When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed, but your childhood.
— Sam Ewing
This is the house in Pennsylvania I lived in from the time I was 6 until I was 9:
David and I were at a wedding in New Jersey this weekend, and we detoured to my old neighborhood on the way back. I’ve done this once before – in 2003, I gave Nate tickets to see the Cubs v. the Phillies during the last season at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia (that’s the first professional baseball game we ever saw when we were kids living outside Philly). The weekend we were there, we decided to take the El out to near where we used to live and go see our old house. This weekend’s experience, just like that one, has left me pensive.
This is what I think of as my childhood home, though we only lived there for three years. It’s one half of a duplex, I guess they call it, and before I went back in 2003, I would have described it — and been convinced I was right — as having all white siding on the front, but I’d have been wrong. Also, when we lived there, the front of the property was bordered by a two-foot high retaining wall on top of which grew very tall hedges. You could hardly see the house from the street. The fence around the back yard was chain link, not wood like it is now. The people who live there now have added a play area in the back yard that’s got mulch in it, but otherwise, everything’s the same.
Except it isn’t.
The street itself is so small. Cars parallel park on either side, and there’s only room for one-way driving down the middle. I would swear it was bigger when I was a kid – the houses across the street were surely farther away than they were yesterday. Weren’t they? And the alley behind it – we don’t have alleys in Virginia – I can remember my friends and I racing down it on our bikes, from the top of the street to the bottom, and being gleefully frightened at the speed with which we were descending such a steep hill. As a grown up, though, I can tell you that the incline in the alley is 15 degrees, tops.
I looked at the windows, remembering what lay behind each one when we lived there, narrating for David – those two in the front upstairs, that was my parents’ room. Downstairs, the front door opened into the living room where I celebrated my 8th birthday with a Cabbage Patch Kid-themed party, having gotten my first (and only) Cabbage Patch doll that Christmas. In the back, the window on the left, that was my tiny room, barely big enough for my twin bed and dresser. On the right, Nathaniel’s, except when we had to share while my dad used my room for research when he was writing his dissertation. That window in the back, to the right of the screen door, was the dining room, and my bicycle (a hand-me-down boy’s bike from my uncle) got stolen from underneath it. I still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when I looked down out of the window in Nathaniel’s room and realized it was gone.
We used to drink from the hose hooked up to the side of the house – nothing tastes like water right from the hose, does it? The latch on the back gate gave too easily, and our sheepdog, Shad, used to regularly get out of the yard and roam the neighborhood. I can hear us calling after her even now. Nathaniel and I once tried to sell lemonade and iced tea from our front porch, no easy feat considering the tall hedges out front and the fact that it was probably a weekday in the summer. To make up for our poor location, we yelled “Lemonade! Iced Tea!” at all the cars passing by. My parents’ room was above the front porch, and my dad was sleeping in that day. He yelled at us to be quiet. I don’t think we made much money.
I can still remember the slightly musty smell that hit you when you opened the door from the kitchen to go down to the basement. Oh, the basement – we don’t really have basements in Virgina, either. Nathaniel and I spent hours down there, especially on rainy days. We used to roller skate along the smooth concrete floor, crashing into the walls at either end (it wasn’t very big). We played games and made up stories – we had these hand puppets, one was a raccoon and one was a sheep, and we decided they were detectives. There was even a theme song.
David and I walked up the alley; I pointed out the space between the houses on the other side where I used to cut through to go to my friend’s house. At the top of the alley we made a u-turn and came down my old street from the end. From up there, I pointed out my old baby-sitter’s house and the church where I used to have Brownie meetings. On the way down, I recalled the particular front porch on which I spent many hours with another friend playing “Hotel” – which, as far as I can remember, consisted of us pretending someone was calling on the old phone we had and making pretend reservations at our hotel for various invented people.
When Nathaniel and I visited, I didn’t recognize where we got off the El, and we walked for a good 20 minutes from there before I recognized anything. I was struck then how much of a difference the two years in age must make, that he knew the way home from the El even after 17 years, and I had no clue. My whole world then basically consisted of the three blocks that included my elementary school one block over, my street, and the street on the other side of the alley where several of my friends lived. Big enough for a nine-year old for sure, but tiny in retrospect.
In my heart, though, it’s still big enough for all the memories we made there.