!
    “My alley” was a creek bank –or a gravel road– as we never lived in town when I was growing up– always out in the boonies!!!!

  6. February 22nd, 2012 at 10:08 | #6

    Beautiful! This took me right back to the many paths I walked in my childhood…

  7. Janet Fish
    February 22nd, 2012 at 18:17 | #7

    Oh gosh, the memories. Alleys are more intimate than the streets.

    As I was reading, toward the end I was worried that you’d stopped to play and lost the little scissors you got your mother for Mother’s Day. I was about to drive out there and search the alley and the forest, both. But evidently you got all the way home with them.

    Thank you for your wonderful writing and mental pictures.

  8. Rick
    February 28th, 2012 at 01:43 | #8

    I used the alley behind Mrs. Fry’s house when going to and from school. After school it would be a race home by way of the alley in an attempt to get there before my younger sister, Cindy. But, alas, she got out of school two minutes before I did so she had the head start, and I rarely ever won the race. In the winter time, we avoided the alleys because usually that’s where the snow had piled up the highest.