I am alone in my childhood home. Due to incongruous travel arrangements, I find myself wandering the levels of this house in which I grew up. As I walk through the rooms, I am insulted and comforted by the changes around me. This is my house, but it has not been MY house for years and years. Comforted by the changes because it means the house still breathes and lives and that is a comfort. Insulted because there are too many unfamiliar things here crowding out my memories.
I wander from room to room, looking back in time. I take a shower. The hot water feels so good, the water is soft and slippery and makes my hair full which I appreciate now, but remember hating as a teenager. The room steams up as there is no fan and I crack the window to let in the soft late summer air. How many showers did I take here? I pluck with my toe at the star pads that we put on the slick bathtub bottom so we’d not fall when stumbling around in the dark before school. I’d get up earlier than my brother and sister, both younger, to try and primp my unruly, curly hair (I wanted it straight so badly!) with gels and mousses and hair dryers and curling irons. Back when my hair could take that abuse. And to powder my face with the concealing make-up to cover the tell-tale red bumps of adolescence along with the never-enough-sleep dark half moons under my eyes.
The wooden floors, beautiful to look at, horrible for being discrete, creak gently. If I stand in the far corner of the upstairs bedroom that for a time I shared with my sister, and squint like I used to, I could imagine myself waiting for Peter Pan to come flying in the window and take us out to the giant tree house . The room itself feels as though it’s perched among the gentle and gracious tall walnut trees that drop their nuts on the roof in the middle of the night, startling us. We are three floors up and the trees hide the neighbors so it feels alone. During the magical times of Christmas Eve we’d try our best to stay up all night, waiting for Santa Claus, watching this sky through the many windows. We were so close to the sky, every airplane could have been Rudolph’s nose. But we couldn’t get out of bed because the floor would always give us away, no matter how lightly we tread, and our parents would yell at us to get back to bed and sleep. Eventually we would, then race downstairs to a tree full of toys and joy in the morning.
I pass the upstairs walk in closet where my mother, a clothes hound, would hide her treasures. Fancy shoes and evening wear. My sister and I would spend hours in there, putting on her heels and remembering how beautiful she looked in fancy garments, which she didn’t wear often enough. Sometimes we’d drag my brother into our glamour plays, but he hated those. He’d tolerate them so that he could pelt us with toy guns and ambush us later without fear of retribution.
Hidden behind the long sliding closet doors is the attic, a hidden treasure trove of Christmas decorations and discarded furniture. And our old school papers. I wonder if they are still there. I do not go in. This is not my house.
The hallway is stuffed full of my father’s hunting gear and I shudder. I remember being taken on a hunting trip once. It was cold and boring and I couldn’t understand the interest in shooting “Bambi’s” and never went again. The guns, though, are kept oiled and locked away in a cabinet upon which was bestowed a reverence, a respect for the power of firearms. Not for children.
My brother’s old room looks, and smells, nothing like it used to. This is a good thing. The trees aren’t as heavy on this side of the house so there is no feeling of being in a giant tree house here. A memory of a nasty red carpet (who knows what all was spilled on that) and a perpetual boy’s smell. Ewww. All boys smell, we thought back then.
The hall closet belies a hidden chamber- my converted room with its white washed, slanted and slatted ceiling with the sun windows recessed deep in the sloping roof top. I recall picking out the purple wallpaper with my mother and the grey-white carpet to match. All the furniture was white. It was my haven. I pick up an old diary my mother has saved. I read a few pages. Stupid things, people I don’t remember. I set it down. The sunlight streams in and forms a pool on the carpet. I imagine that I see an outline of Ollie, our old Whippet, sunning himself languidly there.
Walking down the wide but thin steps, they seem dangerous now. Did we really fly down them, jumping to the slate foyer below from as high up as we could? I look for the ever changing stained glass motif my mother hung in the small window by the front door, and am saddened to see there is nothing there. A holly berry for the holidays, a raccoon for non-holiday periods, a shamrock to pay tribute to her Irish heritage. The window is blank, but my fathers likes to tell the story of how my little white dog, Pierre, would sit on the stairs all day long so he could see out the window, just in case I came home. He sat there for six months while I was in Europe.
I move through the hallway. The light has dimmed. Startled, I turn at the sound of clacking nails upon the hardwood, but it’s only my imagination, all the dogs in the past who’d follow me around in their gentle demeanor, hoping for a treat or some affection. They usually got both. I miss them and glance towards the mantle where their ashes sit. During Christmas that mantle would hold four hanging stockings – one for each of us children and one for the dog or dogs. That one would be stuffed with chewies and doggie treats and stuffed toys waiting to be ripped apart in glee, leaving behind their soft white “guts” to be picked up and thrown away.
I try to recall what sofa we had. Was it the scratchy, hideous flowered wool one? Or the brown corduroy one? Which one took up many hours of our lives lying there with earaches (a perpetual bane of my childhood) or stomach aches while my mother would make sure we had saltines and ginger ale or 7Up and cook us some “mommy soup.”
This part of the house is much, much different now. An entire new room has been added on – a glorious tribute to cool, knotted wood and big windows that play into the trees. The family room and dining roomhave exchanged places a few times over the years. Many family dinners, and arguments, raise a cacophony of voices from the past and present. This room was recently filled with loved ones visiting a pre-wedding party for my brother. Today it’s silent but we all know it holds the family secrets.
