December 24, 2014

Rockwell Through The Tubes

As a kid, I was a complete and utter tomboy, living the princess life in a castle on a hill.  I don’t mean that figuratively.  The place I called home was north of the metro area, nestled among the trees as any respectable manor should be.  The 5500 square foot, brick, stone, and wooden tudor presided over the estate like a monarch.  If it were humanly possible, I would have fallen out of every single tree on the property, given enough time.  

Summers were filled with hikes in the woods, racing bikes or scooters, or rollerskates around the circular drive (and sometimes on the parquet wood floors in the dining room, much to my mother’s chagrin), swimming in the pool, and stargazing in the backyard accompanied by a symphony of frogs.  Winters saw roaring fires in the colossal fireplace in the living room.  As wide as I am tall, it was one of five in the house.  As the winds roared across the hilltop, the moaning of the flue and the crackle of the flames in the hearth warmed our fingers and toes.  Sometimes we read, sometimes we played games.  Other times, my dad would make the life-sized brass moose head above the mantle “talk” and tell us fantastical stories he’d make up on the spot.  

Sometimes, the heat would fail, and dad would have to get out his overalls, old margarine tub, and radiator key and bleed the air out of the radiators.  I don’t think it’s possible to forget the stink of the stale water that those old pipes coughed up, but the warmth that followed made it easy to ignore.  

Having done well for themselves, my parents filled the house with treasures from far flung places.  Antiques and one of a kind furnishings were the norm.  And my goodness, did we have our fair share.  There may not have been a length of particle board in the place.

I can remember one winter, in the weeks before Christmas, my mom was sitting at what she called the game table in the living room, happily enjoying a moment of quiet while addressing her pile of Christmas cards.  The 11 foot live evergreen in the french windows was glowing like a Hollywood starlet at her first premiere.  Our Great Pyrenees dog she’d named Jean Claude sprawled out nearby, content to be both cooled by the slate floor and warmed by the radiator at the same time.  In the silence there was a great crack, like a shotgun, that echoed off the walls and ceiling.  The wood in the antique table had become so dry it had split about 7 inches from the edge, scaring my mother nearly half to death.  It was from the next day onward that I believe our family helped keep the humidifier industry in business.

Built in 1925, I think my parents might have been only the 3rd owners.  For years, we were the people who lived in the Sorrell’s old house to the neighbors.  Mister Sorrell stayed in his home after his wife, Rose, passed.  It might be said that he stayed longer than he should have, based on some of the stories that were passed on to us.  He gave a younger relative a pony that Mr. Sorrell kept in the living room.  The animal, doing what it does, relieved itself on the slate floor and Old mister Sorrell never cleaned it up.  The beautiful parquet floors of the kitchen and dining room were covered in several inches of mud and badly in need of repair.  There were months of renovations between the day they closed on the house and when the fresh-faced couple moved in.  And sometimes, during those days, there was a little bit of old home spookiness to go along with it.

Windows and doors never seemed to stay closed, no matter how many times they had been doublechecked.  A particularly stubborn window above the garage was so often the culprit of shenanigans that it had to be nailed shut.  One evening, while checking on the progress of the renovations after the contractors had left for the day, my mother was standing in the living room when she felt a draft waft down the stairs.  A short search revealed the source.  It was from a single pane of glass having been removed from the aforementioned window.  Perhaps as a friendly thumbed nose to them, whatever had perpetrated the act left all of the glazing intact while still removing the 5x7 pane of glass and placing it carefully, propped up against the frame where it was later discovered.  We later came to decide these sorts of pranks were played by Rose, the former owner’s wife.  She had a deep love of the outdoors and a preference for fresh air over modern comforts like air conditioning.  She would occasionally throw open the 4 sets of french windows in the living room during the temperate months, declaring it far too stuffy for her tastes.

She took a particular interest in me as an infant.  After my adoption, my mother tells me she had a hard time keeping the door to my nursery closed.  From one feeding to the next, she would wake to find the door open and me quietly cooing at nothing.  After playing keep away for long enough, she decided it was time to put her foot down.   I can picture her in my mind, arms akimbo and stamping her foot as she told whatever entity was there she’d had it up to her eyeball, and that this entity was to leave me alone.  Mom made it clear that Rose had had her chance at motherhood, having raised her family to adulthood.  It was now her turn and she could do just fine without immaterial help.  From that day forward, the door stayed closed when shut, and open when left that way.  Rose could take a hint.  Sort of.

5500 square feet is alot of ground to cover when you’re chasing down two children and a spouse.  Our method of communication was yelling.  It was that, or an honest to goodness cowboy triangle to ring, alerting everyone that it was dinner time in the evenings.  We were big on sharing a meal around an actual table, and it’s a habit I’m grateful my folks were pretty firm about.  That said, my sister and I frequently would turn down our radios to respond to hearing our name called from afar.  It was about a 50/50 chance of getting an actual reply, or a bewildered “I didn’t say anything” from two floors below.  We considered it the ghostly equivalent of Rose throwing pebbles against the window to get our attention.  None of us ever felt particularly threatened.  It was just what living there was like.  We’d go back to our boy bands, or whatever tape I’d found in the bargain bin at Dirt Cheap the weekend before and think little of it.

On the whole though, that was a small part of the magic growing up in what was once aptly described as a ski chalet in the bluffs.  My mom was a prolific gardener in her youth.  She did almost all of the landscaping herself.  I remember summers where I would only know where she was based on following the pile of weeds around the yard until I came upon her, string bikini top on, decked out in a sun hat, happily pulling out weeds and planting annuals in her wake.  For weeks at a time, she would be enjoying the outdoors from sunup to sundown.  We spent amounts of time in nurseries on the level of what the ladies in Sex and the City did in shoe stores.  It was to the point I’d start whining blocks before we even got to the parking lot.  I hated it.  However, in the days after she’d finally be done with her garden projects, the yard was my favorite place to be.  You see, she would use mulch made of dried cocoa bean shells, so the entire grounds smelled like a chocolate factory.  On the rare occasion I was up before the crack of noon, the air was heavy with its scent of flowers, chocolate, and earth before the day came fully alive.  

I can’t smell the orange Bain de Solei tanning lotion without remembering my mom laying out by the pool and my dad swimming laps.  I learned to swim at a young age, and it wasn’t uncommon for all the neighbor kids to come over to beat the heat.  We bought so much visine for our chlorine irritated eyes that I’m pretty sure the Florence drugstore would have believed we were quality testing pot every summer.

I credit growing up out there with my mixed personality of extroversion and introversion.   I had the space and means to explore and feed my own head, but I also had the personality and material things to make me curious to the people around me.  Equal parts yin and yang, if you will.  For that I’m grateful, if not chronically suspicious of exactly why people found me interesting.

I had many firsts in that house.  A sense of home, roots, and security.  Having been adopted, I didn’t have much to look backwards on.  That property was the first thing I could latch onto as my history.

I saw my first therapist as a child while living there.  Headstrong and defiant, I never bent to his agenda.  Seeing him was the idea of my 6th grade teacher, who decided that because I wouldn’t learn according to his prescribed method, there had to be something wrong with me.  So what if while in the middle of his lessons I was staring out the window, watching the squirrels?  Thinking he’d catch me in my perceived mischief, he’d call on me to answer a question based on his lecture.  I never understood how his ears kept from combusting due to his obvious anger when I would, without breaking my gaze from the romping mammals in the yard, answer his question promptly and correctly.  Needless to say, the trips to the counselor were discontinued not long after they began.  The adversarial relationship between a grown man and a child almost an entire year younger than the rest of her class persisted well beyond his first year’s tenure as teacher.  Come to find out later, he had a difficult time holding his tyrannical sway over subsequent classes thanks to my taking him down a peg or two.  He was eventually drummed out of the school system, and found work in another district in a neighboring suburb.  

I went through all the trials that kids do; learning you’re different, bullying, and finding your own voice.  Two of my favorite stories stick with me to this day.  And perhaps they’re a bit shallow, but it was a nice tit for tat, even then.

The first was when my elementary school peers learned I was adopted.  I remember being taunted with something along the lines of, “Ha ha!  Your parents didn’t even want you.  Reject.”.  Not long after, we had a reason to invite the entire class of 26 over for an afternoon event.  Upon seeing the place I called home, the same kids asked if my folks were looking for another kid to adopt.  

My second happy hater memory was the culmination of all the bullying I saw in religious school.  I was that kid.  You know, the weird one.   I was always late to class since we had to drive so far from our place north of the city.  You see, that’s where the bad neighborhoods were.  Still are, to some degree.  However, what my peers didn’t understand at the time was, not all neighborhoods north of Dodge were blighted.  So, by default, I was a hood rat.  Arriving late when they were already all inside, enjoying their pre-hebrew school bagels, they were never outside to see me pull up in dad’s porsche or mom’s Sterling.  As such, I was their favorite punching bag.  One day, my female peers cornered me in the lounge of the lady’s room off of the main sanctuary and issued their ultimatum.  If I ever wanted to be in their clique, I would provide them a photo of my house, my room, and a rundown of my dad’s salary.  To which I obliged, because you see, I knew the dice were loaded in my favor.  The next week, after picking their collective jaws up off the floor, they proclaimed how wrong they’d been and would be happy to welcome me into their fold.  I’m not sure if they heard my reply, as my back was turned to them as I was walking out, but it was to the effect of “Piss off.  I didn’t want to join you before, and I sure as hell don’t want to now if this is all I’m worth.”  It wasn’t long afterwards that I fulfilled my contract with my family by participating in my bat mitzfa.  I haven’t been back to schul more than a handful of times and consider myself, at the very most, an invite only Jew.

Are they shallow experiences based on money and material worth?  Mostly, yes.  From an early age I had this idea that a person wasn’t defined by such things, and I still believe that to be absolutely true.  In a way being a sort of princess tomboy in the flyover state version of the Money Pit helped to create that worldview.

I learned to drive growing up in the hills.  My first car was “borrowed” from my Poppy.  He was on the dangerous end of alzheimer's, and my getting a license was a convenient reason to remove his ability to drive.  Wheels set me free.  Having nothing within walking distance, the ability to drive opened quite a few doors to me.  I will believe to my dying day, however, that my folks pick of a car was deliberate.  Worthy of its own story, that car was a boon to me and a bane to my parents checkbook.  It would get me anywhere I needed to so long as it was under 30 miles in one direction away.  Frankly, that was a long enough tether to keep me happy, and tearing down the curving river valley road was almost like a massage for the soul.  From the time I was 16, until the day we packed up the last of the rooms on moving day in 2013, I could feel every muscle in my body unclench one by one the further I drove under the canopy of trees on the way towards Home.

I knew the dream had to end sometime.  As my folks aged, and my sister and I both grew up and moved away, the house got to be too big for two people in their 70s.  They first listed the house in 2008 and we all prepared to grieve the end of an era by packing up much of the personality in the possessions around the house.  We gathered for the first of many potential “lasts;” last Christmas, last summer bbq, last Sunday bagels and Jazz in the morning light of the solarium. Five years went by.  The price dropped, they took the house off the market, we enjoyed our stay of execution as best we could.  The house declined from its glory, and it began to drift along on a bubble of simply maintaining.  My parents have never truly been in ill health, but you could tell the property was now much more than they could handle alone.  The house was back on the market, reduced in price yet again, and all pretense had fallen away.  It was time to let go.  The only question was when.  Feeling optimistic, I asked if I could invite some of my friends over for a Memorial day bbq.  A few of my friends were photographers and I wanted to see if we could perhaps take some photos to remember the place proper before that shoe dropped.  We’d been waiting at its bedside for so long, it now seemed inevitable.  And so it was.

Mere days before the get together, I got the call that the house was going to be sold.  There was sadness and joy intermingled in my mom’s voice as she told me.  I could still have my party, but they’d need my help packing up and moving at the end of the month.  The new neighbors were looking forward to being able to be in for the 4th of July, and they needed to be out by the end of June.

That must be how a caterpillar feels when they know they’re saying goodbye to their old life and looking forward to the wings they’ll soon use to flitter about.  You remember where you’ve come from, but look forward to what will be.  That has to be how both mom and dad felt, but I think the sadness was more acute for my dad.  Neither of us took the news well, even though we knew it was the best conclusion.

I was able to have my cookout with friends.  We wandered the grounds, telling stories, and genuinely enjoying each others company.  I hadn’t been all that social in the previous months and had fallen out of touch.  This had started off as a means to kick start the summer and re-energize our friendships.  Instead it turned into a sort of wake for me.  Sad as that might sounds, their presence was much appreciated.  I’m not sure what I would have done had my last memory have been moving day.

You see, that’s because as I drove up to the house, I parked in the gravel drive for the honest to goodness barn where we’d kept our horses and bawled my eyes out.  I’m absolutely not a crier, and am loathe for anyone to see it, much less know I’m capable of it.  But, I saw there, fat, sloppy tears on my cheeks and antithesis of dainty nose running as I soaked every tissue in the car.  After a few minutes of indulging, I wiped my face and said aloud, to nobody in particular, “Alright, let’s get to work.”  Sparing the details of moving day, as none of it went as planned, we did get every last thing out of the place by the midnight, July 1, 2013 deadline.  While I knew the new owners had the means and vision to keep the place shining in the glory it deserves, I expected that to be the last of it.  My last memory was going to be two moving vans in the driveway, sweat, and more dust than king tut’s tomb.

You know what happens when you make declarations like that?  You get them wrong.

Dec 15th, 2014, the reality distortion field that’s chased me around my entire life does its thing and I find this in my facebook inbox.  (Names changed.)

I'm Kyle. I live in the house you grew up in.
I'm contacting you because, I can't even imagine what it was like to grow up here as a small child. Must have been like a Magical dream or something.
We have been renovating, promise you we have not compromised the integrity of the home. In any way.
It does look quite different though.If you would like any photos, or maybe a stop by. I would be more than happy to share.
AnywayHappy MondayHope you have a fabulous week.

It’s rare that I’m speechless.  For this, my mind made an exception.  I’m pretty sure I experienced vapor lock.  Granted my last name isn’t all that hard to pick out of a crowd.  I think there’s under a handful of us in the tri-state area, so it’s not like it would have been difficult detective work to find me.  As bewildered as I was to know why, I’m glad he did.  Certainly there were pangs of loss, but my curiosity and desire to know that the place means as much to someone else as it did to me drew my hands to the keyboard.  I typed out a hasty reply before wiping the indoor mist off my face and heading to work:

Kyle!  Wow, this is a surprise. But a good one. You're absolutely right, that place was a magical place for me for almost all of my life. Selling it and helping the folks move out was a bittersweet time. I'll admit to bawling my eyes out in the barn driveway for a few moments before putting my game face on and getting them out on time that day. I was relieved to hear that it would be going to someone with the means and vision to keep it in good stead. I'm happy for you two. It's an undiscovered treasure, that's for sure.
Part of me wants to see what you've done with it. I know that as my folks aged, and my sister and I moved out, the house wasn't kept up the way it had been. Entropy and time, and all that. So, I know it has rough spots that need it. And there's a small part of me that. . . Well, I still mourn a little. None of that is on you, but it's like thinking of a lost love that you fell out of touch with. And even though you knew it was time, it still hurts a little. It sounds ridiculous to personalize a house so much, and yet, here I am.
I don't know if you celebrate, but if you do, I certainly hope that the house absolutely bursts with holiday wonder like it did for me as a child coming home. Truly, I have said before that it was like walking in to a Normal Rockwell painting for Christmas, and I hope for the same warmth for you. Thank you for reaching out. It's wonderful to meet the next stewards of the hollow.
All my best,Ephemily

We exchanged a few more pleasantries and he even sent a photo of the great room, renamed the Drawing Room, in all its new glory.  He was absolutely right when he said it looks like it’s straight out of a 1930s movie set.  I can clearly see the house has a new lover, and for this I am glad.

I had been a little afraid that this would be as much as we’d exchange, and life would go on.  Not so.  Today at mid-day, I get another message:

I have an odd question for you.
Did you ever see anything strange in the house?

My first thought?  Oh Rose, you’re up to your old tricks again, aren’t you?

We trade emails back and forth for a bit.  Come to find out they’re experiencing many of the same things we did early on.  However, they’ve seen a few new phenomena including a man in a red velvet jacket.  Intriguing.  There’s mystery left to be found there after all!  So many stories, old, new, and undiscovered.  And somewhere along the way, I was lucky enough to be a keeper of a few of them.  I look forward to being able to tell them all, and listen to many new ones.  Merry 89th Christmas, Childhood Home.

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