You Can Go Home Again
What is it about our childhood home that pulls at us? Why the urge to step inside one more time? This is what went through my mind as I drove down the highway on my way to work, and impulsively turned onto the road that would bring me to the neighborhood where I grew up. What was I looking for? Some remnant of the past? A clue to something that I missed?
I still remember the shock of the last time I’d driven by. Another of my friends’ homes had been demolished, its history erased – and eventually replaced by a cold monstrosity. I had pulled over to stare at the barren lot with lumber stacked next to a backhoe, surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence. I thought about bike races we’d had in that driveway. The applause that came after a play we’d performed in their backyard. The dinners and laughter I had shared in that home.
But this day my focus was on the house I grew up in, which remains much as it was when I lived there. I pulled my car over and looked up at the pine tree with the crooked top that stood like a sentry at the front of the driveway. Dad had planted it 64 years ago, the same year I was born. It’s the tree I used to hide behind to be safe. As I sat in the safety of the car, its boughs leaned out toward me, inviting me to get out, to come closer. What would happen if I walked up the driveway and pressed the doorbell?
Late that evening I grabbed a notecard left over from the days when I used to write letters. It was a pen and ink sketch on parchment paper of the school I attended as a kid and now taught in, a lovely old Spanish-style building with a huge oak tree in front. I wrote a letter to the new owners, explaining who I was: a retiring teacher at the beautiful neighborhood school; that my father built their home and we moved there when I was a toddler; that I was writing a book and wanted to refresh my memory about some details. Could I drop by?
A week later I received a call from the aging melodic voice of the owner, inviting me to visit. When the day arrived, I stood on the wide terra cotta steps that I had polished long ago and breathed in the familiar scent of juniper and pine. My hands began to shake. Had I made a mistake in coming here? What if the interior was all different – like the neighborhood? What if I got triggered by something and start to cry? I didn’t trust myself not to.
As if anticipating my fears, I spotted a sign near the door, decorated with musical notes. It proclaimed, “Welcome home!” I straightened my back and pressed the doorbell.
Mr. and Mrs. Dubois stood at the open door and hugged me in. To my surprise, everything looked like home: the huge windows and view of the mountains behind, the piano in the living room, the small TV room lined with books.
Supported by a walker, Mrs. Dubois sang out, “When I got your letter, my daughter thought you were up to no good and after our money.” My eyes went wide, but she continued. “I told her that Vanya’s the real deal. Her daddy built this place and she has a right to visit if she wants to.” I laughed with relief. I loved this forthright stranger who made me feel so welcome.
Tall and sure-footed, Mr. Dubois lead the tour through the house, regaling us with tales of meeting my “brilliant but unusual” father before buying the place. “Your pop was a character. Often I’d come to take measurements of things and he’d be asleep in his wood-paneled room. It was hard to get him to leave in the end.” I stared as Mr. Dubois spoke, realizing those last days must have been awful for Dad. He hadn’t wanted to leave.
Mr. Dubois was still talking. “He had some pretty oddball ideas about what goes into a house, like using old wooden doors from ships and building that floor-to-ceiling glassed-in room – like a big terrarium, right there as you enter the house. No wonder he had difficulty selling this place.” He gestured for us to go outside. I looked back at the things he thought odd. I loved them both.
We stood in the lush backyard where I had once ridden my horse. The beauty here was breathtaking, set against the emerald hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains: Hanging plants and old relics that supported that beauty– my father’s handmade brick barbeque and low garden walls, the wooden gate leading to the orchard.
Mrs. Dubois snipped a gardenia blossom from a bush and wheeled her walker over to me. “Do you like these, honey?” she asked, the blossom in her upturned palm.
I nodded, grinning like I was ten. “They’re my favorite.”
She chuckled softly and handed it to me. “Aren’t they everybody’s?”
Cupping the gardenia, I looked out into the orchard. “My dad used to nap under an avocado tree out there,” I confessed.
“You must mean the big one that blew over last winter.” Mr. Dubois pointed to the spot. “It’s gone now, but in its place six others are growing, and I don’t have the heart to pull them out.”
Dad’s avocado tree wasn’t the only thing missing. I discovered his wood-paneled sleeping room had burned to the ground ten years ago, and my bedroom had been remodeled into a master bathroom. His space and my space. Completely gone. I swallowed my disappointment.
I looked at my hosts and they seemed exhausted by all the walking, talking and remembering– it was time for me to leave. As I stood in the kitchen to say goodbye, Mrs. Dubois said, “You can come back anytime, dear. Maybe you could bring your mother next time? I’d love to meet her.”
I placed my hand on the counter. This was the exact spot where Mom had made her famous fudge and Dad had squeezed fresh orange juice. My head swirled with memories.
“Mom died years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, dear. I heard she sang beautifully. And I love music.” Mrs. Dubois wheeled a little closer to me.
My lip quivered. “Mom would have enjoyed meeting you.” I rested my hand on hers.
She peered into my face. “How old would she be today?”
I looked up at the ceiling, nodding as I calculated. “ 94.”
Mrs. Dubois grinned. “Well, whaddya know! I’m 94!”
I couldn’t stop myself. I stepped forward and embraced her. There was something about her buoyant words and the coincidence of their ages that seemed to heal an ache I had carried for years. Here was a woman Mom’s age living in this home. She was happy and childlike – much like Mom, and I was hugging her like I’d known her for years.
I couldn’t have asked for anything more.