4.02.2009

4512


In my childhood home there is a door jamb in the garage work room that has, marked off in indelible ink, lines with figures underneath.

Michelle – 5’8” 1979

Adam – 6’1” 1990

My father decided, within days of moving into our new house on St. Valentine’s Day, 1978, that the increasing height of his children needed to be documented. The marks are still there to this day.

In the southwest corner of the backyard, just spitting distance from the stranded North Fork of Putah Creek, about three feet beneath the hard Central Valley clay, there are four Star Wars figures who have not felt the warmth of the sun in over 25 years. Like the tenants of the Valley of the Kings, they await exhumation by some brave, adventurous soul with little feet and cow-licked hair.

In the room that was once my bedroom, my parents installed a built-in desk the length of one wall with cabinets above. This is where my stereo was, where I sat to complete or procrastinate the completion of hours of homework, where the trinkets and chotchkies of a vigorous and adventurous childhood lined almost every available inch of space.

The immense weight, the palpable gravity of memory is everywhere in and around this house. Everywhere I turn, not one memory but dozens shoulder each other for prominence. Walking toward the house from the sidewalk, I am immediately bombarded with the history that surrounds me, that has seeped into the earth beneath my feet. I look west down San Marino Drive and see, in my mind’s eye, the old eastern terminus of the Putah Creek Bike Path which was laid out merely a year after we arrived in Davis and was the pedal-powered trade route of my young life. I look up to see the tall pine trees that ring the front and sides of our lot, trees that I scampered up as a child as if I were a rigger on a Ship of the Line. I remember the day I climbed to the top of the tallest tree and was rewarded with a view of what was then most of the City of Davis, California.
I am on the curving, aggregate cement driveway. Even though the free-standing Basketball hoop that my dad sunk into concrete has been gone for years, I can still hear the ball bouncing on the rocks, I can smell the faintest whiff of salty sweat on my fathers arms as we play a game of HORSE; he has just arrived home from a long day of working with his hands and back and before he even enters the house, he has the ball in his hands and is asking me about my day. I can also see my sister, driven and focused, practicing lay-ups and building the techniques that would take her all the way to Division II College Basketball. I see the wooden board between the segments of driveway that had been designated the three-point line. I hear the crunch of pine needles under my feet as I pivot and jump for a rebound.

I walk toward the front porch and I see the dark grey lava rocks that I laid in the space between the porch and the driveway and the halved barrels that serve as planters. I immediately flash to the hot July day in 1991 when I emptied 40 lb. bags of those lava rocks. I remember sitting on the porch step, taking a break and drinking a root beer while talking on our new cordless phone to Sarah Martinez and marveling at the fact that I was talking on our phone outside. A hot July day, hard work almost done and endless possibilities stretching out before me as far as my mind could see.

I step onto the porch and recall lining the top of the bricks that comprised the lower half of the outer wall of the house with freshly cut boughs of pine with my mother one crisp December day. I also see my father putting up the Christmas lights while I feed him the string of bulbs.

I put my key in the door. The key I have had since I was in about fifth or sixth grade is temperamental and must be turned in the lock just so. The front door has been painted several colors and as it opens I get a flash of my mother in the doorway, making sure I have my lunch as I head off to catch the bus.

I cross the threshold and feel it instantly: home home home home home at last. The shoulders relax, the breathing slows and my heart rate settles into a steady but comfortable lub-dub. What an amazing gift! For so many of us, that is the feeling one gets when leaving one’s house. For many, home is the place to escape, to flee and to overcome. Not this place.

I feel the dark brown-red tiles under my feet in the small foyer and remember the wallpaper that is no longer there. Off-white background with burgundy tipped willow branches. One of the willow branches was missing its tip for some reason and my mother, a talented painter, matched the color and painted a new one on. I loved to try to find it, which was difficult, because my mother is gifted. Then I would see it: the faint brush strokes.

Directly ahead of me is the living room, scene of thirty Christmas mornings. The place where gifts where exchanged, where guests gathered and talked. Through the sliding glass doors looking out into the backyard I can see all the dogs we’ve ever had panting and slobbering on the sliding screen; Daisy, Babe, Butch, Boo and now Buddy. I can feel Sam and Pooter and Brandy and Tooter at my heels, meowing and nuzzling my ankles. I can see a younger me raking tinsel out of the old brown shag carpet that came with the house with a shag rake. Coffee Brown shag carpet. They made rakes specifically for shag carpets! There is the couch where the birthday celebrator would open presents. Years stacking on years of celebrations; smiles, laughter and tears flashing before my mind’s eye. I can hear Sonny Rollins playing “Body and Soul” on the turntable over the big speakers in that living room and dreaming of sonic voyages to undiscovered countries of possibility. It is also the place where serious things were discussed, where “I need to tell you” moments happened.

Between the living room and the dining room, the dining room that we rarely used, there’s a floor to ceiling mirror that went all the way from the door to the family room and the corner of the wall, so that one person could stand on one edge of the mirror and look across at the unnaturally symmetrical image of the person standing at the other edge of the mirror. Improbably impossible Rorschachian visions that could make a child laugh for hours.

Through those sliding glass doors is a deck. It’s only a foot off the ground. Two trees spring up through square portals in the deck and a hammock used to span the space between. I can feel the netting of the hammock pressing into my back and smell the mulberry tree and feel our dog Babe walking under the hammock as her tail gently flicks at the backs of my legs. It’s summer and I’m reading a book. The hammock would go up around the end of April and come down in early October. Our smallest dog, Butch, never simply hopped up onto the deck. He would take a long, improbable leap and just barely land on the edge of the deck with all his feet. He looked just like Mighty Mouse; all that was missing was the cape. In the southeast corner of the yard there was a fort that my dad had built shortly after we moved there. About five years later he added a deck to the roof of the fort that you accessed by climbing a rope ladder attached to a nearby sugar pine. I will never forget lying on the deck and watching Hailey’s Comet streak across the night sky with the smell of pinesap and creek mud in my nose. Our neighbor Jack Adams kept bees and I would watch the hives from that deck. It was on that deck that Lucas Taber and I dreamt our scheme for a company we would start, “Geniuses at Work”, and we planned on building the first car powered entirely by swimming pool cleaning chemicals. That deck was the deck of a ship that could take me anywhere my mind could dream up.

I have gotten ahead of myself. When I entered my front door, I almost never went straight ahead into our living room. I would either turn left to go to my bedroom or the bathroom to wash up for dinner, or I would turn right to go into the galley kitchen that also leads into the family room where we had a second fireplace and a TV. I can smell my dad’s MJB coffee brewing in the Mr. Coffee, I can smell the Kliner, Danish tea cookies, that we used to fry for Christmas, I can smell the Wolf Brand Chili (No Beans!) that I used to make myself for lunch in the summertime as I would sit down to eat it while watching reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or “The Andy Griffith Show”. My grandfather would give me a case of Wolf Brand every Christmas because you could only buy it in Texas.

My father and I would play baseball using a nerf ball and if the ball went into the kitchen it was a home run. The nerf basketball hoop on the laundry room door was sight of many a spectacular match ups and slam-dunk contests.

I have a vivid memory of going into the family room and sitting down while a Christmas party went on in the living room. Hearing the strains of Nat King Cole’s Christmas album and being alone in that room, knowing that all I had to do to join the fun was to simply walk into the next room. And so I sat for about two minutes, listening to the laughter, feeling the mulled cider transmitting itself through my bloodstream, smelling the smells of the holidays, and feeling a tremendous sense of gratitude and warmth. I downed my cider, stood up, refilled my cup and walked back into that place where smiles are born and memories are crafted in the crucible of sweet communion.

I remember my father sitting in his recliner, dozing off to sleep after a hard day’s work. When he fitfully starts awake and insists he wasn’t asleep. He urges me to make sure he is awake for the opening theme song for “Miami Vice”, “Hill Street Blues” or “Law and Order”, because he loves those theme songs. Or my mother sitting in her chair, playing her word puzzles, laughing at her goofy husband and son.

On the family room floor, in front of the fire place, I can see the white, quilted satin blanket that my sister and I used to spread out on the floor and pretend it was a magic carpet flying through the air; a raft surrounded by vicious sharks or a wrestling mat. I can also remember one of my first and vivid memories in that room and on that selfsame blanket. It was 1979 and I was 4. A babysitter watched me while my father, mother and sister where at my paternal grandmother Betty’s funeral. My father lost her when she was 49. 49. My mother told me when I was older what I said when she asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral.

