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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

It is a sign of how citified I have become that a visit to my mother and stepfather’s house feels like a trip to the country.  It is far from rural, where they live; even though there are still pockets of undeveloped farmland, and even though they have neighbors wealthy enough to keep horses, we are still talking about suburbia.  Mom and Bob live in Montgomery County, half an hour from Philadelphia, five minutes’ drive from the closest train into the city, 15 minutes’ drive from three other train lines, surrounded by cheesy new McMansion developments that pop up with the rapidity and subtlety of cereal bugs.  There is a town center that theoretically should be an easier trip for them to make, but in the 13 years since they’ve moved there, the population has become so dense that driving through town has become an exercise in forehead-smiting and teeth-gnashing.  It is almost a textbook example of what people in other parts of the country think of when they think of the East Coast, just wall-to-wall people.  And yet, it is a respite being there.  My folks were lucky enough to find a house in a development that was planned and built in the 1940’s, by builders and architects who eschewed the cookie-cutter impulse that would later mark areas like Levittown (both the Long Island and sub-Philadelphia versions).  The exteriors of the houses are all stone, consistent with the older houses in the area, but they don’t have that patina of faux history about them, the kind I often see in mock Tudor houses.  The lawns are roomy, the trees are giant and lacy and generous.  My mom’s azaleas were in bloom this weekend, fuchsia, light pink, white, all being shaken by bumblebees half the size of my thumb.  While Mom and Lloyd and I were in the city yesterday, Bob went to the farmstand and bought the plants that would go in Mom’s garden:  three varieties of tomatoes, including an heirloom native to Bucks County and a San Marzano for future tomato sauces (woo-hoo!); eggplants and peppers; various lettuces, including romaine and radicchio; herbs, herbs, herbs.  No matter that when I lived in what really was the country, I took our half-acre garden for granted, nothing more than an onerous weed-filled chore that kept me from following my heart’s desire to go swim in the pond instead.  Now my mom’s little garden, a fraction of the size of our old garden, is a wonder to me.  Looking out of her kitchen window and seeing little striped eggplants on the vine, I am kicked back to kindergarten, discovering that those little red roots peeking under those little green leaves are radishes and yes, they are ready to eat.  Even the stuff that isn’t in the garden, the oregano growing next to the patio, the mint growing kudzu-like all over the place, the wild onions that nobody but me seems to like, it’s all neat to me, all the more so since I moved to a place where I can’t even grow basil without it withering and dying in three weeks.

There have been two houses in my life I’ve considered my childhood home, even though I only had them for a short while, shorter than the house in Honesdale in which I really did grow up, which my folks built and in which we moved in 1979, right before my 12th birthday, out of which they moved in 1991, when I had already crashed and burned in New York and took them up on their offer to join them in the new Philadelphia house.  I grew up in the Honesdale house, but it was not my childhood home.  That honor is reserved for two places and two places only.  One was the house I briefly mentioned here, a house in northeast Philadelphia that my great-grandfather built when my grandmother was a child.  It was a two-family house, and generations of us came and went; my great-grandfather and great-grandmother; my maternal grandparents; my mom, my dad, my teenage uncles.  I was the last generation of our family to know that house, which was acquired and torn down by the great commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s to make way for a service road that was never built.  There is a cavalcade of memory here; I won’t tap it tonight because if I do, I will be up all night, and I will be too wrecked to go to LuthorCorp in the morning.  But I won’t let that house go without a fight.  There will be more, and soon.

Unlike the house in Philadelphia, the other house is still standing, in this little town. (#7 or higher will show you where we were in relation to the larger world.) It is not, however, the house I knew.  I haven’t seen the house in 15 years; even then, it had been almost 10 years since we’d lived there, and when I drove by it, I could hardly recognize it.  Since we moved out, the house had changed hands three times.  All of our fruit trees were gone.  The pond was long dead, covered with algae.  The little barn where we had kept our chickens and my pet rabbit had been torn down.  The front yard was bisected by a concrete walkway.  The new owners thought it would be nice to plant some flowers out front, which it was; less nice was the wooden cutout, painted to look like a fat lady bending over in the garden.  I am a big fan of folk art of the windmill and whirligig persuasions, but for the life of me I don’t know why people like those fat-lady things so much.

