On Home

Half a century later, I barely recognize it
when I search the address on Google Maps
and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—

foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted
a drab brown. I click to zoom: light hits
one of the windows. I can almost see what’s inside.

–from “9773 Comanche Ave.” by David Trinidad

None of my childhood homes are available on Google’s street view yet, which amuses me, as the house I’m in now, in podunksville, is there. But I discovered in my search that one of them, the house we moved to when I was eight and stayed in till I was twelve, is for sale. It’s funny to see your old house, many owners and coats of paint later, for sale, staged by some real estate agent, some things gone, some of the features you added–the wood floors upstairs–now advertised, the window of your bedroom over the garage where you once snuck out at night. I remember helping write copy for the ad we placed for that house when we sold it so long ago. The current ad, sadly, preserves none of my excellent phrasing about the nearness to the park and the nature of the trees in the yard. (Actually, I doubt those things made in to the ad when I was twelve, either, but my mother was good at humoring me.)

The park is still there, but the trees have changed, and the fence is gone, and house is painted a different color. It looks better now, in truth, but it’s not a house I really loved at the time or would ever want to go back to. No, the house I keep hoping to find again, the rooms I keep searching for, the place that still truly says home to me is the house we lived in when I was very, very little, when my father was still alive.

The house had a great many problems, but at ages zero through four, they were mostly lost on me. I did not notice that we had only a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, and that if you wanted to take a shower, you were relegated to a Sears shower stall in the kitchen. I did not notice the peeling wallpaper, the drafts, the door that led outside to a steep dropoff, which confused my mother for many years until the people who eventually bought the house restored the wraparound porch, and suddenly a second door onto the porch made sense. I didn’t really notice any of this: it was just the house where we  lived.

It was a block and a half from the college where my father taught. The college, in a sort of ür-liberal arts college fashion, sat on top of a hill, and at the bottom of the hill, by the sidewalk, was a stone wall that functioned as a sort of terrace between the town and the college proper. In my memory, it is a very tall stone wall, although since I have been back, I realize it is perhaps two feet at most. But in the autumn when I was very little, my father and I would stand or sit on the wall with tall sticks and “fish” for leaves. It is the only fishing I have ever done, and I hesitate to do any real fishing for fear that it would not live up to the original.

There was a garage to the side of the house — one year my father bought my mother an automatic garage door opener for her birthday, and she was deeply irked — and a barn behind it, leftover from when the house was built, in the 1880s, and people still needed barns. It served no real barnlike function, but it did house a great many students bicycles during the winter months. It was a sort of bicycle stable — all late 1970s racing bikes, the sort that Jennifer Beals rode in Flashdance — a thoroughbred stable of bikes. Between the barn and the house my mother had a vegetable garden, and we had a lawn where our friends planted a cherry tree in honor of my christening. The cherry tree is long gone now. Our tenants after we moved to Iowa City kept trying to start cuttings from it for us, but they never survived, and the tree eventually fell to the ravages of time, but for many years our neighbors Dr. John and Mrs. Mary made cherry pies from its harvest every year.

We had two living rooms in the house in Mount Vernon: I suppose at one time they were a front and back parlor. The front living room is where my parents entertained, and I was not allowed to have my toys in there, although I was allowed to hang around when people came over, at least for awhile. I was puzzled by grown up drinks — they sat there with what seemed to me rather small glasses of fluid and then drank them for hours. I would have drained a cup like that in seconds flat. Given the preponderance of alcoholics in academia, and the story my mother tells of a night when they had a party and everyone decided suddenly it would be a good idea to go to Iowa City, twenty miles away, and so they all did, piling into cars and leaving the lights and the stereo on and the doors wide open, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were draining their glasses of bourbon in seconds flat, but I never saw it. They seemed to sip.

The back living room contained a number of books, an odd oil portrait of my mother that my parents won at a raffle or auction of some sort, and the corner that was my father’s–a Swedish modern armchair and a hassock, his pipestand, and a small black and white television where he watched football and tennis. I spent as much time as possible sitting on his lap, unless of course my mother was baking, or I needed a balloon that Daddy had blown up tied off, in which case I had to get my mother to do it.

My room, when my parents moved into the house, had had red walls and bright red shag carpeting. My mother decided this was not the place for a baby, and so they had it recarpeted in a soft green, and they painted the walls white, except for one wall that was a pale green, as they’d run out of white paint. The drapes were a dark green and white pattern. I remember the house as having arched windows, although I realize now it was simply that there were arched shapes inlaid in the rectangular windows. My parents slept down the hall from me, and it was my great goal in life to convince them that I was a cat so I could sleep on the bed. Our cat Moby Tom was allowed to sleep on their bed, but I was not, which struck me as unfair, so I would crawl up and curl up as small as I possibly could.

We were poor when we lived in that house, or so I am told. My mother grew vegetables and made applesauce from windfall apples and made her own Bisquick and made all our bread, though that had more to do with my father’s unwillingness to eat storebought bread than with money saving. It was the first and only house my father ever owned, purchased in his late 40s or early 50s, and when we moved to a rental house in Iowa City, he insisted that we had to rent it out, too, instead of selling, because he couldn’t bear to part with the only house he had ever owned.

Daddy died a year after we moved to Iowa City, where we lived in a tiny, shoddy rental house on Rider Street. I was only four and a half when we moved there, and its flaws were no more apparent to me than those of the house in Mount Vernon. It was tiny, but it had an enormous backyard, and there was a girl two houses away who would play with me, even though she was several years older. There were rosebushes and a strawberry patch and a mulberry tree that straddled the line between us and our neighbors, and on my birthday, a few of my friends came over and we had a party. But when I think of my father in that house, I see him stooped, as if the house itself were too small for his 6’1″ frame. He injured his hip when we lived in that house, and had to use a walker for some time, which meant going down its hallways sideways, as they were too narrow for the walker to fit head-on. I know, of course, that the house didn’t kill him, but it is hard not to see it as some sort of factor in his decline.

Perhaps because my father died when I was so very young I remember a great deal about my early childhood in our first house — the ghost stories my father told me about the laundromat, the placement of my crib and later my bed in the green room that used to be red, the windowseat in my father’s office where I sometimes napped, the room where my mother had an ironing board and her sewing machine set up, our neighbor’s dog, Brink, who chased our cat Moby Tom up the telephone pole so many times that they finally kept him chained, and I brought him a piece of balogna every time we went to the butcher shop and fed him my hotdog peels. I remember sitting on the stone curb of our driveway when their kitchen caught on fire, and my mother telling me to Stay Put as she ran across their yard. I sat and watched the firemen run in and out from their truck. In those days, fire trucks were still fire-engine red, not the yellow-green they are today, and that color perhaps sums up everything I have to say about Mount Vernon — the old water tower that I called the pea on toothpicks, the red and green tennis courts, the limestone walls, the computer at the college that occupied a whole room, the way I shuffled through the leaves in the fall in my red and green Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, holding my father’s hand.

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