My house is gone. Not by fire, flood, or act of God. The house I grew up in as a child, where I lived and laughed and learned, the house where magic danced down every hall and angels breathed through every window... is gone. In its place, a bigger, roomier, more modern version - a two-story lumbering giant that all the neighbors say just doesn’t fit in. With the help of Google Street View, I can see that new house, and it just feels wrong, it feels off. That was where MY house once stood. That was MY yard...
Did the new owners realize that in the process of tearing down the house of my childhood, they were also tearing down my heart? Their only thought was to provide more room for their own growing family, and they had every right to do so, you see, for I have not lived in that house for over 30 years. Not by choice, but by necessity was I forced to leave that place in the summer of 1974. My father, a geophysicist, had been offered a lucrative job on the West Coast. My mother, whose own family had vacated the right coast for the left years before, seconded the upheaval, and Mayflower loaded what was left of my growing years into a truck and we hauled the tow west.
I fought the move tooth and nail, not wanting to leave those years full of luscious summers, thunderstorms and fireflies, flashlight tag and sledding down the neighbor’s hilly backyard, fireworks and carnivals and 7:00pm siren commemorative of a more dangerous time. Men walked on the moon, women marched in the streets, Woodstock rocked only a few miles to the North, and the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan -all in that house.
Tromping through the woods behind that house I tracked animal markings, and, with my Field Guide to Birds in one hand and a pair of cheap binoculars in the other, I identified thrushes and larks and robins and wrens. The results of these and many other scientific explorations led me to such rich rewards: feathers and shells of every size and shape, a jarful of fossils I dug up, with the help of the neighborhood kids, found beneath our swingset after my scientist father casually remarked “We were all underwater once.”
When I wasn’t outside in nature, I was inside reading and writing and learning, devouring books on every subject as I sat on my bed near the window, listening to crickets hum in the woods. I became a spy in that house, sneaking from room to room with my binoculars, peeking out windows at unsuspecting neighbors. I saw the lady next door in her bra, the man up the street in his bloomers, and the fat lady across the way fall off her kitchen table while unceremoniously swatting at a fly with a broom handle.
My favorite target was the older boy next door, who would foolishly study at his desk by his window, which just happened to overlook my own. I fancied myself so slick, a femme Bond, if you will, and if any of the neighbors ever caught on, they never showed. Besides, I was just a kid, and kids do all kinds of crazy, wonderful things. It’s only when they grow up they stop having so much fun.
I heard my first rock and roll in that house, read my first Nancy Drew novel, and watched as my body changed from thin and boyish to just a bit more round. My mother enchanted us with fanciful stories in that house, told as we all sat upon the “magic carpet” by the kitchen doorway. My father traveled the world on research trips, returning each time with tales of intrigue and wonderful coins from the Four Corners that I kept safe in a ceramic crocodile bank.
I made friends, real and imaginary, in that house. The imaginary ones included an alligator in a top hat named Peenafurt Franklin, and a cadre of triangle shaped “heater men” that chased me when the furnace kicked in. I dreamed of being an astronaut, jockey, lady cop, president, super spy, scientist, Olympic runner and Broadway actress in that house. All the time I was writing, and it was in that house my big dream took hold. I became a writer.
Since I moved away, back in 1974, coming first to L.A., then San Diego, I’ve been back to that old neighborhood a few times, always feeling that resurgence of awe and magic. Even without the huge maple in the front yard, even without the hedgerow and the bushes and flower garden, even without all the outer trappings I had known and loved, it was still the same house and just seeing it gave me chills of sweet joy.
But when my mom called to tell me the terrible news awhile back, that an old neighbor had called her earlier and filled her in on the deconstruction of my house and the rising of a new one in its place, it was as though I had just been told a family member had died. It was gone. Really gone. Not just changed, not just different.
My last trip back I had gotten strep throat and couldn’t even hold my head up long enough to see my house as we took our ride down memory lane. I had vowed to go back again soon, maybe even get up the courage to ask the new owners if I could peek inside for “one last look.” But that trip never happened. I got caught up, in work, life, paying the bills.
Perhaps it wasn’t just that house I was missing, but the dreams and hopes and possibilities left behind. I guess when we loaded up that Mayflower truck, we forgot to pack one thing - my childhood spirit, so bold and free and unafraid to live.
And now it’s too late. Too late to ever go back and knock on that door and walk through those rooms again. Rooms where I felt so warm, so alive, so at home. Rooms where I came to know who I was.
I cried when my mom told me. For three straight hours. Then I did the only thing I know how to do when faced with life - I wrote. And in my grief and mourning, for far more than just a lost house, serendipity whispered. They say you can’t go home again, but I beg to differ. You never really leave. It’s always there, that voice, deep inside, calling you to come back home, however quiet and stifled it might be from years of running to safety and away from the risk of our dreams.
The land can cast a spell... houses do that, too. It may be too late for me to ever walk those hallowed halls, but it’s not too late to fulfill the dreams I came to believe were my own, in that house. Because in my grieving of childhood’s end, I realized this. That the magical house of my youth isn’t really gone at all...
It lies within.