very summer when I visit my hometown, I go back to Mosquito Flats, the neighborhood where I grew up. That wasn’t its official name, but every summer this low-lying stretch of land beside the Iowa River would swarm with mosquitoes.
The neighborhood flanked “Lower City Park,” with little league baseball diamonds and a small family-run amusement park complete with a train, a carousel, and a Ferris wheel that I rode with my father.
I loved stopping at the top, perched high upon the crest of the curve. Though I’d settle deeper in my seat for fear of falling out, I felt safe enough with my Dad by my side to let my mind wander. I’d ask him questions without precise answers, like how deep is the ocean, or how many stars are in the sky.
Most of the houses in Mosquito Flats were small ranches and split foyers. Ours was one of the few two-story homes, though we didn’t have a basement. I remember our ugly Army-green-colored shag carpet, and the big, beautiful willow tree out front that my mother called “weeping,” where I would play for hours on end in my pretend worlds.
A geologist lived next door to us, and next to him a carpenter, and next to him an insurance agent. There were also teachers, nurses, coaches, and musicians. We had a token doctor — or two, since it was a doctor couple, but they were European and kept to themselves in the only modern home on the block.
Most of the doctors lived up the hill, in a neighborhood called Manville Heights, with large older homes and vast lawns with towering oak trees like those in “Upper City Park,” where the city’s outdoor swimming pool, replete with high dives, was nestled among the giant oaks.
I spent much of my childhood in Manville Heights because my friend Laura lived there. Her father was a doctor, a neurologist specifically, and she had a poster of a brain in her bedroom that both repulsed and fascinated me. She was a math whiz, and beat me shamefully at Krypto, a math card game. Once she gloated about this to her father in front of me, and her dad, a man who (according to my mother) was both brilliant and kind, said something to better balance Laura and I. That made me feel worse than his daughter outsmarting me at math.
I envied Laura a bit for her brain; but mostly I envied her for her background. She wore designer clothes and lived in a large older home. She took fancy trips with her family where they stayed in real hotels with indoor swimming pools, unlike the motels where we stayed, with their small outdoor pools. I envied Laura as I envied all the doctors’ kids. They seemed to glide through life with a sixth sense that all would turn out well for them, a sense of being in the world that I would later recognize as privilege.
I tried my best to imagine myself into being a doctor’s child. One night at dinner, I asked my Dad what he would have done for a living had he not done what he did, which was sell real estate and manage farms. He was just one generation removed from all-out farm life. Hoping he would say “doctor” so I could flesh out my fantasy, I was disappointed when he instead looked at me squarely and said, “I would do what I do now.” His reply was on par with the times I’d ask him which relative or famous person I looked like, and he’d say, “You look like you.”
No one else said anything at the dinner table, and suddenly I felt ashamed that I’d put my father on the spot. Unlike our open-ended Ferris wheel conversations, I’d asked my Dad a question to which he’d had a precise answer, but it was one that I didn’t yet understand.
A few years later, I began to. I was in an arts camp with Laura and some of the doctors’ kids. Every morning, I’d walk up the hill to meet them in Manville Heights, and we’d walk across the river to camp. We all took different classes, and I was the only one in poetry, which I fell in love with. It lit me up in a new way, and the teacher noticed. Telling my mother about my class one evening, I realized that using words was a way of being in the world — just like operating on the brain, or tilling the land.
That realization made everything around me come alive. I remember cupping fireflies in my hand, one by one, then releasing them to the world again — finally understanding their light as my own.