No, I don’t mean structure and I’m not talking about keeping routines for toddlers. I’m referring to buildings, the things made of wood and metal and concrete. I began thinking about this while driving through my hometown with the boys during my recent trip home. I wasn’t really sure I even wanted to go. The only way to get Declan to nap while we’re there is to drive him in the car and Brady had to go along with me a few times. The day before I had driven him through my college campus and showed him all the places that the husband and I had lived while we were there. He loved it and so the next day he asked me to drive him to where I grew up.
He had been once before, last summer, when I took him to the library where I spent a good deal of my youth and had my very first job. I took him there not only because it is dear to me, but also because it is really the only remaining physical structure to which I could take him to share my childhood. The house I grew up in is now a vacant lot. I drove past it this time and it hurt. The neighbors have parked a boat where my swing set once stood. Faded grass grows over what was my living room, my kitchen. All that remains of what I knew is the mulberry tree out front.
He asked to see where I went to kindergarten and in driving there we passed what was once my church, the church where I was baptized, made my first communion, and was married. It is now a rectangular patch of concrete. The rectory and old school remain, but the place where I served mass and made my confessions is gone.
My elementary school still stands, and has actually been added to. It is a new magnet school that I hear is very good. Kids were out playing in the lot just like I did from K-8. It lifted a bit of my mood. But as we drove back past the church out of town I couldn’t help but be struck by the absence. Many, many of the houses that were there as I grew up are gone, leaving the streets a patchwork of what I once knew, with gaps here there where a family once lived.
What hit me most about these missing buildings from my youth is how small the plots left are. How could that tiny space have held so much of my life, my parents’ and sister’s lives? What now looks like someone’s backyard was where we created our history. Gone are the rooms my family occupied, the fraying black and brown carpet, the orange and brown linoleum. No other family will have arguments around the dinner table there or cuddle up together there to watch a movie. The house that it was lives only in our memories.
Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, I walk myself through the house the way it looked when I was growing up. I start by coming in the back door to the kitchen checking each of the magnets on the fridge, through the dining room stopping to look at the blue and white tea pot and my mother’s rarely-used soup tourine, into the living room feeling that nubby carpet underneath my feet, up the stairs to my parents’ room filled with the smell of everything that was my mother and father, down the hall to the bathroom where I turn the knobs of the sink, the cold handle blue from where it had been glued back in place after breaking. I end in my bedroom, lying on my bed listening to CDs on the boombox and pressing myself into the coolness of the wall like I once did on warm nights. I suppose my childhood home is far more alive in my mind that it would ever be as a physical part of what the town I grew up in has become. Maybe it’s better that way.