Maeve Reilly/Voices: Names on wall mark more than just height

Maeve Reilly/Voices: Names on wall mark more than just height


As in many homes with children, we have a growth chart, recording height changes throughout the years. At our house, it is located on a narrow side of a kitchen entryway, where it's largely visible to anyone who visits. Over the years, not only our own children, but also relatives and friends have marked their heights, some in pencil, some with pen, and, as the kids grew taller and smarter, with a black Sharpee pen.

Marking your height on a 6-inch-wide yellow strip that ran floor to ceiling seems to have been a popular pastime for middle and high schoolers — most marks are between 4 and 5 feet tall. Some of the short diagonal lines have more than one name associated with it, and some names are listed more than once — with dates indicating not only the height but also the ages. One line, close to 8-feet high, marks Jesus' height. Just below him, there's a mark for Joe C., one of our shorter friends.

On a recent European vacation, we had the opportunity to visit a home in Amsterdam turned into a museum. As we lined our way up a narrow Dutch staircase and through furniture-free rooms with blacked-out windows, I noticed a similar growth chart. Preserved under Plexiglass, the chart is penciled on wallpaper and holds the names of only two girls on a few diagonal lines, indicating a couple of years of growth. Remarkable that the girls grew at all, since the museum documents a family hiding in wartime: no fresh air or sunshine, little food.

Such a common thing — marking the growth of children. Done by people in the Netherlands and people in Illinois, in the 1940s and in the 2000s. As in any home, those marks, unfortunately, cannot convey the stories between and beyond what the lines measure.

Close to the 6-foot mark on our growth chart is the name Josh. For many years, a little African-American boy would show up every summer in our neighborhood, visiting an elderly relative who lived just down the street. Our noisy house on the corner was a draw — lemonade stands and popsicles, wagons, trikes and bikes, basketballs, soccer balls and skateboards, our four children and other friends running around.

I think in some years our vacations coincided with his visits. Or maybe his visits weren't as regular as I thought they were. When a much taller young man showed up at our door the summer his elderly relative died, I had to confess, I struggled to recall his name and the last time I had seen him. So tall! All grown up! We marched him into the kitchen, marked his height, and wrote his name beside it. I think then I learned that he was from Baltimore and that he and his mother had come by bus on those visits to his great-aunt in Illinois.

When I look at the names on our wall, I can trace the trajectories of many lives. She's married now with a baby. We see news of her occasionally on Facebook. He's in the Marines. His parents got divorced, and he moved away with his father. Ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, old friends, new friends.

I suppose I'll never know the rest of Josh's story. Is he still in Baltimore? Did he go to college? Is he a married? Does he have kids? Does he remember us? Has he gotten taller?

I do know what happened to the young girls in Amsterdam. Those ordinary children, whose heights mirrored those of my own children, young Margot and Anne Frank, were sent to Auschwitz. Their lives halted like the marks on the wall.

When we arrived back in the airport from Amsterdam, we wound through other lines, filling out forms, watching dogs sniffing through luggage, scanning passports on computers. A young white woman clutched a huge binder while a young African toddler clung to her through the checkpoints. The new mother unzipped the young girl's coat, the youngster complained she was cold. The mother worried aloud if they'd lose her place in line if they visited the bathroom, begging the young girl to wait.

As we passed the mother and daughter entering the waiting area, I heard the mother, with a catch in her throat, tell her daughter that they needed to find daddy. A small gathering of family members awaited them at the gate with balloons and presents. Their story is just beginning.

I hope they have a tall blank wall and some good Sharpee pens.

Maeve Reilly, a mother of four, is the communications director for the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois.

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