Sari Boren’s essays have been published in Copper Nickel, Lilith Magazine, Alimentum, Hobart, and Pangyrus, among others. She teaches creative nonfiction at Grub Street and co-manages Boston’s Four Stories reading series. Sari is also a museum exhibit developer who’s written exhibit text for dozens of museums across the country. Read more at: sariboren.com
Boren's nonfiction, “Something Like That. Like Nothing,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 33.2.
Something Like That. Like Nothing.
I’m taking Laura Ingalls down the home appliance aisle in Macy’s. She runs her hands across every shiny gadget on the shelves, poking at buttons and pulling on levers, her two tight braids bouncing against the shoulders of her pale blue gingham dress. Laura follows me as I walk past the toasters and crock pots, the cuffs of my Lee overalls dragging along the floor. I stop in front of an avocado-green blender.
“There’s a blade at the bottom, see?” I point. “It whirls around really, really fast.”
I’m the expert. I’m a couple of years older than Laura, who’s eleven. “You put liquids in, and ice cream, and you make drinks,” I explain.
Laura nudges me aside.
I see my imaginary friend Laura as the Little House on the Prairie television character played by Melissa Gilbert, fair and freckled, her teeth growing in crooked, her blue and white dress worn from over-washing. She wiggles the glass canister trying to figure out how to pull it off its base.
“What kind of drinks?” Laura asks. She pops the lid off the blender and peers inside.
I tuck the hem of my favorite pink and orange striped rugby shirt back into my overalls.
“Drinks you mix up,” I say. “Like milkshakes and smoothies.” I’m going to have to explain what a smoothie is.
“You shouldn’t have cut off your braids,” Laura says, out of nowhere. Like she doesn’t want me to tell her about smoothies. Like maybe she’s sick of being the one who doesn’t know the things I know. She shakes her head to make her braids swing.
“I told you. I couldn’t braid my own hair at sleep-away camp, remember?” I say. “I had to keep asking the counselor for help.”
When I’d cut off my braids, my thick, curly hair sprang up into an afro. My dad tells me how much he misses my long hair. I don’t look so much like his sister anymore.
“And those overalls are stupid,” Laura says, even though I’ve told her it’s what all the girls wear at my junior high. “I do chores in a dress. You don’t even have real chores.”
Laura does this sometimes. To show me that even though I know more than she does, I don’t know everything. But then she asks me, after all, what’s in a smoothie, and I explain it all to her.
Through my junior high and high school years we follow her questions into the World Book encyclopedia, from one gold-stamped volume to another. After I graduate college we huddle in the bedroom of my small apartment, Laura still in her gingham and braids, and me now rocking my on-trend big hair, sprawled on the bed in black leggings and an oversized hot pink shirt. I try to explain computers and semiconductors but I’m stymied by my poor grasp of electronics beyond simple circuits, so we examine my pantry instead, and I have to read the bottle’s fine print to explain hoisin sauce.
I am Laura Ingalls’ personal tour guide and interpreter to the twentieth century. I plowed through the entire series of Little House books when I was ten or eleven years old, and sometime thereafter, Laura showed up in my child’s mind, asking questions.
I tell her about Pac-Man and plastic surgery, burritos and in-vitro fertilization and the space shuttle. And what about iPods? iPods! When I get my first iPod for my fortieth birthday I can barely explain it to my parents. Late one night in the kitchen, after the Passover dishes have been washed and put away, I sit around the heavy wooden table with my mom, dad, and grandmother while they play with the iPod and we drink tea. The house is dark after all the cousins, aunts, and uncles have left, and my father has walked through the empty rooms switching off the lights, except for the one hanging over the table.
“Ten thousand songs?” my mom asks. “How do they all fit in there?”
My mom was born in a small town in eastern Poland, which, when we visited ten years earlier in 1994, still had horse-drawn carts sharing the road with cars. And outhouses with old engineering magazines as toilet paper.
My mother’s mother, ninety-two years old and hard of hearing, sticks the buds in her ears and smiles as I crank up the volume. I hand the iPod to my dad. He turns the white and silver brick over and over in his hands. “Do you have ten thousand songs?” he asks. “When I was a boy”— this was in Warsaw before World War II—“I made a crystal radio. There
was an actual crystal.”
Of course he made a radio. This was the man who hadn’t finished high school because of the war, but who reads each monthly issue of Scientific American when it arrives at our New Jersey home and taught me tricks from the puzzle pages. He cooked stolen potatoes in Auschwitz by rigging a metal bucket with wires to boil salted water through electrolysis. A radio was nothing.
The predecessor to the iPod was the CD player, right? I feel that if I can draw a line for Laura from wireless telegraph to a crystal radio to a transistor radio to a Walkman to a CD player, I can show her how the world got from there to here.
I explain to her that wireless telegraph transmits only simple electrical signals, requiring the Morse code of dots and dashes, but travels such great distances that when the most famous luxury cruise ship in the world sinks one night in the North Atlantic the whole world knows the next day.
Thirty years later an announcer breaks into the radio broadcast of a football game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Japanese pilots have bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. It’s new to the ear, Pearl Harbor, to listeners’ mental map of America, and here it is in their living rooms.
My past is her future and I’m tugging her forward. I’m laying down the breadcrumbs. I pull us sideways a bit, away from broadcast to the recording industry. I describe a diamond-tipped phonograph needle scratching through the microscopic grooves in a record album and my Walkman heads hissing along the magnetic tape of a cassette. I know Laura loves her Pa’s late-night fiddle playing after supper, so I tell her to imagine a symphony playing in her little prairie house, reverberating off the roughly hewn wood planks. Or a parade. An Italian opera.
When I have new information, I pick up a conversation where we left off, as if Laura were sitting there, wee