The fireplace goes through both the living room and the family/dining room. As kids we always wondered how Santa Claus knew he was supposed to come out into the non-living room side so he’d not mess up the carpeting in the nice room. The living room I re-arranged often, using my flair for decorating to arrange the pieces in a symmetrically pleasing eye. Once I moved a set of mis-matched ceramic angels into a group and proudly showed my mother who promptly said, “they’re in a circle” and indeed they were.
The kitchen has also been redone, again. Gone is the copper island that my mother created. Loved and not missed, for it was beautiful but a nightmare to keep nice looking. The kitchen used to overlook the back porch and yard before the additional room was added. There was a white door that banged shut when we’d let the dogs in and out. I check in the space next to the refridgerator – yes, my mother is still stuffing paper and plastic bags there to re-use. She first taught us about recycling, although I suspect it was more out of habit of being raised frugally than much concern about the environment (peering into the trashcan confirms this). The old yellow canisters that contained the sugar we’d dump on top of our cheerios or grapenuts dotted with sliced bananas are gone, replaced by packets of Splenda. The canisters of 10,000 pens remains, most of which don’t work.
I strip the sheets from the bed and carry them into the laundry room. My Lord! The dryer is still trucking away, although the washing machine has been replaced. That dryer must be at least 30 years old. I’ll bet my father and grandfather (if he were living) would have a good time talking about ‘how they don’t make them like they used to’. Some of my mother’s eclectic blouses and jackets are hanging and I smile, wondering where she found those ‘treasures.’ Thankfully I don’t see any spiders. I never did see another huge wolf spider (I still say it was a Tarantula) after that one freaky time as a little girl, but that memory was so seared that I’m still on the lookout for anything moving in my peripheral vision.
My father has taken over the basement. My mother’s domain is the top floor now. She has her crafts and projects. My father has his workspace. I am amazed again at how big this house was. The basement was redone during my childhood. Mostly by the hard work of my mother (who laid out hundreds of square feet of brick tiles on the floor, most of which are still fully in tact) and a family friend who used to do carpentry work. I am about 14, dozing on the couch and wake to see him looking at me with concern. What? “You were sleeping with your eyes open and I thought you were awake and I was talking to you, but you weren’t answering.” I got teased a lot for that. My husband doesn’t fully believe this story as the only time he’s ever seen anything like that was once when I’d taken some allergy meds and had a glass of wine after dinner and fell asleep on the sofa like that – he thought I was dead. But I certainly wasn’t, even inadvertently, mixing pharmaceuticals and alcohol at age 14. At least I don’t have entire conversations in my sleep with other people like my sister did. Try as I might, she never told me anything juicy during those conversations though.
My father’s (?) 40th birthday. Kids were banished from the basement where the adults were partying. Sneaking peeks through the stair banister we see a bunch of black decorations for “over the hill” (I am turning 40 this year) and remember being shocked by a coffee cup shaped in the form of a 'boobie'. I wonder if that is still around. Probably buried among the things.
The ice chest. Another of my mother’s treasures. She found a huge old ice chest at an antique store and hired movers to bring it home where she spent hours in the driveway stripping the paint and restoring it. For a time it housed our small TV (until TV’s grew way too big to be confined to such a small space) and later held secrets my father kept from us.
The walls are adorned with cookie jars. A period of obsession for my mother. They are brought down from their high perch and dusted periodically. I wonder if there is a story behind each of them and if so if the story is remembered. I see the two I have given her over the years standing at attention in the line-up.
I step out into the back porch. One on either side of the new room. It’s so lovely. Walnuts have dropped and left their black inky stains on the wood, which will be washed away by the rain and snow of winter and spring. The yard is long and backs down into the woods where we spent hours as children, making forts, running with the dogs, seeing how high we could swing on the rusty old swing set, many times tipping it over. The childhood toys are all gone along with the sandbox, replaced by lawn chairs and flowers, waiting for grandchildren to come play.
The grass on the west side of the house always seemed to grow faster than the east. I walk up this small yard, a pain to mow when I was young, hardly worth the $5 I’d get, and peer down at the neighbor’s house sunken below into the hill. The front is newly landscaped, but the big fir tree still remains. I wonder if this neighbor was as picky about the line demarcation where the two lawns met. He always cared more about his lawn than we did ours. The other side of the house is much steeper. I had many bad dreams about being chased around this house by monsters and always on that hill no matter how many times I ran up it I’d never get to the top, but I’d wake up just before the monster got me….
From the front, I’m surprised at how small the house looks. It’s brown, too brown for my taste. The slanted roof shows the sun windows to my room. The brick side only hints at the largeness inside as it almost extends the full three floors as it runs down the hillside. People often comment at how big the house is on the inside after approaching it from the street level. The back is impressive. My mother’s brother, who owns a construction company, did the new addition years ago and it looks fabulous.
This is my old house. My parents live here. I wonder if they will remain here, and whether I will bring my own children to explore it. The life inside me doesn’t seem real yet but I will bring my child here. Explain to him or her that I lived here once. I close the door behind me, double checking that the door is locked as I heard my father do countless rounds each night before going to bed, as my ride arrives to take me to the airport.