I know that we have a tendency to burnish the better moments of our childhoods until they attain a mythic status far beyond anything that the reality could hope to attain.  I remember plenty that was difficult about living in such an isolated area, so far to the north.  I remember being unable to make concrete plans to do anything between the middle of October and the end of April.  You could have every intention of taking your family to Florida, but if three feet of snow fell the day before you had to leave for the airport, then you’d better just sit back and put on another sweater, because babe, you aren’t going anywhere.  I remember sporadic tv reception and the intermittent failure of our phone service.  I remember playing in the backyard and being startled by a night crawler the size of a snake.  I remember seeing a snake the size of a snake attach itself by the fangs to my mom’s ankle.  I remember a period of hot dry summer weather where I rode my bike as fast as I could in dried-up creek beds by the side of our road.  One day I took a hill too fast and wiped out; after I surveyed my dusty bloody self, I determined that I was okay to ride, but I would probably forsake the creek bed for the road.  On the road, less than 15 feet from where I’d wiped out, I happened to glance into the creek bed and saw a fierce eye staring back at me.  Had I kept riding in the creek bed, I would have run right into the biggest snapping turtle I’d ever seen.  I was petrified of snappers, thanks in large part to apocryphal horror stories told to me by the mean boys in my class.  One day I was swimming in the pond with the kids from the dairy farm up the road.  The oldest daughter, four years older than me, started screaming that she saw a snapper in the pond.  I was eight, just learned to swim that summer, floating on an innertube in the deep water in the middle of the pond.  I knew then that I would lose a leg.  Maybe both legs.  I was too frightened to even thrash.  I didn’t want to lose a leg.  As it turned out, she had mistaken an old discolored piece of Tupperware, embedded in the pond floor, for a snapper.  I was so relieved that I didn’t even bother to ask her how she could have mistaken a Tupperware for a snapper.

However big a fraidy cat that I was—and I was a *big* fraidy cat—I loved that house.  The original house had been built in the 18th century.  This meant that there was no baseboard heat in the bathroom, kitchen, dining room, study (which became my room after my brother was born) and my old bedroom (which became bro’s room).  During a visit from my grandparents one weekend, my grandmother discovered there was ice on the inside of my windows, and within 24 hours I had a new electric blanket.  The old house was heated by a Franklin stove, which my parents taught me how to fire.  In the 1950’s the owners at the time had an addition built onto the house, a new living room (with a picture window facing the side yard and our pond) and bedroom (this was my parents’ room).  The pond, simply put, was a kid’s dream; swimmable in summer, skatable in winter, ringed by willow trees from which my friends and I tried to swing into the pond, never with any success.  When my stepdad put the pond in, he had it stocked with fish, mostly sunnies, but we had some big fish, too, and I was encouraged to try to catch them.  Our neighbors up the road had a dairy farm, 27 cows, a flat field for pasture and a steep hilly field that made for perfect sledding.  While some of my harshest winter memories come from that house—whenever I saw frost on the grass when I woke up in the morning, I knew that would be the kind of cold that hurt all of my exposed skin—some of my best winter memories come from the same place.  I remember walking outside one gray morning, seven inches of new snow on the ground, snowflakes the size of quarters, absolute stillness, trees looking like sparkling sugar.  Even as I knew my parents were inside the house, and our neighbors were up the street, I felt as if I were the only person around for hundreds of miles.

I can’t even think of how well we ate, what was at our fingertips, without edging close to tears.  We had our garden, of course.  We had two apple trees in our front yard.  One day the cows from up the street broke through the electric fence, which had become de-electrified, and they walked the 1/8 mile to our house and settled themselves in our front yard, noshing on the apples.  Eventually they went home, with great reluctance, the farmer and his kids prodding them (figuratively!) all the way.  I didn’t blame the cows for not wanting to go home.  Those apples were wonderful.  We also had wild red raspberries and blackberries ringing us for miles, and a pear tree in our side yard.  Because the pears were so small and hard, I thought they were inedible ornamentals.  Now I know that those “ornamentals” were actually Seckel pears, and every time I pay $2.00/pound for them at the farmer’s market, I want to kick my own self in the head.  We ate bacon from our own pigs.  We had free-range, cage-free eggs before I even knew what free-range was.  I never ate an egg that was more than two days old.  I drank unpasteurized milk with a line of cream across the top, cream so thick that we had to thin it with a little milk to whip it properly.

I have no interest in going back in time, or in moving back to a place that doesn’t exist anymore, but I do miss my childhood home, I do, I do.  Last summer I was lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s house in the country.  The house was built at approximately the same time as my old home had been built, and I almost cried when I saw the antique door latches on every door.  Sure, they were just door latches, but they were such a fixture, literal and figurative, of our old house, they were so embedded in my memory, that the sight of them, the feel of them in my hand, kicked me right back to our house, one of the two best houses I’d ever lived in.  I never thought I would see another latch like that again, and I felt so thankful that I had the chance to see them one more time.

Posted by Bakerina at 01:33 AM in valentines • (0) Comments
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