Okay, my friend Suldog has done it again (this is becoming quite a habit with him. . .); with his recent post (which was really a fairly old re-post), recalling the house he grew up in, he has provoked a whole set of reminiscences to bubble up from the back corners of my brain, and into his comment-space. Which, in its turn, has provoked me to write a more complete account for your enjoyment. Or, you know, whatever. . .
When I was a young child, our family moved around quite a bit. Just sitting here keying this in, I can think of eight different houses that I lived in before I went away to college, six of them before I was ten years old. The house I was adopted into, in suburban Detroit; our first house Up North, which we only lived in for about a year, when I was four; then back to the Detroit 'burbs to start school, and yet another house in the same 'burb; then back Up North, to the house on the shore of Lake Huron. We lived there for about two years, and I can still conjure up a tear when I think about moving out of that house when my parents divorced. We moved to a house 'in town' for about a year, and then, when my dad remarried, we moved to another house closer to the edge of town, where we actually lived for seven years, virtually until I graduated high school. Then my parents moved to suburban Chicago virtually simultaneously with my graduation, so after that summer, I went back to Michigan for college, and my family commenced morphing into Chicago-ites (or whatever they're called); rooting for the Bears, the White Sox (ugh!), and (please God, no) the Bulls. It's funny - my family lived in that house in suburban Chicago for 35 years, but I never really 'lived there'. It's the last house Up North, where we only lived for about 7 years, that holds most of my memories. . .
As I said, we moved there after my folks got married, just before I turned ten. That's where all the 'new-blended-family' drama played out, and where my two youngest brothers were born (okay, they were born in the hospital; we didn't live that far north; but that was the house they came home to). I was in 5th grade when we moved there, and we moved out less than two months before I graduated (I only consented to move to Chicago if my credits could be transferred back, and I could get an Up North High diploma) (I'm sure that my folks were really worried by my little ultimatum; at any rate, they found my terms acceptable). . .
Sometime when I was in junior high (I want to say it was '68, since my memories are intermingled with the Tigers' world championship, and twelve seems about right for how old I was), in order to leverage the available space in the house, Dad decided to turn a third of the basement into a deluxe, three-boy 'boy-cave' bedroom. Each of us had our own little 'niche', with a bed, a closet and a built-in desk-and-shelves all our own, so it was almost like we each had our own room, even though it was all contiguous open floor-space; it was quite cool.
The construction of the bedroom was also the occasion for a goodly bit of training for my brothers and me. We helped Dad frame in the walls, run the wiring, and hang the drywall, so by the time it was finished, those things weren't so daunting anymore. To this day, I don't mind doing a bit of electrical work, and I always think of constructing that bedroom whenever I have to do some.
Our yard was something like a quarter-acre, on the wooded dead-end of our street, a block from our closest neighbors. On a snowy day, the walk down our street was like something out of Currier & Ives. The house itself sat on the top of a little mound, with the basement open on one end to a walk-out. The back yard was pretty open, and we would often have our friends over for backyard whiffle-ball (in the summer) or football (in the fall) games.
In the corner of the yard, there was a mountain-ash tree, which produced delightfully-colorful orange berries in the fall, which the birds loved to eat (my brother and I, though, tended to fixate on what a pain those berries were to rake off the lawn, and the way they gave the birds the runs, which also involved more work for us). In the late fall, the berries, whether still on the tree, or fallen to the ground, would ferment. Which gave rise to the annual ritual of The Day of the Drunken Birds - the birds would gorge themselves on the fermented berries, and for that day (and maybe a day or two after), we'd have birds staggering and falling in the back yard, struggling to take flight, but not quite getting their wings to work properly. Or, if they did manage to take flight, they'd fly into the windows, or perform bizarre drunken aerobatics. Good, good times, those. . .
Truth to tell, though, 'wooded' is a little bit of a misleading adjective for the end of our street. Our yard was bounded on two sides by what could only be justly called a swamp (although, to be sure, there were plenty of trees). Many a baseball of ours became water-logged and useless for having been errantly thrown into the swamp, and found/retrieved only several days later (of course, we never really knew for sure that the baseball we pulled from the swamp was the one we'd most recently lost, or the one we'd lost six months ago). When I was in high school, Dad assigned my brother and me to drain the swamp. For a couple weeks that summer, we were out in the swamp with shovels, knee-deep in, um, swamp-goo, dredging a channel down to the main drainage ditch that ran along the street (okay, it was a dirt road, but it was inside the city limits, and for postal purposes, was designated as a 'street', so I'm going with that). It was nasty, smelly work, but once we'd met Dad's specifications, the swamp sho-nuff drained, and our errant baseballs landed on a floor of damp leaves, instead of eight inches of standing fetid water (and, you know, whatever else).