“Can Honey play with me?”
“No, sweetie. She is in Heaven and we won’t see her again until we go to Heaven, which will be a long, long time from now.”
“Can she read to me?”
“No, sweetheart.”
“Can she hug me?”
“No.
“Then I don’t want to go.”

I can also see the desk where the telephone is, right around the corner from the kitchen. I remember that day in 1980 or ’81 when my mother answered the phone to receive the news that her grandmother had died. I had seen her shed tears before, but I had never seen her weep. Her vulnerability frightened me. It may have been my first inkling that life contained pains that could not be contained; pains that spilled forth without our permission or full understanding. That moment of grief is also my first remembrance I have of giving consolation. So one after the other, in that room, I learned the double lesson of the crushing power of sadness and the power of an embrace or a touch or a word to weaken that very sadness and keep it from metastasizing into a false yet cancerous significance.

One night at dinner, my sister and I were picking at each other, as we often did. My mother kept telling us to stop. My father pinched the bridge of his nose. We kept at it, and my mother grew angrier. My father pinched the bridge of his nose. We started up again, and my father shouted, “ENOUGH!!” while slamming his fist on the table. Then, many things happened at once.

At first, we were all shocked into silence. My father has a very long fuse, but when it burns out, he can flash out in anger. Not violence, but it is still something to see. It rarely happened. But that night it did.

Before I even had a chance to be afraid, his pounding fist slammed down on the very edge of a bowl filled with creamed spinach. It rocketed into the ceiling, just missing the overhead light and shards of bowl fell around us as the spinach was flung onto the ceiling. We all stared at my father as he breathed heavily through his nose. That’s when a glob of creamed spinach fell from the ceiling and onto his head. My mother laughed first. Then me. Then my sister laughed. My father, at first, had an incredulous look on his face like, “You’re laughing! But I’m still angry!” but it broke and soon he was laughing with us. We laughed for a half hour, even while my dad was standing on his chair and wiping the spinach off the ceiling.

We had a fish bowl and our goldfishes, Bud and Gilligan. One day, I crawled behind the end table with the fish bowl and, just behind the curtain covering the sliding glass door; in the corner I drew a little drawing on the wall in crayon. As soon as I did it, I was mortified. What have I done? I can’t erase that! They will know it was I! I was so terrified of the swift and certain punishment I would face when my domestic graffiti was discovered. My only consolation was that those curtains were never closed and that corner was not easily accessed. They may never discover it. I imagined archeologists in the distant future pondering the meaning of those cryptic symbols. I calmed myself; they may never know what I have done!

About a year after my act of anarchistic art, our parents told us about plans to paint the family room. It was all very exciting. Then, slowly, it dawned on me. My vandalism would be discovered! So, for the next few weeks, I lived the life of a condemned man. I knew what was coming. Discovery, interrogation, detention and eventual and decisive punishment. Each day as I returned home from school, I expected to walk in the door to find my furious mother waiting for me. Then, one day, I looked over to see the curtains gone and the wall that I had desecrated painted over with a fresh coat of eggshell white paint. It wasn’t until my father tucked me into bed that it finally resonated. I got away with it. The shock of it lasted for a week. If anything, it made me even more afraid to commit acts of mischief. It was as if God was messing with me.


I will never forget the Friday before Thanksgiving in 1986. Steve Walter, who lived down the street and was (still is) one of my best friends sat down to watch “Monty Python’s The Holy Grail”. My parents where watching T.V. in their room and my sister was out with her friends. We had popcorn and root beer. Life was good.
Steve loved coming to our house, because we always had more candy and soda than they did at his house. I loved seeing the look on his face when he would see a plate of cookies on the kitchen counter. His eyes would widen and in his best false nonchalance say, “Oh, hey. Cookies. Those look alright.” When I would ask if he wanted one, he would shrug and say something like, “I guess, OK, if you want me to.” Good stuff. But I digress.

There is a part in “Holy Grail” when animated trumpeters play a fanfare by placing their horns in an indecent place and flatulating tones triumphantly. Steve and I saw this and laughed for at least 15 minutes. Gut-busting, teary-eyed, hyperventilated, roll-on-the-floor laughter. Suffice it to say, that movie changed our lives.


Down the hall. Over the brown shag carpet (mercifully not anymore). First door on the left. The Sewing Room. This was the smallest of the bedrooms and served as a guest bedroom. Primarily, it was my mother’s Fortress of Solitude; the room where she keeps her sewing machine. It was also the room where we kept all the photo albums and the walls were covered with framed photographs of my forbearers. My great-grandparents from Denmark, looking so very much like Udl├Žndinge. My severe, wind-blasted great-grandmother from Texas, whose life had been tough to say the least, but still retained a spark of mirthful defiance I her eye. Her real eye, not her glass eye. Black and white photos of family gatherings, weddings, first communions; my mother as a little girl, something that was almost unimaginable to me; pictures of my father as a young boy that I just assumed were of me because we looked so much alike. I often wondered who those people I was with were and why I had no recollection of them. This was a room thick with memory; with memory I could only surmise but never remember. I can hear my mother’s sewing machine clacking away as she sewed on a salvaged Izod alligator logo onto a bargain polo shirt for my sister so she wouldn’t feel the crushing shame of wearing an off-brand item of clothing to Junior High School. I can’t even comprehend the horrifying humiliation she avoided because of my mother’s sensitive sewing endeavors.

In a small jar on the bookshelf were my father’s tonsils in formaldehyde. My father has never been a morbid or grotesque man, but he is, like me, sentimental. That may have been the weirdest thing we had in our whole house. When his friend and co-worker Gary was procrastinating getting a vasectomy because he was sure it was merely covert castration, my dad played along by bringing his tonsils with him to the office and setting them in front of Gary.

“See Gary, it didn’t even hurt. And I don’t talk in a high voice or anything.” That still makes me laugh out loud.

Leave the sewing room and walk down to the left turn in the hallway. Don’t enter the room just to your right; we will visit that room last. Instead, enter the bathroom directly in front of you. It was the bathroom that my sister and I shared for fifteen years. The place where I combed my hair before school in the morning. The place where I could smell my father’s Old Spice lingering in the air in the mornings. There was a spray bottle full of water that my father and I used to spritz our hair to tame our cowlicks. One summer, I put a little bit of peroxide in it to give my self just a touch of blonde (hey, don’t judge me, it was 1987). I forgot about it. A couple of days later, I noticed my dad’s hair had gotten noticeably lighter. I emptied the bottle immediately and refilled it. I remember him looking at his hair in wonder.

“My hair used to do this in the summer when I was younger, but it hadn’t done it in a long time. Odd.”

Yes. Odd. Yikes.

Across the hall from the bathroom is my sister’s room. Since about 1997, it has been the room I sleep in when I visit my folks. It now has a crib that had been for my niece and then nephew. Now it is full of toys and, well, stuff. I remember re-enacting “Pete’s Dragon” by lip-syncing it as it played on my sister’s turntable. I remember sleeping on my sister’s trundle bed on Christmas Eve and laughing and guessing excitedly at what our presents from Santa would be.

“Was that sleigh bells?” she would ask.

I have a vivid memory of my sister at the dinner table about a year after my father’s mother passed away. I off-handedly mentioned something about her, the way a 5 year-old would, and my sister furiously kicked me under the table.

“Hey! Michelle kicked me!”

“Shut up!” she said.

My mother asked why my sister kicked me. Her eyes filled with tears and she ran from the table. My father looked at my mother and said, “I’ll go.”

I found out later that my sister didn’t want me talking about Honey, my father’s mother, because she thought it would make him sad. My sister was a peacemaker and caretaker even then, and she was convinced that my big mouth was going to cause my father pain. He found her in her room and asked her what was wrong. She wouldn’t tell him, because she didn’t want to make him sad. Finally he told her that he missed his mother and it made him feel sad sometimes. He started to cry. But, he said, most of the time, when he thought of her, it made him very happy. My sister broke down and he held her until she stopped crying. That was an important moment for them.

My sister moved to Chico to go to Chico State when I was in 8th grade. I would pass by her room and expect to hear her voice and remember she was gone. But during my senior year in High School, Michelle moved back in while she obtained her teaching credential at Sac State. It was so great to spend my final year at home with her as a confidant and friend. I would hang out with her in her room after school and tell her about my day. I will treasure her council and humor during that time forever.

