Tonight, I was sitting in my living room, watching a movie with my children, and my phone gave it's little blip that a text message had been received. When I glanced down and saw that it was a number I didn't recognize, my heart made a little groaning noise. Texts like this sometimes end badly, ya know.
What I received was a zooming roller-coaster ride back to my childhood that rather rapidly changed the outlook of my whole evening.
It was a photo:
It was captioned "Precious Memories" and was sent from a very dear childhood friend of mine, who, not so long ago, bought the home I grew up in. She found this messy love letter to my mom, penned by me, 30 or so years ago, in the inside of a bathroom drawer. She could have chosen to smile and think back to those days, and go on about her drawer organizing or whatever she was doing...but instead, she took the time to hunt down my cell number and deliver this memory to my heart.
The fact that the home I grew up in would be for sale to anyone is probably one of the main things in my life I have had difficulty letting go of. I'm not a grudge holder, and am not the sort to hang on to pain or negativity until it damages, like some people tend to do. I'm basically a realist, frequently can be heard saying, "it is what it is", and typically bounce back from things that make other people kiss dirt for a good long while. I'm proud of that part of me. Resilient.
However, the fact is that my childhood home, dreamed up by my Mom and built in part by my Dad, is now a place I have to drive by and point out to my children like a historical marker. It is no longer and will never be the place where my kids go to visit grandparents. They will never sleep under the roof that sheltered me during the years that made me who I am. I grieve that. There are tears as I type it. Divorce robs you of certain things, and I know that all too well. My kids know it and live it daily. Maybe the "pink brick house" in the country is just the scapegoat for my grief over more than one family that isn't exactly how it should be. That's a pretty big grief. But, hey, it's a pretty big house. And it was built well, so it can take it.
Lots of people move around a lot as kids. There are families that live in a half-dozen houses or more before their kids hit high school. They pack up, rearrange, re-negotiate. Their lives are fluid and enviably mobile and exciting. We were not that family. We were planted. We named cabinets and drawers according to their permanent occupants. We were predictable and settled and our home was dependable, so that a young girl had no reason to ever believe a note to her mom in a drawer wouldn't be read over and over again until the end of time. We occupied that piece of earth and those walls that were built on it in a way that I don't feel I have ever occupied a space since.
Until "we" didn't.
When I lived in Africa for a year, and I would feel a bit homesick, I would close my eyes and walk through that home in my mind. I was so incredibly in tune with that physical structure and the sounds and smells within, that I could practically teleport there. I still can.
I can walk into the rose colored carport where the Chrysler Imperial leaves fuzzy gouges in the paneling when careless kids and moms open car doors. I can get the big square Dictograph alarm key off it's brass cup hook in the "ski closet" (remember...we named closets and drawers after their occupants?). It smells of Armour All and slightly mildewed lake water covered rope and life jackets. I can put it in the fussy lock in the metal plate outside the back door and turn it until the led goes green. Then I can open the back door and step into the hallway of the kitchen, onto that cushy brown vinyl floor that was patterned to resemble wood planks. I can glance in front of the white ceramic flat top cooktop to the place on that floor to where it has a triangular gouge, melted by an exploding plate when I tried to heat a roll on that cooktop on a dinner plate. I can look out into the back yard where I ground corn on a tree stump for hours, dressed in an indian costume, convinced I was a pioneer, over to the tree that I whacked with a stick to make the seed pods flutter down like tiny helicopters, to the big hole Daddy mowed around for years...the one I dug to be the pond for the pet geese my parents led me to believe they would actually allow me to have. (I think they thought the eggs would never really hatch, or that I would lose interest and not really dig a pond. They hadn't had quite as much experience with my tenacity at that point.)
I don't go back into Dad's bathroom, but I know there is a purple bottle of "Gee, your Hair Smells Terrific" in the shower and his hairbrush is hidden above the medicine cabinet so that we might forget it's there and not steal it from him. I remember the time he drilled a hole through the handle and chained it to the towel rack, but I guess that kept him from using it, too, so that booby trap was short lived, if memory serves me. His "Re-loading room I don't visit much. I know it is full of muddy boots, ammunition, and strange things I don't understand. I like to steal the pieces of soapstone he uses in the oilfield that always litter the countertop, amongst the quarters and dimes that I also take as my own. They look and feel slippery and comforting in my pocket.
The playroom....past the breakfast room where I sit solitary on "my" side of the dinner table, with Dad to my right, in perfect position to steal my pork chop long before I am ready to give up the bone, and directly across from my brother who is poised to reach with his fork to get whatever else he might grab if I turn my head. Mom is to his right, nestled up against the sewing machine in it's semi-permanent, (except for holidays) position at the head of the table, with square dance costume material under it's presser foot. That playroom, with the jungle patterned wallpaper that is just busy enough to almost cover our clandestine scribbles between the lions and the giraffes....I am fond of coloring in their eyeballs, almost certain nobody will notice but me.
I walk back through to the living room, where the enormous rough beam in the vaulted ceiling always makes me try to imagine the tree it came from...how big it must have been and how on earth someone had created that beam from it....out the front door to the white porch swing where Mom holds us while we watch a storm, singing us hymns so that we might not grow up like she did, with a parent fearful of God's thunder and lightening. I see it clearly now. We all work so hard to not re-create mistakes, don't we?
"He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone..."
Past the fireplace with the matching rough wood mantle, permanent nails for our red velvet stockings and Dad's gleaming muzzle loader with the inset brass starburst hanging over, like a prize. Or, like Pa Ingalls, which is ok by me.
Down the hall, the carpet transitions from messy grey, stained by the stray Cocker Spaniel with bladder issues I brought home from a college camping trip, to green shag, which was the base layer to a thousand childhood games. Won't stop long at brother's room...it never really smells great, and the bare mattress he prefers to sheets and covers skeeves me out.
In the corner of the house, the wind whistles and makes an awful howling noise even when the weather is reasonably fair. This is where I find the square room with the watery ocean-striped wallpaper and the ceramic plaque with my name on the door. Here are the closet doors that always have to be shut and the white eyelet curtains that have to be pulled over "just so" and latched on a nail to hold them closed while I sleep. The waterbed that I begged for mercilessly until I received it for my 9th birthday, sits, warm like a hug. Trophies. Lots of them. Posters of a white fur seal and a cheetah in a tree from World magazine. A record player. A desk. A speaker with a creepy talking bear phone. A holy water font decorated with the Blessed Mother that is always dry. This...this... is a space that I occupied as a five year old child, until I returned home from Africa at 22. A lifetime.
Down further is the "blue bathroom" with it's daisy wallpaper and scrolled, swirly fixtures, where I sit and bother my mother as she tries to bathe in our only tub, after picking the lock with a q-tip. The best of conversations are had while I sit with my back to the wall and bother the hell out of her. She does protest, but not so much that I feel she really wants me to leave. There is old aquarium tubing and a set of poker chips under the cabinet. I don't know why.
Tucked between the bedrooms is the "office", where Dad's desk looms...off limits, especially the gold and black striped pen that sits like the Holy Grail in the top drawer. I'm not sure how we grow up knowing that if we dare to touch it we had better put it back exactly as found, or....or....I don't even know what would happen. Maybe that was the point. The "square dance closet" is on the back wall. It's my fluffy storm shelter. I spend my entire childhood convinced the voluminous piles of sherbet colored net petticoats would protect me from tornadoes.
Mom and Dad's room with the massive wooden furniture is opposite mine...where I stand on the windowsill and get as close as possible to Kirk Cameron on the 19'' tube television. The ironing board is furniture, it's cover thick with spray starch from my Daddy's habit of crispy jeans. (I was almost an adult before I realized it wasn't supposed to be permanent. I'm often guilty of the same thing in my home today.) I raid Mom's nightgown drawer for her smell during the long weeks she visits Fontana. The bathroom sits at the end of their room where I apply Max Factor Pancake makeup with a wet sea sponge while mom puts spiky hot curlers in my hair, every single morning before school. There are metallic gold butterflies floating in a yellow wallpaper sky. The avocado green shower is where we were tortured, long after bedtime, forced to wash lake water out of our hair. The cabinets behind us, holding Christmas, Easter, and the T-shirt collection of our lives.
"Hands off my Tuts"
The sink, where I find tiny bits of ash from her Virgina Slims that she forgets to wash away so I won't know... and the cabinet underneath, holding secret and clandestine boxes of Tampax and Always that fascinated me long before I needed them. The vanity, with the rickety white metal chair with avocado green tufted upholstery, where I sit to write a message for her to read. In the drawer. The drawer and the message that are there tonight. . . that will still be there tomorrow.
Places we love and have lost are never really gone. Try it. I'll bet you can teleport to somewhere right now...somewhere lost but not gone.
Some day, I will take the children to visit my childhood friend who is making her own home there, filled with her children and her memories. It will give my son and daughter a concrete vision of where Mommy grew up. It will give me a sense of peace, I think, to breathe air within those walls again. It will be ok, that it is home to another family. It is ok, I think, because how it was 30 years ago has never changed in my mind.