The standing water accounts for the mound that the house sat atop. Actually, the basement floor was maybe about a foot above the local water table, so the house was built basically as low as it could have been, and then the mound was back-filled around the foundation wall to leave it looking like the ranch house it was supposed to be. Not long after we moved there, we had a massive rain storm that left our basement filled with about a foot of water, destroying several boxes of 'important' papers (including my adoption order). Which was remedied, in large part, by opening the walk-out at the far end of the basement, and letting the water run out into the yard (and ultimately, the swamp).
That mound also made for some, uh, unique challenges for young drivers-in-training, as it required a subtle touch on the accelerator pedal to balance having enough power to climb the hill, but still go slow enough to safely guide the car into the garage, whose opening was roughly three inches wider than the land-yacht 9-passenger station wagon that was necessitated by the size of our family. The first time I drove the family vehicle, I left it so squirrelly-sideways inside the garage that my mom couldn't get it back out without peeling the trim-strip off the side of the car. Yeah, Dad was real pleased with me that day. . .
I've written elsewhere about some of our snow-bound winter adventures, living on a dead-end street, and what that meant for snow-shoveling duties. Especially the time we got 42 inches of snow in a week, and it became an open question as to whether we were strong enough (especially after a few hours' shoveling) to throw the snow to the top of the existing piles. . .
So it was with a degree of wistfulness that we left that house, with all its memories, and moved to metropolitan Chicago. Which could hardly have been a bigger cultural shock to us north-woods bumpkins. But that's another story, to be told (if at all) at another time. . .
When our family moved to Chicago, my grandma continued to live Up North, so for a few years, I had a place to stay when the urge struck me to renew contact with my roots, and I stayed with her a few times for short visits. But not long after my ten-year high-school reunion, Grandma died, and it was a bit more of a chore to 'go back home'; and for several years, I didn't go back.
But when I got the invitation to my 20-year reunion, I was eager to go back and see the old hometown again. I booked a room at a motel by the shore, that had once-upon-a-time been one of my customers on my paper route; right next door was the local miniature-golf establishment, where I'd spent many happy summer hours in my youth (especially since it, too, was a paper-route customer, and when I'd go collecting, I'd have a big wad of cash in my pocket, which just seemed to call out to me that I should play a round or two of miniature golf). I went to the reunion and got reacquainted with several of my old friends (although there were twinges of sadness, to find that the football captain and the cheerleader, who had both been friends of mine, were in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, and seemed bent on using the reunion as a contest to see 'who-has-more-friends'; nice).
The day after the reunion, I decided to do some retrospective sight-seeing around my old hometown. The schools I'd gone to were still there. Well, except for two of them, which had been torn down, and there were green, grassy parks where they had once stood. One of the old ball fields I'd played on was overgrown, although the old chain-link fence marking its boundaries was still there, leaning askew, and rusting.
The downtown, which in my day had been a typically bustling commercial district (well, as 'bustling' as a town of 15,000 souls can conjure up), was almost completely given over to little shops catering to the tourist trade, selling T-shirts and baseball caps and coffee mugs emblazoned with the name of the town and maybe a deer, or a fish, or a lighthouse. All the 'real' stores had moved to the mall that had gone up at the edge of town a few years previously.
Then I drove over to the other edge of town, where our house had been, to see what it looked like.
For starters, it wasn't a dead-end street anymore, and it had neighbors. The swamp was gone, with new houses standing where it had been. There were houses next door, and behind it; and the woods to the side of our yard were thinned to the point where other houses were visible between what trees were left.
The mound our house had stood on had been removed, the foundation-wall standing exposed to the air. A new garage had been built, on the level of the basement, and what had been our garage had been converted into living space on the main floor. The back yard was fenced in, which it had never been in our day (what would have been the point?)
I got out of the car and stood, leaning against the car, surveying the house that I'd grown up in, and yet, so very different, both in itself, and in its surroundings, from the one I'd grown up in. As I stood there, the owner of the house came out onto the porch and asked if he could help me with anything. I explained that I'd grown up in his house, and was just recalling having lived there, once-upon-a-time, and I'd be moving along soon, if he didn't mind. It turned out that he was still the same guy who'd bought the house from my dad, and he asked if I'd like to come in and look around. I thanked him and told him that, if he didn't mind, I'd like that very much.
So I went in and had a look around. The main floor was still pretty much the way I'd remembered it, except for the new family room where the garage had been. I was especially eager to have a look in the basement, and the bedroom that my dad and my brothers and I had put so many hours into building. But when we went downstairs, there was no bedroom to be found; just a regular old basement, mostly used for storage and laundry, and 'utility-type' stuff like that.
I thanked him most graciously for affording me the opportunity to come in and have a look at my old house. Then I left and proceeded on my way back home, having been confronted most directly with the truth of what Thomas Wolfe had once said, that You Can't Go Home Again. . .