At the end of the hall was my parent’s room. They were very shrewd, because they hooked up the Atari to the T.V. in their room, so we had to ask permission to use it and they could deny us access to it if they wished. In fifth grade, I desperately wanted a Nintendo. My mother said I could have one if I bought it myself. For a year I saved up my allowances, dog sitting and lawn mowing money and finally bought it. My first Christmas that I had it, I got “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out” in my stocking and as soon as we were done eating Christmas lunch I ran back and played it for the rest of the day. At various times my sister, father or mother would come back and say, “Were having hot chocolate,” or, “’White Christmas’ is on!” but I would shrug them off and continue with my game. Finally my mom came back at about 8 PM and said, in a sad voice, “You only get so many Christmas Days. I hope you enjoyed your game,” and left the bedroom. I turned off the game and joined everyone in the family room as “White Christmas” was ending.

We leave my parent’s room and retrace our steps back down the hall to my bedroom. For about five years, from 1988 until 1993, I had affixed a slip of paper that I had taken from a hotel room that had been wrapped around the toilet bowl. It said, “Sanitized for your protection”. This is what greeted those who entered. It was a lie.

Now, my old bedroom is my father’s office. It sill has a similar feel to the way it did when I lived at home, but gone are the baseball and basketball posters, the baseball hats on hooks that ringed the top of my walls, the locker that my dad had painted silver and black in homage to the Raiders; gone is my captain’s bed and gone are my tapes, CD’s, gone is the fan-back wicker chair that was in my room through out high school; gone is the guitar amp, the bass guitar and the fiberglass upright Double Bass that all competed for attention and love in my inner sanctum. It was the place I first discovered the miracles of reading for pleasure and singing, the place that was my very own home within my home. It was the safest place in the world.

My room was the place where I would spend hours crafting mixtapes for my friends and myself. It was through that medium, the custom-made mixtape, that I would first express romantic feelings to a girl through Bono’s plaintive wail, through Otis’s soulful cry and Placido’s lusty tenor. It was in this room that I would map out my tomorrows and contemplate my yesterdays. I would stand in front of my mirror and lip-sync to Led Zeppelin, Luciano Pavarotti, Run D.M.C. and The Four Tops. To paraphrase Dashiell Hammett, “It was the place where dreams were made.”

So here we are. My home. Well, it was my home, but soon it will be no more. It will become someone else’s home, and what lucky people they are. I believe that love leaves behind tangible traces. If the new inhabitants continue forward in love and laughter, they will not be starting from scratch, but building on a foundation of years of love in action.

The sentimentalist, the nostalgic in me almost feels a sense of loss. In truth, I know that the place I call home is in my heart and mind. The place I remember is already only alive in memory. My current home is with my beloved Nicole and in the shared experiences I have with her and my family. In some ways, my “home” in Davis is already gone, because it exists in the past, in memory. And it is for that same reason that it is never gone.

My parents’ new home shares a fence with my sister in Stonegate, in West Davis. I admit, the thought of none of my family members living in South Davis is a bit disorienting. But their new home has a great vibe and as soon as I walked in I could instantly imagine them there. I could also envision memories being lovingly crafted in that place that will house their collective futures. I am comforted that they will be close to my sister and her family.

I am also grateful for what all of this has helped me understand. I have had the privilege of growing up in a loving house with food on the table and love all around me. Think of it. My parents lived in one house for thirty-one years. We weren’t impoverished. We weren’t persecuted, hunted or oppressed. We didn’t suffer from hunger, discrimination or war. My parents didn’t divorce, which, unfortunately, many of my friends can’t claim. To be upset about my parents leaving their home to make a new one would be petty and would miss the point entirely.

My home is built from the bricks of unselfish choice and the mortar of intentional love. This love is simply a series of choices, not a place, feeling or condition. It is a gift my parents and sister have given me. Like a home, love is something we create through every single choice we make. It is not bound by time, space or geography. Our lives are our home. Our home is our lives. If we want to, we can always go home. If you lived here, you would already be home by now.

1 comment:

RegularGuyBlog said...

Hey Adam, This was beautiful. It looks like you had a wonderful life with your family in Davis growing up. I'm happy that you had that. I was like one of your friends who had a divorced, and broken home.

Becky and I have been making our home together for 17 years this next February. You do need to be intentional in all this, especially both of us coming from a divorced family backgrounds. We've had to work hard at making a home because we didn't have good examples to build on.

Thanks so much for sharing all those memories, Adam. They are wonderful.