It’s part of our family lore. Happened before I remember. But I pay attention because it’s about me–and changing houses when I was very young.
I was two years old. I uttered the title of this post not long after moving into what would be our last family home. I was riding with my parents in the front seat of our black Mercury. My three older siblings were likely in the back. Call it recreational motoring around the quiet northern Utah valley into which we had just relocated (in those days of cheap gas and little on television–wait! we didn’t have a TV yet!) to look at farms in our new community. As the autumn afternoon turned to evening, there was probably talk of heading home. My exclamation might have merely been a toddler’s eagerness to keep up with a very active group. Apparently my mother heard more.
Statements of children sometimes take us aback. Even Jesus emphasized the ancient admonition that wisdom and perfection come from “the mouths of babes.” Don’t I hear that from my own children–and now my grandchildren? If I listen.
My mother listened. She also used her substantial intuition. (BTW the building I had identified was NOT our house but a barn painted a similar color–dark red.) Perhaps she sensed an incongruity that a two-year-old would be searching the landscape for a place to stay. Shouldn’t that responsibility be left to my parents? Mother suddenly thought of the loss I must have felt a few weeks earlier: We had driven away from our home in Texas and never went back. Did my young mind believe I had somehow caused our need for new digs by not paying close enough attention to what the old place looked like? Did our days on the road, lodging with relatives, and a temporary rental–while we waited for the new house to become available–contribute to my sense that the old house had gone the way of broken dreams and unrequited love?
My parents had left El Paso eagerly, Mother hadn’t put down roots there. In some ways it was a period of discontent for her. She and Dad had sacrificed mightily the first decade of their marriage. Dad’s job with Texas A&M was their reward for the privations and separation of World War II and four years of graduate school the GI Bill had funded. This is what she had worked for. Frankly, at that point she could have written Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” They had been better off while they were still in school. To take the job, my parents moved from the abundant green and ample camaraderie of student family housing in New Brunswick, New Jersey–with its proximity to Broadway–into a a small adobe duplex with only an unfenced dirt yard on a busy street corner in a Spanish-speaking burrough of El Paso, Texas–with its proximity to, oh–I don’t know–the possibility of fleeing the country if you want to hold up a train. Mom, the proverbial camper–this time in a foreign-feeling desert and, no–she was not happy about it.
Yes, they had a steady income but they had five hungry mouths to feed and the possessions they had accumulated as a married couple were pretty much threadbare–including the car. The process of replacing necessities was expensive. They were strapped, there wasn’t a safe place for her children to play, and, insult to injury, Mother didn’t like heat.
Household items were reminders of many years at war and on student rations. One overnight guest quietly noted the bed sheets Mother had mended with patches on top of patches and made his bread-and-butter gift especially generous: a box of oranges was delivered not just once but at regular intervals! No one would argue that this diligent young family deserved a more comfortable life.
It was coming: By the next year, they had moved into a brand new subdivision on a quiet loop and–with Dad’s attention to things agricultural–could soon boast a beautiful lawn. They splurged on a state-of-the-art swamp cooler using an unexpected windfall (pun not intended, but, Hey! perhaps we should name that house “Fallingwind”). Then they planned their next baby. Hopes for another sister besides the eldest had been dashed twice already. Would the girl/boy ratio finally rest at 1/1? The following spring, they got ME.
Far be it from me to say I was not loved or wanted. They must have sensed that, as a substitute sister, I was like hitting the jackpot! And, as an entertainer, I soon won them over. But it’s here I venture into a bit of speculation. Not hard to imagine my sister, like a scene in some movie, holding me while saying or thinking she would like to give me back. Or jokingly threaten to leave me in Texas where they found me when they moved away. I’m just saying it could have happened. Only corroborating the evidence that to me, two years later, it seemed crucial to keep track of where “we” lived. Certainly I could avoid being left by the side of the road if I prepared myself to lead this group–characterized by its wake of all-too-easily-forgotten beds and roofs over heads–back to the house we ventured from. Drawing from available resources, I could rely on my innate color memory. Voilà! The beginnings of what psychologists might call hypervigilance (and perhaps the mistaken belief that I could make them love me).
But I came to this condition with only a toddler’s powers for observation and reasoning. Also note my unfamiliarity with the land. I was the only one of the bunch who had not already had a house in Utah, in fact, been born there. During our sojourn in Texas, I hadn’t noticed how the others knelt in that direction for prayer nor even realized we were ON a sojourn. My internal compass didn’t activate when Dad landed a job at Utah State University; my face didn’t magnetically turn northwestward nor my heart swell with yearning for gathering home. I exaggerate. I may or may not have missed the simple truth: my parents were taking care of where we lived.
They proved that. They held tight to the red house, added on in ’59 to accommodate two more babies, painted it white. I had my own bedroom to settle into and decorate, a basement and crawl space–left in optimum ready-to-create condition–stocked with cast-offs and treasures (the stuff blogs like this are made of!)
In ’67, Dad had the chance to change careers, relocate. I objected loudly; I was about to enter high school and had positioned myself to be a musical actor there. Mother acknowledged this while she recalled her fear that my fierce attachment to our house was exacerbated by early unresolved loss. We didn’t move–not on my account, I hope. They said the change didn’t feel right to them.
Changes happened anyway: in the neighborhood, in family structure, Dad retired. We lost our quiet street. There was no getting it back after commercial development took off nearby. My parents held on. Then, in ’81, a two-year-old’s fear was realized. My sisters, the older and the younger one–born just after me–literally blocked my access to the house and my parents! They didn’t want Mom to see my son, my first, whose illness caused her extraordinary concern. They believed they could prevent further emotional anguish if they left me there with my wife and child by the side of the road. We went away. The color red didn’t guide me home that night. The house had been painted white.
But my other children got to know my parents, explore the basement, play in the back yard, on the tire swing, see our pet cemetery, walk the garden, the apple orchard and pastures where we raised sheep, kenneled dogs and rode a pony–now with a steady stream of cars we no longer recognized going by.
At the end of ’99, Mother lay in her bed that had been moved into the family room. She was in the care of my father and sister. About to die. I came to be there for the last. Mother woke. Her speech was very slurred: we wept, she told me that she loved me, said goodbye. Then my sister insisted that I go. She had her reasons, she said, with the burden of caring for Mom, she couldn’t bear to also worry that I was taking time away from work. I didn’t believe that it was reason enough to put me out; I thought it was my duty to be there. In later years I came to believe my sister felt unsafe. My knowing her well was threatening while she grieved and wanted privacy. And perhaps she feared I would challenge how she attended to Mom. All that was left unsaid. My sister escorted me with my bag to the front door.
My dad lived in the house five and a half years more before my sister and her husband moved him in with them. We six siblings kept ownership of the place after Dad died but, last July, sold it to the City. Next month it will be torn down to widen the street. I go in a couple of weeks to help dispose of the estate, say another goodbye.
Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52
copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved