Sometimes there is sadness embedded in a present place. It’s too rooted in the sweeping movements of the second hand and no longer able to be the thing it was many pages of the calendar ago.
I grew up in a 1960s suburban ranch style house in the East Bay in Northern California. The house still sits on the same suburban street, but it’s now a much more expensive neighborhood with houses priced only for the very affluent tech workers of Silicon Valley.
It had a driveway, a decent sized front yard and a big backyard with a lemon tree and an orange tree. There was also a jungle of ivy along the side of the house and a lollipop tree. My parents were never very fond of the landlord, who delivered rent increase notices at Christmas, but to me he was just a slightly scary older person who left suckers in the lollipop tree on occasion. One time when he backed out of the driveway he took out the last bush in a row of front yard shrubbery. The little plant stuck to the back bumper of his car and bobbed along in the breeze as he drove away.
The things I remember about living there are very rooted in the physical space. We’d always tell newcomers to look for the house with the “bright green trim.” The bulk of the house was painted an off white color, but the almost neon green paint that framed the house really made it stick out. (Clearly no HOA forcing bland paint colors on the neighborhood.)
When we first moved in the carpet was a brown, ancient almost shag carpet. The kitchen countertops were a chipped mint laminate. In the decade plus of living there the landlord did eventually replace the counters and carpet, but he hired cheap day labor and orchestrated most of the “improvements” himself. Nothing ever quite lined up right.
Nothing quite lining up is also an accurate descriptor of my feelings about my childhood home. My parents always had some resentment toward me considering this my childhood home, but it was. Most of my growing up memories center on the place.
My departure from the Bay Area as an adult-in-training was shortly followed by my parents’ exodus from the place. I use to always make a pilgrimage to the house when I would go back to the Bay to visit friends. Strangers rented it by then, but my mind erased the foreign cars in the driveway and imagined summer nights running through the front yard grass (getting eaten by mosquitos) or days drawing chalk roads and traffic signs on the sidewalk.
My weirdo drive-by visits to my childhood home made sense the first couple years. I’d drive by and little things would change. The neon-y green trim color was toned down. The plants in front of the house were altered. More strange cars parked in the driveway. But still, this is the filter I saw the world through for so many years as a child. This was home, this was a place that made sense. Or at least I fought for it to make sense in my head.
I stopped driving by my childhood home a few years ago. I started realizing that I was assigning some sort of false sense of security and identity to a place that no longer existed. I even feel off telling people I’m from the East Bay. My childhood was there, but beyond that my family historically only dipped their toes in California. We aren’t Californians, though I am a Californian. It’s such a weird disconnect to have in the relationship between people and place; between family and individual identity.
In driving past the old rental house I was trying to have some sense of belonging or roots in a hometown of some sort. In the early years of leaving home that worked to some extent, but now I see the construct I built for myself and the functional role it filled. It did its job and then it retired. It always was someone else’s home in truth, but now it’s also someone else’s home in fiction too.
The place lost its meaning, and with it I’ve had to let go. It use to make me sad, but now I focus more on the bright points of child memory over jarring adult reality. It was there for all the doll soap operas and school lessons, the fake perfume making sessions, and the backyard burritos assembled from fallen lollipop tree leaves and blossoms. I’ll always have the memories of sunny days of running through the sprinkler, roller blading around the concrete slab patio, or having elaborately themed birthday parties. I don’t need a physical touchstone to remind me of these things – all these good things filtered out of the more expansive memory pool.