Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Visit to My Childhood Home

My Childhood Home I See Again
Canto 1
by Abraham Lincoln ca. 1846

My childhood's home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There's pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world
'Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that's earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-tones that, passing by,
In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar--
So memory will hallow all
We've known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, to mind again
The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.

I grew up in a village of Newton, Massachusetts known as Oak Hill Park. It was conceived as a new, self-sufficient neighborhood of small, simple homes built on cleared forest and marshland for returning World War II veterans. A grid pattern of streets and cul de sacs surrounded a central field abutting an elementary school, and a row of stores - including a drugstore, supermarket, hair salon, dry cleaners, gas station, and a library - were situated nearby.

If you imagine the outer boundary streets of OHP as a square-cornered U, then my street, Wiswall Road, was one of the long sides. My parents were not original home buyers there; I think they bought in 1958 or ’59. I'll have to double-check that. I lived there from my birth in 1963 until I went to college in 1981, and I also lived there for about a year after college, from fall 1985 until spring or summer 1986. My father sold the property in the early 1990s, though he still lives in Oak Hill Park.

As a child, I explored the woods surrounding the neighborhood with my best friend, Larry. Fallen trees became our spaceships, and we claimed squatters' rights on any interesting area we happened to come across. During one adventure in the woods, we accidentally stumbled upon Brook Farm, a failed Utopian community founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley in 1841. