July 9, 2010

At each home, a towering tree...

Recently, Mark and I enjoyed a two-week visit from my mom. When it was time for Mom to leave, I drove her from southern Ohio northeast to Canfield and Austintown. It was about a 4.5 hour drive; a very enjoyable one on a beautiful summer day. We visited Canfield, where I lived from age 1 through 17. Then, we visited Austintown where my mother (and older sisters) grew up. We saw the cemetary where my father, infant brother, murdered cousin, grandparents, great-aunt and -uncle and their brother and son, and my mother's brother, who was killed in his twenties in a car accident, were buried. As we stood there I thought of how much life has gone by without these loved ones. My eyes welled with tears and I felt so much pride in my mother, who has handled sorrow and loss with grace and beauty. What an example she has set...

Canfield center is still there, the bandstand and several historic buildings still there. The Dairy Queen... the library. But the storefronts I remembered have been torn down and brick banks, etc. are there now. The road I walked on to buy Billy Holliday and Elmore James records and take my homemade dolls to the craft shop to sell is so much more developed. And the place were I went ice skating on a big pond with the empty 19th century Old Folks Home looming over and scaring us kids is gone. In its place is a big development with huge, beautiful houses and manicured lawns, some with swimming pools.

The farms that ran behind my friends' houses on Blueberry Hill are filled with streets of suburban houses.

And our own house on Glenview Dr. in Canfield, sold in 1970, is dark brown, not light green. And they have changed the house number! It is no longer 332, an address that always had an open front yard with a few trees my father planted. Those trees now totally envelope the front yard in shade, one can hardly see the house when looking at it from down the street (see photo). The hill I went sledding on was not as big as I'd remembered and it's all landscapped beautifully now. Kids can't search for rocks on it anymore, but there are a lot of flowers there.

The new owners added on a 3-season porch to the back of the house, rerouted the cellar steps, and enlarged the big bedroom at the back of the house that my parents had once added on. It was strange walking down the walk and seeing the door to the garage, the mail slot on the garage wall, the front porch where I played jacks and the front door and doorbell are the same. It was interesting...and disconcerting. Who was this family living in "my" house? "Did you raise children in this house?" "Oh yes!" Then I realized there are other adults walking around having dreams at night of their childhood home, the same one, sort of, that I am dreaming about, but not quite. Two realities. As real as a memory can be.

There's the house where the dog bit me. There are the corner windows of my bedroom as a middle-school student. I had seen a desk and shelves in a magazine and my father helped me build it for that room. My windows looked to the house next door where I babysat the neighbors young son and daughter. The parents have both passed away and the creative, energetic child I watched died a few years ago...

I didn't go down into the basement to see if my ballet barre was still there. Or the ping pong table where Dad and I battled it out each night. It seemed odd that someone had moved my aquarium from where it usually sat at one end of the dining room. Who had moved our old clock and why was there a desk next to the living room fireplace, a room these strangers "hardly ever use."

The flowers in the backyard were beautiful, but they were not mine. This must be what it is like to be old, I thought. But my spry 89-year old mother handles it all with the optimism and open-heartedness that have won her a lifetime of friends.

We went back to see Mom's childhood home in Austintown as well, and that's a whole 'nother story. The country road she lived on and rode her bike in the 1920s was there. But where her father farmed fields across the street to obtain fresh produce for his family...these are now filled with houses, and not new ones either. Yet, Mom remembers the names of her neighbors, the home of her best friends. The country house she lived in is 400 or so feet from a four-lane road overrun with car dealerships, restaurants and plazas. It is not quiet or "out in the country" any longer.

I also saw the second house my mother's parents owned in that neighborhood. A bigger house; they'd only lived there a month when her brother Donald was killed in a car accident at age 21. I imagined sorrow filling the house and I didn't take a photo of the structure.

It was odd to see this "other town," Austintown, where my mother grew up, where my sister once had an apartment, where I saw the house where I lived for the first year of my life, a different house located on Rosemont, that now has a handicapped ramp in the front. I imagined my mother and father bringing a baby me home from the hospital. In the front yard a large tree, planted by my dad over 50 years ago, dominated.

Mom pointed out the house diagonally across the street where a WWII concentration camp survivor lived. My mother's boss gave him a job. He played the "mouth organ" at night on the front steps. I could almost hear him there...

Across the street was a house where there once lived a young boy. He promised my older sister a sewing machine, if she, age 10, agreed to marry him. She didn't.

I saw where my sisters (9 and 12 years older than I) went to school and realized that not only does another family inhabit my childhood home in Canfield, but my own family had an entire life lived in a place I knew so little about. And I realized again how personal, how unique and individual, are our memories. And how important--in the creating of them and the holding on of them. And perhaps how important it is to let go.

I was unimpressed with the elementary school I attended; it seemed not to have caught up with the upper-middle class homes surrounding it--perhaps all I remembered was the teasing I endured from the large family who lived next to it in my childhood. The feeling of discomfort was still lingering in that parking lot, as far as I was concerned. A feeling of happiness entered my heart, though, as I pulled into the parking lot of the library, where I spent so much time as a teenager, walking there after school and in the summers. It looked pretty much the same. (see photo)

We are traveling northeast to Brookfield, where my family moved at the start of my senior year. It lies on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. We had a beautiful home there too, and my dad planted several trees in the backyard. I wonder if the house will be easy to see with all those trees. It is at this home I learned to drive, and learned to leave childhood behind. It's the home I brought my toddlers to, to visit their elated grandparents. It's where my father let me purchase a 12 ft high Christmas tree, because we had a 16 ft high ceiling.

And then I will leave my mother in the company of her friend of 85 years (see photo, Mom is on the left) and drive back to the most important home of all....the one I live in now, the one where the man who loves me waits with open arms for us to create memories of our own. He planted three Japanese maples last year. And we have four acres of trees for me to measure my life against...

Postscript: The home in Brookfield, Ohio, where I lived in my senior year of high school and where Mom and Dad stayed until they retired and moved to Florida, looked nothing like it had in the past. Several additions, new siding, a fenced in backyard... But several things remained, trees my father planted. A huge one towered in the front yard. Just like in Austintown, just like in Canfield. We stopped to visit the neighbors across the street. They laughed when we mentioned Dad's trees. I guess everyone was interested in what he was planting back then.
My father's name was Woodrow Wilson Phelps, Woody for short. He lost his parents before the age of five, and perhaps a sense of inner impermanence gave him a love of tall things that outlive us. His trees remained in our old home yards as if to welcome the child in me, so that I wouldn't feel a stranger in this world that moved on without him, and without me.

Additional postscript: Under the heading of, "Just because I remember it, doesn't mean it is still there..." My sister sent me this link to Idora Park on YouTube. This was the amusement park we went to as kids...I didn't even realized there'd been a fire in 1984 (I was living in FL then) and that the park closed that same year. Seeing these happy people in the film, I wondered if one stands on the now-empty land, if you could hear, in some way, their voices. Does the land hold spiritual aspects of the people who lived there? This is something I've always wondered about.

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