When I was little, we had a magic door in the downstairs den. (This is not to be confused with the adjoining cellar, where I still suspect a monster lurked.)
Actually, there were 22 tiny doors that together formed a portal to anywhere in the universe, past and present, sprinkled with an inkling of the future: The World Book Encyclopedia.
By the time I came along, 15 years after my oldest sibling, the set was complete, its pages and marbled exterior weathered by tiny hands seeking answers to increasingly complex questions: How many planets are in the solar system? How does a seed grow? How does the human body work?
Researching this last would bring you to some of my favorite pages: The transparent overlays that, as they were peeled back, revealed the ingredients of the human body -- the skin, muscles, bones, organs, circulatory system.
I like to think of the geography of my life in terms of those layers. This is especially true when I visit my hometown of Newark, Del. There on Elkton Road is the corner where, when I was in grade school, they built the Friendly's that would become a perennial hangout for my girlfriends and me, turn into a date spot for ice cream, morph into a meeting place for childhood reunions, and finally be torn down to make way for a bigger, more serious building to house a credit union.
Beneath the ever-changing storefronts of the Park-n-Shop across the road is DiIorio's variety store, where my mom was a cashier with Erma, Thelma and Rita, whose bay window was lined with bins of superballs, colored rabbits' feet and tiny rubber men with flimsy plastic parachutes strung to their backs that we would throw up in the air for an afternoon before they were outshined by the gleam of the next dime-store novelty.
And then, there's my favorite spot, draped in so many gossamer layers I sink into them: Phillip's Park, nearly 14 acres of creek, trees and memories nestled between neighborhoods and the railroad tracks that used to ship the cars from the now defunct Chrysler plant.
Since my dad worked full time at DuPont, my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease when I was about 12, and I had five older brothers and sisters, I don't have a lot of memories of just me and a healthy Mom -- and even fewer of just me and Mom and Dad. But there is one at Phillip's Park: I was really young and playing in the "cheese castle" -- concrete barrels of varying height with Swiss cheese-like holes dotting the perimeter. I paused to watch my parents, who were engrossed with each other, looking very happy.
I remember how happy they looked because of my own contrasting, distinctly unpleasant demeanor -- I had just wet my jumper.
Phillip's is where I walked with my brother and his girlfriend on my sixth birthday, before they gave me my Fisher Price record player. I remember this because Peggy let me wade in the creek and I found a quarter.
The park is where Mom took me and my next oldest sister for a picnic during Easter break when I was 10, when I promptly ate my small chocolate bunny -- and my sister saved hers til the end of the trip in a show of patience and deferred gratification I had yet to fathom.
It's where I used to ride my bike and sit for hours filling a marbled composition book with poems and short stories and observations from my Harriet the Spy-inspired spy route.
It's where my girlfriends and I roller skated on the impossibly smooth tennis courts until invariably being kicked off.
It's where, when I was home to share my dad's last days, my sister and I shared our grief walking on the new paved trail.
Most recently, this summer, it's where I viewed fireflies for the first time in years, watched a thunderstorm, and listened to crickets, cicadas and train whistles, all the while aching to fold up one of those gossamer layers and slip it into my back pocket.