Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The emotions of the last few days have made me think quite a bit about the past and about an essay I once wrote about the day that I decided to return to my childhood home. Here is how that piece begins. As with all my memoir work I write not to dwell on myself (never an entirely interesting topic) but, hopefully, to transport the reader, by way of suggestion, to her own childhood.

Today, then, I wonder: What is the one prevailing image that emerges when you recall your childhood home?

When I was 13 my family moved from one idea of suburbia to another, roomier version. It was what families did, what families still do, and besides, my father had been transferred. I was in eighth grade, then in high school. I moved out, went to college, got a job. I married a man from El Salvador, and next I had a son. Somewhere in the midst of this I lost my childhood. I listened for the pulse in my husband’s surreal stories and could not find seduction in my own. I raised my son the way all mothers raise their sons, with an emphasis on now and, then, tomorrow.

But even when you’re not looking for it, the past will up and find you. Someone from before will hunt you down with a treasure of a tale, or with a challenge. Someone will salvage an old photograph and slip it through the mail. Someone will say, I remember you singing, and someone will say, Whatever happened to that shoebox?, and one afternoon in winter your brother will get a look on his face that suggests honeysuckle and lightning bugs and stars watched from the roof. My brother climbed trees when he was young. My sister made mud patties near the swing. I played kickball on a street that ran a circle around our home.

Memory is episodic, aggrandizing, mischievous, iconic, and also mostly all we have of who we were back then. The anecdotes are easy; it’s the continuum that eludes us—all that falls between the heroic and the mournful, all the taken-for-granted everydayness that you can never see from a distance. Measured in terms of time and contradictions, my childhood can’t be reached from here. Measured by asphalt and traffic lights, it’s a 50-minute drive.

Somehow or other, though, I never drove in that direction. Not in all these years. Somehow I hadn’t journeyed back, and then, of course, I did. Down one country road and to a highway. Across another country road until it intersects another highway. At one point you turn left and, heart in your throat, you hunt for signs. For a neighborhood pool. A neighborhood field. A hiccough of a circle, and a house...


Jinksy said...

My childhood stays as snapshots in my head, as clear as any I could find in a photo album. Looking at them now, I can usually see how the present day 'me' emerged from them...Does this make me odd? Probably!

Unknown said...

yes, i remember growing up. the house. the moods. i am 45 and i still dream about it

kristen spina said...

Beth, this is so beautiful. And yes, it brings to mind my own childhood, which I feel, in some ways, I relive for six long weeks every summer when I take my son home to the place where I grew up. It touches me there, when I'm back in the canyons and on the beaches, driving long winding roads through the hills. The girl I used to be creeps into my soul and takes up residence, leaving me again somewhere in the sky on the 3000 mile flight back to present day at summer's end.

woman who roars said...

It sounds like you have been an observer from the very beginning. As someone who grew up in one house, Mom still lives there, I find it intersting to hear about how moving houses during childhood felt to other people. One girlfriend had a dad in the diplomatic core and lived all over the world ~ interesting stories!

Sherry said...

Every spring I get "homesick" for that first warm Saturday, after the long winter, when we'd try to do everything - ride bike (in the mud; pick May flowers; hunt for newborn kittens; catch minnows in the creek; and picnic on the sun-warmed big rocks, in the pasture, while watching the clouds float by. My mom would tell us we didn't have to "do it all" in one day, that there would be more warm days coming. But we couldn't take the risk. Ahh...childhood.

Jillian Cantor said...

Beth, what a beautiful post! Though I haven't been back to my childhood home in more than 15 years, whenever I can place myself in a dream it's always there.

I sent you an e-mail on MySpace -- not sure if you check that or not -- but I couldn't find your real e-mail address.

lib said...

We travel back, seeking years so long past. Seeking memories of years, days, moments. Homes once lived in now occupied by others. "What does my bedroom look like?" The colors have changed but the shape is the same. Memories can take us to places that fill our hearts with such joy. Then again....well.

I recall our home in Wheaton, MD.
WINTER: There was "the" hill in our backyard that looked so long and dangerous and through the eyes of a young girl, it must have seemed like a mountain!! The hill was just a hill and we spent hours sledding. Down....fast,fast!"Watch out for the creek!" we would shriek at the top of our voices, then laugh! Up the "mountain" we would climb and down again we would go!

SPRING/SUMMER Then there was the "boulder" of a rock we called Susie. Visiting my old home many, many years later, Susie (the rock) was not large at all, but my sisters and I played and played and played on this rock that sat in the creek behind our house.

At Nana and Grandfather's, the apple tree will always hold a special place in my trunk of memories.

Each season holds memories.
We go back....we seek, we learn.
We come back, hopefully a bit smarter and wise.

Beth Kephart said...

Oh, how I love these responses. Thank you.

(and I remember that apple tree!)

Em said...

What a touching post, Beth! There are places that I visit every time I go home. It's nice to know that some things never change.

And, Sherry, I love that feeling of spring, summer!

Anna Lefler said...

Shortly after we made our "big" move from Houston to Virginia (I was 14), my friend across the street wrote to say that our heater - the one up in our attic that my dad was always working on, banging with a hammer, cussing at - had exploded during the night and burned our house to the ground. (Fortunately, everyone got out in time.)

It was the oddest feeling, even more so when she mailed me photos - the partial wall in my room with my old wallpaper still on it, facing out at the street.

They rebuilt our modest suburban home in identical fashion, and I've driven past it since, but it's never felt the same to me. Except for my tree in the front yard, where I always sat and did my homework and read and climbed. That was still there intact.

Thank God.

Wonderful post, as always, Beth.



Beth Kephart said...

Miss Em, the honor of knowing you over time is beginning to feel as if I have some glimpses into your past.

And Anna. Oh. What a story.

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