Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Work in Progress

I've been working on a memoir of my childhood for the last few months, and I thought it might be fun to post a chapter and see how you like it. It's long—it is, after all, a chapter—but I hope you'll read it when you have time and let me know if you enjoyed it. So for your reading leisure, The Old House.

During a recent Christmastime visit to Tennessee, my family gathered at my parents’ home for a Saturday morning breakfast. I hadn’t seen my family in at least two years, and sitting with them unleashed a flood of memories from my early years. As we ate, we recounted stories from our early years, mine being the most recent, more than 30 years ago.

It was like pulling the sheets off of furniture in an abandoned house, years of dust billowing into bright shafts of sunlight. Remembering some pieces of our childhoods brought us lots of laughter; others, sheepish, embarrassed grins. Like all the times my older brothers Steve and John launched me down our long wooden hallway on a toy tractor. Or the time John ran maniacally around our back yard covered with a sheet, shouting, “I’m a ghost! I’m a ghost!”; then plowed face-first into a fencepost. Or when Steve raced his bicycle down a steep hill and crashed like Evel Knievel at Caesar’s Palace. Or my insistent belief that I was, in fact, bionic.

Several hours of laughter and catching up later, we parted ways with hugs and promises to stay in touch. Mary and I, feeling a little nostalgic, decided to visit some of the places that had been such prominent fixtures in our youth.

I don’t even remember the last time we drove through Frayser to see the old house by the monastery. Mom and Dad had moved to the country years ago, where they retired from the business of caring for nuns and began caring for Mom’s aging mother, who had moved in with them.

As we passed familiar sights, I took note of landmarks—not in a cultural or historical sense, but in the sense that they had been, for 25 years or so, significant places in my life—and how they had changed over the years. The house of my best friend growing up still looked the same as it did 30 years ago, only now there were different cars in the driveway. The building that had once been Mary’s uncle’s auto repair shop still stood in the same place, but was now a used car lot. The Frayser Community Center, where I learned—with no great amount of surprise—just how badly I played tennis, still looked much like it did the last time I saw it.

We passed Frayser Elementary School, Frayser High School, and the corner convenience store where I used to ride my bike to get a cold Mountain Dew on a hot day.

Finally the red brick wall surrounding the monastery came into view. As I turned into the driveway, we passed under the familiar archway reading MONASTERY OF ST. CLARE, still standing, in brick and iron.

But the house was gone. Our old brick house, with the chipping white paint and the green shingle roof, was gone. Not even a brick remained; the only thing still standing was the detached garage that was now most likely used for storage. A gravel lot scattered with leaves now sat where my entire childhood took place. Gigantic oak and pecan trees that shaded us in the summer now stood sadly like mourners over the grave of a friend who has passed on before her time.

I started to speak, but the thoughts racing in my mind couldn’t slow down long enough to find their way to my mouth. Tears took me by surprise and I tried my best—unsuccessfully— to fight them back.

Why was I crying? I mean, it was just a house, right? No. It wasn’t just a house. It was my house, and it was so much more than bricks and plaster walls and hardwood floors. It was the house where I learned to tie my shoes, ride a bike, throw a football. The house where I careened at breakneck speeds down a long hardwood hallway on a toy tractor; played with Muffin, my first dog; and survived 11 days without power during Memphis’s worst-ever ice storm.

Mom and Dad had discovered the house in the late ‘60s. Like many other young couples in those days, they were having trouble making ends meet. Supporting a family on one salary from my father’s job as a firefighter was difficult, and they always seemed to have “month left over at the end of the money,” as they said. With three kids in school and the recent addition of a fourth—me—they were no longer able to make rent. Knowing their situation, a friend of Dad’s at the fire department, Frank Bradford, told him about the house he and his wife were living in.

Situated across a small parking lot from a secluded order of Franciscan nuns, the house was owned by the Catholic Diocese, and the Bradfords lived there rent-free in exchange for running errands and being general caretakers for the monastery. They lived in one side of the house, and an elderly woman rented the other side. Frank’s wife had been a schoolteacher and, after a few years off, was ready to start teaching again. They would be moving to a new home in a month or two, and Frank offered to let Mom and Dad take over their responsibilities.

Dad came home one afternoon and asked Mom if she wanted to move. For months, Mom had been praying for a new start. She never told Dad, but she had pleaded with God for something inexpensive so they could begin to work their way out of a mountain of debt. Her only request was that it have indoor running water and at least one toilet. She sighed a prayer of relief and gratitude when Dad told her it had two indoor bathrooms.

Indoor plumbing notwithstanding, the house was a wreck. It was infested with fleas, and the chiggers in the unkempt yard nearly carried Steve away, according to Mom. The windows were so loose that they were falling out of the sashes, and paint chips littered the windowsills and the floor at the baseboards. The elderly woman, after learning of the Bradfords’ plans to move, left and moved to Ohio to live with her two sons. But she left her mark on the place. She had cooked on a hotplate in her bedroom so often that gelatinous layers of brown grease had built up on the plaster walls and ceiling, and her toilet was caked with petrified feces that had to be scraped out with a putty knife.

My mother’s mother cried when she saw the house for the first time because she didn’t want her grandchildren to have to live in those conditions. My parents spent years fixing, cleaning, patching, and repairing that house to make it a home. They lived there 30 years, but still never got it quite the way they wanted it.

Sitting there facing a blank slate of land, I closed my eyes, and I could still see it standing there. My mind’s eye carried me through each room the way a robotic camera slowly takes viewers through the murky wreckage of a sunken ship.

We had two garages; one attached, one detached, that we referred to as “the little garage” and “the big garage,” respectively. The big garage was home to a collection of lawn mowers that we used commercially, and it always smelled of oil and gasoline. Garden tools, business end up in a blue fiberglass barrel, resembled a huge vase of particularly ugly flowers, old cans of motor oil and transmission fluid lined the shelves of a dusty bookcase, and scraps of plywood, old windows and doors, and lengths of trim molding loomed overhead in the cobwebs of the rafters.

The little garage held our washer and dryer, along with a chest freezer and baskets of laundry patiently waiting their turn. A counter ran along one side with cabinets above and a chest of drawers below, both full of treasures. My grandfather’s old hand tools, a five-pound coffee can full of assorted bolts and nuts, paintbrushes and rollers, cans and jars of stains and paints, their contents dribbling down their sides, crusty pairs of White Mule work gloves, and a collection of carpenter’s folding rulers.

I remember watching Dad sharpen lawn mower blades with the bench grinder, passing the long blades carefully over the wheels, a storm of orange sparks raining down on his boots and disappearing into the floor. When he had finished, the edges of the blades would gleam like polished chrome.

Exiting the garage and going up the stairs to the back door, I could see down the long hallway that stretched all the way to the front door. I stepped left into the kitchen, with its cornflower blue walls, linoleum floor, and Formica table, where scores of family dinners and conversations about grades, behavior, girls, and attitudes took place. Across the table and above the counter, a black rotary phone hung underneath shelves between two sets of ivory-colored metal cabinets on the wall opposite the refrigerator and stove. The fireplace on the far wall sat next to the cabinets where Mom kept flour and sugar in plastic one-gallon ice cream tubs.

Crossing the hall, I moved into the den that had once been my brother Steve’s bedroom. A couch and chair sat where his bed used to, and the black ornamental iron eagle he had secured to the fireplace years ago still spread its wings majestically. Stepping into the bathroom that joined my room to Steve’s, an old cast-iron claw foot tub sat under the window. The bathroom floor was made up of one-inch tiles, each a different color.

I remember bathing in that tub as a kid, pretending to be at the top of a huge mountain and staring down at those tiles as if each one were a parcel of land. On other occasions the tub was the captain’s chair of my spaceship and the tiles were buttons on a massive computer that controlled my flight through space. When bath time was over, I’d slip into my pajamas and crawl into bed, the coolness of air on wet skin sending a little shiver through me.

Stepping into my room, a row of storage cubbies sat above the bathroom door. They were where Christmas decorations, and on occasion, gifts, were stored during the year. My bed sat against the opposite wall, flanked on either side by my dresser and chest of drawers. A closet sat on either side of the bathroom door; one for my clothes, shoes, and toys, the other for my parents’ clothes. My room was the only one in the house without a fireplace. That was probably best, as I would most certainly burned the house down had I had one.

Across the hall was my parents’ room, which had a bathroom of its own that we all shared because it was the only one with a shower. I remember watching my dad and uncle Jim remodel that bathroom; covering the old walls with a new melamine material, caulking it, and even installing new fixtures in the sink and shower.

My parents’ closet was tiny—only deep enough for shoes—necessitating their acquisition of one of mine. There were many nights my little feet padded into their room and crawled into bed to sleep with my mother when my father was at the fire station. I would go to her side of the bed, the furthest from the door, and pat her on the shoulder until she woke up. She always said, “Climb in.”

I also used to sneak into their room when they were outside or busy somewhere else in the house and quietly slide open the top drawer of my father’s chest of drawers. At the very back left corner, behind his boxers, was a small tattered black box lined with red felt and divided into a half-dozen sections. Each section held something different and wonderful; mysterious coins and stamps collected from other countries during his years in the Navy, silver and brass pins worn on his firefighter’s uniform, tie pins he wore to church on Sundays.

I would place each item in the palm of my hand and run a finger over the surface to feel its texture, every curve and raised edge, and then place it back in its little section of the box. Once I had satisfied my curiosity, I carefully wedged the box back into its spot and slid the drawer closed. I did the same with items in my mother’s dresser. She kept a collection of silver dollars in a coin purse in the top right drawer and I loved to crawl onto their bed with it, spill the clinking coins onto the white heirloom chenille bedspread, and then push them over each other to listen to the smooth friction between them.

The living room was the last room at the end of the hall, and it spanned the depth of the house from front to back. The house was so old that the light switches in the living room were the push-button kind. At one end of the room was the fireplace, and on either side were shelves filled with Bible reference books, countless Reader’s Digest condensed books, various knick-knacks, and a set of Book of Knowledge encyclopedias. Occasionally I would sit in the floor with one volume open in my lap and peel through the thick, glossy pages to look at the colorful pictures of exotic animals in places I would probably never go. Sadly, the encyclopedias were used more often as weights to hold sheets and blankets in the construction of forts than they ever were for the purpose of education. Our living room was for that sole purpose: living.

The entire family was doing just that one night when I was five. The circus was on our rickety 20” TV, and as the high-wire performers on the screen inched carefully across a thin cable, I pretended to do the same around the edge of our large braided rug. At that age, I was seriously deficient in both motor skills and balance, and I promptly fell face-first into the coffee table, leaving two tooth-sized grooves in the edge where my front teeth gouged their way through the wood. I don’t really remember much after that, which is probably for the best.

Other, brighter memories in this room included countless Christmases, with family members spread around the room laughing and reminiscing, just as we had earlier that day at Mom’s and Dad’s.

The images of my childhood in this crumbling old house are still so vivid, it’s hard to believe that it’s gone. The stories each board and brick held we also hold in our hearts and minds. The memories leave a permanent imprint like, say, teeth in a coffee table. I can’t help but feel a little silly for naively believing that it would always be there. That I would always be able to drive by and see it. The house’s absence still leaves me a little sad. It was both a monument to and an icon of my formative years, but realizing it’s gone has brought about an overwhelming desire to reconstruct both on the page. It’s brought me a reason to keep in touch with my family a little more often. To revisit the places I remember so fondly and wake the ghosts of my childhood.

And by remembering the good times we had and keeping the memories alive, that old house will stand forever in our minds, chipping white paint, spaceship bathtubs and all.