The time is the 1950s. I am a young child. Not yet in school. My mother is driving me in a powder blue 1948 Desoto. We are traveling north on Route 206 from Lawrenceville, New Jersey to Princeton.
It’s a two-lane road. By today’s standards, it would qualify as a rural back road – winding through wooded fields and aristocratic country estates. Some Tutor houses slowly tattering in refined poverty; others quietly lush with noble wealth tucked inside ivy-splattered windows.
The narrow macadam road passes by Rider College, Lawrenceville Preparatory School and the Ice Cream Shoppe. Promenades right into downtown Princeton and Palmer Square where the wealthy intelligentsia shop for plaid skirts and wool cardigans; tweed hacking jackets and mahogany-colored penny loafers; polo shirts and professorial khaki trousers.
In the center of the square is my favorite lunchtime treat: a Rexall drugstore with a soda fountain, where I can sit and spin on the red Naugahyde stools while the malt machines whirl.
At a ninety-degree angle is the elegant continental French restaurant. A two-story restaurant with many petite rooms and small tables snuggled together. The coziest tables for two border the walls.
Deep window sills lined with potted geraniums remind me of magazine photographs of European villages. Tiny crunched towns with cobblestones.
Where life is dusky and gnarled old women create sunshine with colored flowers in terracotta pots. These women seem like conjure priestesses to me. I love their power of white magic.
And I love the white crocheted lace curtains that coquettishly cover half of the windows, so delicately divided into small panes by many narrow brown muttons. The windows look like tic-tac-toe games waiting to be played by strolling passersby.
Antique stores with dark, ornately carved furniture and large gold leaf framed mirrors in the windows dot the perimeter of the square. A grassy square of land sits in the center, interrupted by an X that offers shoppers a shortcut between right angles.
The buildings are brick and stone. Tasteful, quiet structures. The people are dressed in neutral colors. Statements of some older, wiser truth than the fickle fashion-minded New Yorkers, just 45 miles northeast.
Traveling a little farther north on Route 206 – or Main Street – is the cluster of castle-like buildings known as Princeton University.
The buildings are pieced together with stones that glisten like the twinkling in the eye of a secret prankster when a certain slant of sunlight peeks through.
Heavy vines of dark green ivy embroider their way up the sides of the buildings and drape like pearl necklaces above the tall windows. The greenery places a hush over the campus. It looks like a land from a fairy tale or the palace of a Celtic princess.
In-between Palmer Square and the University are rows of shops and houses. Thin domino houses, snuggling, sharing plots of grass. Somber buildings with the smile of flowers in window boxes. Skinny streets connecting to Main Street like diagonal arrows.
My mother sees a memory of his profile moving against the rows of dark brick domino-houses. She describes him to me: an elderly man, not very tall, slightly hunched. He is wearing baggy khaki pants, a dark woolen jacket over a brown sweater. The sky is silver grey and the air is cool. Mr. Einstein’s hair is platinum and fuzzy and is tousled by the gentle autumn breeze.
His face wears a bemused expression as he walks along pondering the motion of his sensibly clad feet.
My mother says that Mr. Einstein is a gentle man. He is kind to children. And he smiles as he watches their faces digest images and ideas.
He is a friend of my grandmother, Toot.
Toot teaches science in the nearby Valley Road Junior High School. And a few times a year she invites Mr. Einstein to visit her eighth grade class. He is the guest lecturer, but, my mother says he is more like an uncle coming to visit.
He laughs and plays with the kids. He tells them stories about the constructions of atoms and molecules. Stories about light particles and waves and the speed of traveling across invisible distances.
I am told that he has the students sit in circles on the floor. He is not like a regular teacher with attendance rosters. Not one who lines up students in grid formation for the pledge of allegiance.
He is relaxed. Rather sloppy, with messy hair and bright, sparkling eyes.
When I am old enough to go to school, I recall my mother’s stories of Mr. Einstein. And I wish that he could have visited my school and taught science with stories instead of leaving me incarcerated in textbooks.
I suspect that avuncular tales of physics in circles of children might have sent me into a different orbit of life. Might have carbonated my mind with fizzier ideas.
I smile as I gaze back, imagining the infinitude of possibilities that I could have called my future; my present.