“Won’t take nothin’ but a memory from the house that built me.” – Miranda Lambert
After you spend a number of years moving around, the question “Where are you from?” becomes a bit comical to a military family, and it can be surprisingly difficult to answer. The answer could be anywhere – the town where you were born, the home your parents moved to after you left, the assignment that you loved the most and that feels like home, the assignment you had before this one…
But recently I heard a song, Miranda Lambert’s “The House that Built Me,” which is about a woman retracing memories through her childhood home, and it got me thinking about where I come from… where I really come from: the place I came home to days after I was born, and the place I came home to every day for the next 21 years. The place that’s in my mind’s eye when I think of home.
My childhood home was idyllic, a near-century-old home with creaky floors, single-sinked bathrooms, and a sprawling yard shaded by two 100-year-old oaks. In the back, a long driveway that we called our alley was shared by ten houses. Young kids trampled across backyards, rode bikes up and down the alley, and paid visits to the two elderly sisters living next door to us, who always had a stash of cookies. Our mothers watched us through kitchen windows and called us in when it started to get dark.
Summers were dreamlike, with crickets chirping, children squealing, cicadas buzzing, breezes blowing, balls bouncing, bicycles whizzing, jump ropes slapping, chalk scraping, feet hopping, popsicles slurping, and cares… not existing. The sounds of summer hung in that seemingly perpetual pinkish haze just before sunset, when the pure and blissful hearts of children gave exuberant life to a neighborhood that had existed for over a hundred years… and that would continue to exist for hundreds more.
It’s been fourteen years since my parents moved to a newer, shinier place, but when I sleep and dream of home, I’m back in that old house, walking through my bedroom or waving to my best friend across the yard. And I wonder…
If I were to return, knock on the door as the woman in the song did, who would open the door? What would I want to say to them, show them? Would life exist for them as it did for us in that house? Do they know, do they fully understand how special, how extraordinary their neighborhood is?
Do they know that my neighbors and my family experienced the joy of a true neighborhood? We lent each other cups of sugar. We enjoyed lengthy conversations across fences. We kept spare keys to each other’s houses. Parents never worried as their children rotated from house to house, yard to yard all day long. We always knocked on each other’s backdoors – never the front. We excitedly jumped up and down until our friends came to the door and ran outside to play. We played in bare feet, till our soles were black. We shared big wheels. We built ramps. We were neighbors who let each other’s children run through the sprinklers watering our lawns in the summers, jump in enormous leaf piles in the fall, slide down snowy hills in the winters, and plant flowers in the spring. Each yard, each home was in some way blessed with the mark, the spirit of the rest of the neighborhood families. We were all connected. Deeply. Do they know that this neighborhood wove together friendships that, decades later, are still among the most important in our lives?
Do they know that these friendships were cradled and nurtured on a landscape that seemed a universe all its own? When they stand in their yard, can they feel the spirit of gleeful children reverberating off each blade of grass, each petal of a flower, each branch of a tree? Those giant oaks in my backyard were among the most majestic in the neighborhood. And under the oak that they’ve now cut down, my cats once found shade. That oak’s twin was Second Base when neighborhood children would gather for wiffle ball games. And that small pine across from it was Home. We’d finish the game and then play kick the can or capture the flag until the moon and the lightning bugs were the only light we had.
And we’d catch those lightning bugs, finding the brightest and most plentiful in the yard next door, the home of the neighborhood’s surrogate grandmothers. We’d race through that yard’s labyrinth of flowers and vines, Marian’s personal masterpiece made beautiful over years of heartfelt toil in the earth. Each victorious catch was kept in the most perfect see-through canister, owned by the girls in the peach house across the alley. We’d circle around it to “oo” and “ahh” as our luminous trophies glowed, while the boys used their baseball bats to see how far the bugs could soar… boys will be boys.
Do they know that, when our mothers finally did call us in, we closed the door and rested snugly in a home that was safe and strong, uncluttered of vices and worry? Do they know that in their kitchen that used to be our porch, my mom would sit for hours in the quiet? On summer nights, I could always find her there, sitting in the white wicker chair, softly haloed by the dim light from the kitchen window, reading quietly amidst the music of the night.
In that house, we had peace. We found love and comfort in my mom’s rocking chair – The Mommy Chair – which sat next to the living room fireplace. It was where we’d snuggle close, listen to her sing “Edelweiss,” and feel our pain melt away. In that house we laughed until we nearly lost our breath, as my dad would surprise us with an attack of the Tickle Monster from his post in The Daddy Chair. My brother and sister and I sat in front of the fireplace with skewered marshmallows and jockeyed for the spot between logs that yielded the most perfectly roasted – or most totally burnt – delight.
Do they know that our Christmas stockings hung from that mantle, and our Christmas tree stood just to the side? We three kids would wait (not so) patiently at the top of the stairs on Christmas mornings, until our dad announced that it was time to come down. He’d hoist a 30-pound video camera onto his shoulder to capture our faces when we’d run into the living room and tear through our Christmas hauls.
Do they know that, in a time before en suite master bathrooms, all five of us shared the upstairs bathroom? Do they know that, before massive walk-in closets became standard, my sister and I shared the shoebox closet in my bedroom? Do they know we never felt cramped? We were together. We crawled into each other’s beds when we were lonely. We invented space-shuttle games with a Lite Brite and a flashlight in our closets. We moved furniture around and hung sheets in our bedrooms to make veritable apartments. We had childhood spats that resulted in shattered glass, broken doorknobs, and trips to the emergency room. We climbed into our parents’ bed when a thunderstorm or a bad dream disturbed our sleep. We raced to the leaky basement when a siren warned of a tornado.
Do they know that, when my brother and sister left for college, I’d sit lonely in my room without them, feeling the hollowness of my newly inherited space instead of the pleasure I’d been assured? Do they know that I’d find solace just by looking out the back window? Because across the alley, I could see my best friend sitting in her kitchen. She was always there. I knew she’d always be there. And she still is… it’s just that she’s in a different kitchen now.
Do they know that in my bedroom I dreamed of all I would become? Do they know I’d send whispers to the universe to make my dreams come true? I’d fantasize about everything from fame and fortune to love and romance, even as boyfriends wouldn’t be let past the living room when they picked me up. And do they know that, in that driveway in the back, the boy who later became my husband kissed me for the first time?
I guess if I happened to wander back to that house, I’d tell them something like that. I’d probably walk about the place like I still lived there, roaming through hallways and bedrooms like they were mine. I’d probably peek behind the door frame in my old bedroom to see if they’d found the letter I left there. I wouldn’t tell them if I saw it still there. I’d wonder if that house is for them what it was for me… but I don’t think I’d want to know the answer. The reality is, a lot looks different on the outside now. As for the inside…
But that doesn’t matter. In my memory, it’s the house that gave walls to the solidarity, the security, the happiness, the spirit, the joy, the wholesomeness of my childhood. Those walls are warm with love and memories. That home taught me to make joy, to cultivate friendships, to nurture interests and entertain diversions. Where would I be in this life now, had I not learned that in the past?
That neighborhood, that home… I may not stand inside those walls anymore, I may not romp through the grass outside or walk to and from my friends’ houses… but it’s home. It’s the house that built me. It’s where I come from.