Magnolias, a stubbed toe, and Sister Golden Hair

During my run yesterday I was aware of the wild abandon with which the trees in my neighborhood have burst into bloom. The magnolias in particular always remind me, with visceral power, of spring in Princeton. Magnolias, their smell, their color, their silhouette against a blue sky, are as inextricably linked with my four springs at Princeton as anything else. After a week or so of ravishing prettiness, the gorgeousness of the petals seems too heavy for the branches and they fall, snowflake-like, into puddles around the tree. Magnolias are an apt metaphor for my college experience itself: stunning beauty, bursting into near-flame seemingly overnight, which fades just as suddenly. The bloom of those four years was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, and when they ended, they left me with a memory of the smell of intensely sweet blossoms and innumerable moments etched into my mind.

One whose etching is particularly detailed, and deep, is of an early May day in 1993. It was houseparties, and none of my freshman friends and I had been invited to attend the Friday and Saturday festivities. Sunday’s lawn parties were, however, open to everyone, and we eagerly made our way down Prospect Street in the blazing sunshine. I was wearing jean shorts, an Indian-print tank top, and I had tucked a yellow dandelion flower behind one ear. My hair fell down to my lower back and like many of my friends I had that oh-so-becoming puffy look from drinking too much beer, (that I only recognized years later) and 20 pounds on myself now.

We spent most of the afternoon dancing at Ivy. A beloved band, the Dean Dollar Band, was playing on the club’s back porch. Drunk on sunshine, flat beer pumped from kegs on the lawn, and the twined-together close of our first year and promise of three more, we danced like fools. We were barefoot: we had piled our flip-flops on the slightly uneven brick stairs that came down from the back porch to the sloping lawn. I remember feeling very aware of the attention we were calling to ourselves. Dancing right up front by the band felt like an audacious act, a claiming of space, and I felt a little uncomfortable with it. I distinctly recall having the feeling I often had, even back then, of being both inside my body and my life and outside of it, hovering, watching. Privately, I suspected then as I do now that there is a part of me that simply never participates.

As I hung slightly back, I recall looking at my friends, feeling incredulous that women that wowed me so utterly were actually my friends. The embrace that I felt at Princeton was absolute, and it was tremendously healing after a couple of difficult years in New Hampshire. Sure, freshman year had had hiccups, and challenges, but I had finally, by May, relaxed into a group of friends and I felt relieved and grateful every day for them.

While that moment is crystalline in my memory, I’m not sure where in the afternoon’s timeline it occurred. At some point mid-afternoon, while the sun was still high in the sky but before we jumped into the fountain, I stubbed my toe. I know I was dancing with one of my roommates, and I remember her loose brown hair flying around as she bobbed her head. As I looked down to see that I was bleeding rather badly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I spun around to look into the deep brown eyes of a vaguely familiar looking upperclassman. “Do you need a band-aid?” he asked me. The very first words he spoke to me. I promise you, as unlikely as they are, they are remembered as romantic! I nodded mutely, still very surprised, and followed him into the cool, darkened interior of Ivy’s kitchen.

We talked idly as he looked through drawers for a band-aid. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember a frankly shocking and yet surpassing feeling of complete comfort. He was easy to talk to, to be around. We went back outside and sat on the porch steps, talking in the breaks between the band’s loud songs. I felt acutely the rough and sun-warmed bricks against the backs of my legs, bare in my cutoffs. Dean Dollar burst into a song I sort of recognized and he turned to me. “Do you know this song?” I shook my head. “Sister Golden Hair. It reminds me of you.” My face flushed and I stared at my band-aided big toe.

I did not know then that this man would be one of the most formative relationships of my life. I know that now, though. Seeing the magnolias yesterday, I was completely flooded by that moment in the sunshine, and reminded yet again of Ann Beattie’s line that “people forget years and remember moments.” This memory is one of the enduring, glittering ones for me. I forget about it for months but when it resurfaces it is always vivid, its contours familiar, its emotions heady. I write so often about these memories, the ones that my subconcious has curated into enduring, sturdy parts of my self. Memories whose power we can’t always anticipate when we live them, that shape who we are and how we see the world. When one rose up in my mind I decided to describe it.

14 thoughts on “Magnolias, a stubbed toe, and Sister Golden Hair”

  1. Wow. I am so jealous that college was beautiful for you…those were the darkest years of my life.

    Who can resist a man who offers you band-aids and calls you “Sister Golden Hair?” Sounds pretty dreamy to me!

  2. This is my most favorite post of yours I have read so far. You paint the story so vividly, I can just see it happening–the wide-eyed freshman in shock that this older frat boy would offer such kindness. I love it.

    Also, that feeling of “I can’t believe these people are my friends” totally resonated with me. In my personal search, I’m looking for a local version of that. BUt this weekend one of those friends came to visit me. You know, the kind who looks amazing in a sequined blazer and walks with an air of confidence that makes me wonder what she could ever see in me. Friends are pretty cool like that….

  3. I have nothing to offer here. Just that I am here and read this. Three times. Beautifully written, vibrant images, full of emotion and reflection. This is the magic of memory.

  4. I love how the timeless feeling of unfolding, of attuning with the spring of one’s development, might have played out in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Princeton on through to your time and up to the freshman soaking up the first blush of summer this very year—and at schools all over the planet.

    This brought all sorts of memories back to me as well, from long languid summers in Ann Arbor, sharing a house with 8 guys and my girl friend, to sledding at midnight in mid-winter in the arboretum on filched cafeteria trays.

    The friendships made in such awakening life spirit cut deeply into our souls but require no band-aids.

    Thanks for this beautiful post.

    “…a woman sure can be a friend of mine.”

  5. Chills, Lindsey, chills when reading this. (So good, so flowing & brilliant your words as if I was there, sitting on sun-warmed bricks beside you.)

    And this gift you wrote, with these words:

    “Memories whose power we can’t always anticipate when we live them, that shape who we are and how we see the world.”


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