There were two houses in my childhood, though they both occupied the same plot of land. There is the house that had a trap door in the floor of one upstairs closet and when we opened it we could look down into the laundry room, and throw our dirty clothes down there too. After we had been in the house a while my dad installed shelves under the laundry door and we would crawl through and down the shelves into the basement. We thought it was the coolest sneaky trick ever. That is the house where my dad finished the basement and built me my own room next to the stairs. My little brother and sister shared the upstairs bed room. I remember painting it and selecting wall paper, navy blue with pink roses. Before that I remember finding a bolt of pink checked fabric with raggedy Anne and Andy on it at the fabric store and pulling at my mom until we followed me and then throwing my arms around the fabric and hugging it when I showed it to her. The fabric became the first curtains and bedspread in my brand new room, one of the few things I remember my mother sewing herself. I wish I still had them, but when I was a teenager and wanted a new look I was decidedly unsentimental.
The piano that my mom bought for my dad one year was in the basement also. My dad would sit down and play while I was falling asleep. The arpeggios reminded me of falling water. I learned to play at that keyboard, he taught me my first songs.
There was a little door in my room that led to the crawl space under the stairs. For years my parents used it as a cold cellar and it always smelled of earth and onions and soft potatoes. Sometimes when friends slept over we would drag a lot of blankets in there and pretend it was a fort, a cave, or our place to camp out. Eventually I shared that room with my little sister, and we put bunk beds in the middle and created curtains that divided the room out of sheets that we dyed pink and blue. We never did sew the ruffle on properly, it hung there with pins holding it together for years.
I remember the heat vent under the sink that was in the wall instead of the floor. Every single morning in the winter I would get up and go kneel in front of that vent to get my toes warm. I would arrange my nightie so that the warm air would fill it up like a balloon. My brother and I fought over who got to sit there every day. We were supposed to share, which meant we would squeeze together but one foot would always be colder than the other. I remember one day coming up the stairs into the kitchen and surprising my parents who were making out.
There was a closet at the top of the stairs, and a landing at the entry way with a drywall railing. We raced cars down it all the time, every so often we hit someone walking in our front door. I liked to hide in the closet and play with the wire hangers, which were always on the floor it seemed. The closet was packed full of shoes and coats and our vacuum cleaner but I would squeeze inside it anyway.
I remember a back yard full of the neighborhood kids, and the rusty old swing sets that my brother and sister choreographed talent show winning gymnastics routines on. There were costume parties and baking at my house. There were the patio doors that led to nowhere. The deck that my parents had planned didn’t happen while I was still a child. I jumped from that door to the ground all the time, and my wrist still bears the scar from the jump where I landed on some rusty metal wire and it tore a path through my arm. There were raspberry bushes in the backyard, and giant maple trees, Nanjing cherry bushes in the front, and red currants. There were candle light dinners just because and heart shaped everything meals on Valentine’s day and the special dishes we kept in the buffet cabinet that rattled every time a train went by.
Then there is the other place. I am cowering in the closet at the top of the stairs, peeking through the door at my parents who are yelling at each other. My dad jerks open the door and grabs his tan leather coat yelling, “I’m not taking this anymore, I’m leaving.” He doesn’t even see me hiding there as he puts on his coat and stalks out the door. My mother does, and yells after him, “That’s a really great way to behave in front of your children.”
But he is already gone.
Later that night I sneak into her room and she is laying huddled on her bed crying. She tries to comfort me but the sight of my mother undone like that is more frightening than anything words can fix.
I am standing in front of my mirror naked looking at my developing body before I get ready for bed. I see the shadow of a person moving behind the curtain. I run over and look up through the ground floor window to see the schizophrenic man, that my father insisted we let stay with us in spite of my mother’s concerns, leering down at me. I realize that he’s been there watching every night since he moved in with us. He always heads out for a smoke when mom tells us to get ready for bed.
My dad is standing in my bedroom doorway. He is angry. He wants me to clean my room before I leave for school but I am already late. I am 13. We argue because he wants it done now and I am promising to do it after school so that I am not late for home room again. He lunges for me his face twisted with rage, I see it coming and dodge his arm. His forward momentum carries him all the way across the room and he stumbles and falls into the corner of his drafting table. Blood spurts from his forehead. It is my turn to be angry. I never trust my dad again.
I am sitting in the living room after summer camp, one week before I start high school. I am 14. My mother comes over from the neighbor’s house and tells me that she is leaving my dad and that I need to pack up my things and come with her to the neighbor’s house because dad refuses to leave the house and let us live there. I can’t decide if I am more angry about the break-up or leaving my home. (I don’t even consider staying with him.) Before I leave I ransack the house. I shroud it. Every object that I am fond of I lock in what used to be my bedroom. I turn every book on every shelf upside down. I tear down every verse about marriage that is hanging on our walls. I scream at my dad as he follows me around trying to set it back the way it should be. But it will never be the way it should be again. Though my dad eventually moves out so that the rest of us can move back in, though I continue to live there until I move away to college, it will never again feel like home.
This is not the post I set out to write. The good and bad are so intertwined that I can’t remember one without the other rearing its ugly head as well. I wonder what I think I’m doing trying to parent and make a marriage work when part of me is still cowering in that little overstuffed closet at the top of the stairs, hands cupped over my ears, helpless to prevent my world from falling apart.
For more and probably far less depressing childhood home stories go to My Childhood Home