All that’s left of my childhood home is a tree. A modern, efficient-looking bank now occupies the land where once stood a beautiful gray Victorian-style home with a wrap-around porch. I lived there with two harried parents, seven rowdy siblings, two parakeets, a Saint Bernard named Barnacle, and a tiny black mutt named Dickens.
This weekend I made the nine-hour drive from Virginia to Rhode Island to join a celebration for my oldest brother’s 60th birthday. We had a great time at the party Friday night, particularly because all but three of the nine siblings (we moved from the house above before the ninth was born) made it to the event. We sat around for hours, trading hilarious stories about pranks and escapades of years past, and reminiscing about the awful way everything turned out.
Saturday I traveled through time to a place somewhere between A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Mommy Dearest. In the morning I rode with my youngest brother, Erich, and his lovely family through Portsmouth (where we lived from the time I was 10 until I left home after high school) and then through the neighboring towns of Middletown and Newport, which had been my family’s big back yard during those years. We drove slowly, looking for the familiar haunts of our bicycle-enabled youth, noting gleefully that the Tasty Freeze on East Main is still there, and glumly that we’d never again buy candy at the Getty station at the top of our street because now it’s a pest control business. The roller skating rink where I spent many Friday nights…gone. Each landmark, whether it still stood or had been plowed under, evoked memories and prompted stories.
Our former home on Braman’s lane in Portsmouth is still there, but it’s yellow and small-looking. Foreign. Not nearly large enough to have hosted all that happened there. None of Mom’s rose bushes or Dad’s fruit trees remain. The acres of farmland that once surrounded our house have been stripped and sub-divided. Unfamiliar houses are everywhere. A sense of melancholy crept into our day, and I noted that this was the last place our mom lived before she started to self-destruct…well, not all was her own doing. I’ll say only that much for now.
Then Saturday evening my oldest brother, Steven, took me to Tiverton, our childhood home in the 1960s. My beloved Essex Public Library has closed, but the huge gazebo in the center of the street below it still stands. I told Steve and his young son who accompanied us how I used to sit there on quiet summer mornings, pouring through my newly-checked-out storybooks and then head back up in the afternoon to return them for a new batch.
Steve and I went to the old house, or to where it used to be. We stood in the bank parking lot, searching for something familiar. The small mom and pop grocery store next door is gone. Condos and other new housing are clustered all the way up the once-famous sledding hill. The huge wooden gate at the base of the hill, which we’d open at sledding times and where we posted guards to stop traffic so the sleds could cross the road…well, that’s gone too.
That’s when I saw it: a tree in a stone wall. The memories came flooding back. This wall had marked our property line. There was the gap where we crossed daily on our way to Fort Barton Elementary School. Ten feet from the gap stood the large, gnarly (elm tree, I think) that had once served as my hiding place from the world around me. It was much bigger, of course, but I recognized it.
As a young girl with too many brothers, I spent hours under that tree, whose limbs had touched the ground to offer perfect sanctuary. There I would read books, play with imaginary friends, and hide treasures among the holes formed by its extensive root system. As Steve chatted behind me about the Sylvia’s store, I choked back tears for what was never to be again.
My melancholy mood continued as I drove back down Highway 95 toward home the next day, passing landmarks and exit signs that stirred up memories. Past RI Hospital, where my grandmother worked as director of Community Relations—an amazing position for a woman in the 1970s; the exit to Kingston, where my husband and I were married; the sign for Exeter, where my parents are buried; and Exit 3, where they found my dad—oh dear, now I’m getting ahead of myself.
It occurred to me as I drove that God has given me the one thing that can revive the faded memories and keep alive those places and events that made us who we are today. He made me a writer.
All this to say, I know what I have to do next. I have many short stories and writing projects in my head and on scraps of paper all over my office, but it’s time to put most of them on a shelf and focus on telling the story that shouts to be told: The story of nine children and the lost parents who raised them; the story of a woman who gave everything she had, only to learn it wasn’t enough; the story of a man with a perpetual objective to shame those who said he’d never make it, yet at every turn only managed to dig his own hole deeper. The story of us.
My sister Jo has been encouraging me to tell this story for years, but I never felt it was the right time. Too much pain. Do we really need to open all those wounds?
Yes, we should. I know that now. Some of us still have some healing to do. I hope taking this journey together helps us do that.
Soon you’ll see a new tab on my website. A tab for “Mom’s Story.” There I will chronicle the making of what now has a working title, “Fading Rose.” To do this right, I’ll need to talk to each of my siblings, who now live in RI, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Colorado, because it’s their story too. Get ready guys, I’m heading your way!
Because our past gave us more than just a tree, and because you CAN go home again, as long as the memories stay alive.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. –Exodus 20:12
Christmas Year-round: I’m making the same suggestion for June and July, simply because it’s just that important. Please consider making a food drive and donating to your nearest food bank. Once they’re out of school, some area children will no longer receive that one guaranteed meal of the day, and yet, food bank supplies tend to diminish in the summer months. Sadly, many of us blessed with much think of making donations only during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Can you help? You’ll be glad you did.