17 April 2010

A is for The Address

Last month, my husband and I traveled to the city where my father was raised for the funeral of one of my uncles.  It was one of those bittersweet family gatherings, sad because of the loss of SJ, relieved that he and his daughters are no longer pioneering in the wilderness of his dementia, lively because of the opportunities to greet -- and in a few cases -- meet members of the extended family. 
Coming to terms,  in slow increments, one member of my parent's generation at a time, with being part of the senior generation of the family is an odd thing.  Though it is a path that many travel, there is no roadmap.   I remember my mother commenting after my last grandparent died, that she and my father were now the elders, with no parents.  That sense of orphanhood was something that I didn't understand 30 years ago, and I am only beginning to get a glint of what that might mean now, despite the fact that my father has been deceased for 14 years, his sister for 16, his twin cousins and their spouses for over five years, his own twin for a year. 

As we drove through the city, we passed places that seemed vaguely familiar.   I saw that park where I think we sometimes would view July 4th Fireworks.  Place names seemed familiar, although more from the retelling of events rather than any firm memories of experiences.  Could I have possibly remembered my sister pushing my brother out of the car at the corner of Shermer and Beckwith?  Mom seemed to think that I was an infant.  Or was that another child?  The story has been told so many times that it is my memory, even if that memory is only of the family tale.  I certainly knew the intersection as we drove through it.

After the funeral, I got out the trusted GPS -- and my brother's not so trust-worthy directions -- and drove through the neighborhoods my parents lived in when I was a preschooler.  I pointed out each of the houses where we lived, retelling stories.  Then we headed north and toward the lake to The Address.  Even my husband understood where we were headed when I gave him the number.  Known only by its house number, if there was a family homestead in my family, it was this: my Grandmother's house. 

Several years ago my husband was visiting my cousin and needed to login to her PC (on-site support and maintenance is the cost of boarding for free in Gotham).   Over the phone, from my desk at work, I asked him if he knew what my common password was.  I don't need your password, he said.  I need hersChange the leters, keep the digits, I said. I bet that's it.   Puzzeled, he tried and was successful.  That random number has meaning?  

Yes, it does.  Standing as a presence almost as monolithic as my grandmother, is that house, a house so symbolic in my father's family, it is known only by a number.  I later learned that my father and my brother have also routinely used some variation of the address for passwords and lock combinations.  

My grandparents moved into this house in the 1930's and lived there until long after the War when their children were grown and on their own.  Eventually, they sold it to my Aunt.  In total, the house was owned by someone in my family for over 50 years.  

When I was a child, all family holidays happened at this house.  There were numerous versions of holiday photos of my grandmother's 25 grandchildren.  At Christmas, the aunts wore appliquéd aprons with trees and candycanes, the uncles sparkly vests with Santas and Snowmen.  I suspect those accessories never left the house, but they've been memorialized in Kodachrome.  At Easter, we all gathered on the front steps, smiling in our new Spring coats and hats.   But, despite the family traditions of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, the iconic family holiday at The Address was Independence Day. 

Every year we would gather on the 3rd of July.  It was mandatory to arrive at Aunt Peg's the day before so that we would be rested for the events on the 4th.  There were foot races, pie eating, and watermelon seed spitting contests for the neighborhood at the school.  When we were really young, since we didn't live in town, we were coached on what address to give should we win. Even if I couldn't remember the street, I knew the house number, as if it was a Jungian ancestral memory, stored in my DNA.  At noon, there was a parade down the main street, only a block from the house.   We'd arrive early to claim our places, having rode bikes which we had decorated with cards in the spokes and ribbons on the handlebars.  We wanted to be in the best position to catch candy thrown from the floats, and trail the end of the parade for a few blocks, adding to the cacophony of the parade.  Afterward, there was a large picnic in the backyard, with all of my cousins, my father's cousins, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins, many whom I couldn't ever remember their names. 

Somewhere toward dinner time, we'd end up playing hide & seek.   The twist was always that we had to play inside, where we weren't suppose to be playing.  But The House had so many great hiding places, how could we pass up the temptation? 

Off the kitchen was a butler's pantry, with spacious cabinets that were perfect for hiding.  There was a transom over both doors to the pantry, so you could hear the seekers looking for you.  There was my Uncle's office, just off the main stairwell.  Getting caught by an adult in that room was sure to bring a scolding.  It was also a great place to hide because of how one had to get there.   Since it was off-limits, and there were always adults in the living room, you had to approach the room from the back entrance.  This meant that you had to walk down the scariest hallway in the world -- unlit, long and narrow, with floorboards the groaned even under a child's foot.    Downstairs, in the basement, was the creepiest basement corner ever.  Beyond the dim laundry and the darker workbench area, was the worst excuse of a dank add-on bath that one could imagine.   And in the corner, where the older kids hid their smokes and dope, it was even darker.  There were plenty of places to hide, but some so scary that you couldn't wait to be found.  

In the evening, if we didn't go to the park for fireworks, we would climb the stairs to the third floor to peer out the windows.  From there, one could see the fireworks that were set off from the football stadium a mile away.  The 3rd floor attic was rarely unlocked, but it was as mysterious as the basement and beckoned with more adventures of exploring years of collected and forgotten objects belonging to three generations. 

When my cousins and I reminisced at Uncle Sid's funeral, we naturally talked about the 4th of July parties.  I remember catching my cousin Helen smoking an odd smelling cigarette in the basement, of walking into the bathroom where my cousin Richard was shaving, of a spin the bottle kiss, just a peck on the check,  when I was nine with someone whom I was certain wasn't related (what's a 3rd cousin anyway?), of sulking on the squeaky porch swing rather than watching the fireworks from the attic the year two of my cousins -- both my age -- were allowed to go watch the show at the stadium but I was told that I was too young.  How I disliked my mother that summer! 

To my father, The Address was always his parent's house, though his sister's family lived there.  I still know which  street light he shot with a BB gun from his bedroom window and got away with blaming his brother.   I know which stair creaked loudly, learned from late nights as a teenager sneaking out with my cousins.  It is the smell of my aunt's perfume, and my uncle's grilled hotdogs, with a strong note of perked coffee and stale smoke.   I know the house's rough stucco walls, and the thorny hedge behind the garage, and the Jewel at the corner between my Aunt's and Grandma's house.    It is the place with a grand piano in the parlor and my great-grandfather's water colors hanging on the walls.  It is the house with clanky radiators and wobbly fans that greeted us and kept me awake the first nights of any visit.    

I thought I might be saddened by driving by the house, as I hadn't seen it in years, hadn't been inside it for over 25 years.  I had heard that the newest owners had done extensive remodeling.   I'm sure that they've redone the kitchen and certain that they would have added a dishwasher.   If I were a gambler, I'd bet money that the scary basement bathroom no longer exists, the hallway is lit, and the floorboards don't squeak.   And, while I can understand why they would have removed the French doors and the front porch, extending the living room, I missed seeing the old screen porch.  But I can still smell the scent of the screens during a rain storm.  The old yellow brick lady still seemed the same.  An extensive remodel, even to the exterior,  can't erase long set memories. 

I considered substituting other numbers for the actual address of the house when I began writing this.  Since I know that some in my family have used that number as passwords, I can't reveal what it is.  I even studied the photo to be sure that the house number was not visible.   Oddly, no number I could think of seemed to work.  Even if it had the same number of syllables, the same rhythm and cadence of the sound, it didn't seem the same.  It took me awhile to realize that The House Known by A Number is more than just a house, more than just a number.  I couldn't call it by something that wasn't its name.  Substituting a number wouldn't work because The Address is the essence of what a home is, and it signifies all that was my extended family when I was a child. 


Kay McKenzie Cooke. said...

I LOVED reading about your memories of a much-loved, beautiful house Cam, a lot of it was fascinatingly foreign and spoke to me as being quintessential America; and yet a lot of the family dynamics etc were also very familiar. (I also had fun trying to work out which one was you in the photo!)

Cam said...

Kay, I'm the littlest one in the very first row. My two older sisters to the right. My mom is the woman holding the baby (my younger sister), with my two brothers to her left & right, and my father at the very back, turned sideways. For some reason he always wore a red christmas vest, while the other guys all had green ones. Not sure why other than I'm sure my father and his twin (man seated the furtherest from my dad) would have refused to dress alike.

Emily Barton said...

I loved this -- pictures and all. Now you've set the bar so high, I'm not so sure I can do this. Still thinking about it, though.

Courtney said...

I loved this essay, Cam - such a sense of balance and beauty and the perfect combination of visuals and beautiful language - really gorgeous.

Cam said...

Emily, I doubt that I've set the bar so high as to dissuade you. Go ahead -- give it a shot!

Courtney -- such high compliments! Many thanks.