Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I grew up in this little house. I took the photo on a nostalgic visit in 1999, but it looked different in my time. From 1957-1966 it was white with dark shutters and an unsheltered concrete front stoop. The arrow shows my bedroom and the dormer I gazed out of on my own nightly version of Neighborhood Watch. Those front lawn trees were shorter then and their leafed-out branches filled my view, though winter's bare branches let me see starlight. On ground floor right is The New Room, a cozy den added on by my parents in 1963. I accidentally dropped a spoon between the floor joists while I was eating ice cream one evening during construction. I expect it still lies buried in the foundation like Tut's treasure.

This was our 4th dwelling in my lifetime, and there would be 2 more. But the little white house was "home." Catherine, whose post about home got this train of thought started, mentioned the importance of place as a "source" of who we become. This was the place, for me. I was aged 3-12 there, and that house was a constant through a decade of huge change.

I grew, learned to read, battled the multiplication tables, got sick and got well, believed in, and then stopped believing in Santa Claus, gained crushes and ambitions and lost my only-child status of almost 7 years when my beloved (eventually) brother was born. My concept of an orderly law-abiding world shook the day in 4th grade that our teacher announced the shooting of John Kennedy, and I came home to find my mother doubled over on a hassock with a box of Kleenex in front of the TV, crying. And it crashed with the suicide of my friend's dad down the street.

That house shaped in me a concept of home as a place that stayed stable while nothing else, within or without me, did. My room, the tree outside. The two elderly gentlemen who lived at either end of the street and would meet on the sidewalk in front of our house and argue politics. Salesmen and deliverymen who had the same route for a decade and became warmly greeted friends. The tiny neighborhood soda shop and newsstand where kids could stock up on Double Bubble and the new comic books ....and that I was still walking to later when I got interested in Redbook's short stories and the always intriguing "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" column in Ladies Home Journal (housewife magazines fascinated me from about age 9 on. How I fell into that reading habit I have no idea).

I guess I had that feeling of permanence long enough to keep me looking, hoping to find it again. I never will. Not in a house or its contents. In each of 3 Opportunities For Growth -- a Charlotte flood, Hurricane Hugo, and a divorce -- more of my valued possessions have been culled out. Life shift after life shift shows me that the key is something I've just barely come to possess: a little eye of the storm inside me which houses my essential "self" and will let me transplant it somewhere new. Theoretically I could do this with no beloved memorabilia at all. Theoretically. I'm not there but I oughta be.

This could turn into a post about spirituality and how "this world is not my home," and for me that's part of the answer, but I see that calm eye in people of all brands of spirituality, and of no spiritual belief at all. New climate and terrain, accents and local traditions... for people who carry the calm eye within them wherever they go, these things are details. They color life, they don't draw its features.

Hurricane season is here again. I have a shelf of hard or impossible to replace books. Some are common printings that I value because they bear my grandparents' bookplates. Stuck between them is The List. It's my evacuation checklist of other treasured things scattered around the house. All I have to remember in a crisis is to go to the shelf, get The List and follow its instructions. I could get what matters most into a laundry basket. With advance warning, I can get secondary-priority stuff into a couple more. Things are the home I can carry with me, my seeds for transplanting to make a new home.

Like anyone who watches the news, though, I know a bit about disaster. Lead time is a luxury many don't get, and no inanimate object can be counted on. I really hate that thought.

We dream about our eventual mountain retreat, the place that will be our "real" home. "Someday," we say, "when we can get some land, we'll make the exact home we want." Once we pay off some other debts (and $43 fill-ups for a Civic ain't helping), we plan to look for a spot, maybe with a secure little storage building, and begin to move some of our most cherished belongings to it, out of storms' reach. But I know it's an illusion. One good mountain wildfire could sweep through. Larry, who's been through his own versions of the loss-thing, thinks it's possible to regain a lot of that safe and settled feeling, and I hope so but pessimism is my old buddy. I'll always expect the world to be lurking on the doorsill trying to pick our locks, but if I can expand my inner eye-of-the-storm, I can ride it out.


ronnie said...

Just a beautiful piece of writing...

Sherwood Harrington said...

My sentiment exactly, ronnie.

"Life shift after life shift shows me that the key is something I've just barely come to possess: a little eye of the storm inside me which houses my essential "self" and will let me transplant it somewhere new. Theoretically I could do this with no beloved memorabilia at all. Theoretically. I'm not there but I oughta be."
... my sentiments exactly, Ruth.

Two recent wildfires here in the Santa Cruz Mountains have spurred us to renew our preparations for what and how to evacuate or otherwise preserve from Ft. Harrington. We have evacuation stuff for the mammals (not the chickens) all ready to go, because we would not be able to bear not having tried our best to save any one of them. And I have been spending just about every spare hour at home backing up our tens of thousands of digital photos, accelerating my digitizing of my dad's slides, and dispersing the results to a variety of places in a variety of media.

The animals, the pictures, ourselves. Everything else essential is prety much internal. I think.

Sherwood Harrington said...

... and something I forgot to say: the photo is gorgeous all by itself (I think it's the backlighting that makes it so, given its context), but, with your words, it becomes extraordinary.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Thank you both.

The picture is a demonstration that sometimes the best photo is done with the least thought. I jumped out of the car, lined it up, snapped it, and we drove off fast, before anybody called the police on suspicion that i was casing the joint!

Catherine said...

Elegant piece, Ruth. I loved it!

Mmmmm........ bubble gum and comic books from the neighborhood shop.... As soon as I read that bit, I could immediately smell the fragrant pipe tobacco in the shop where we always spent our allowance on just such purchases of gum and comics; small pleasures that meant the world to a small child.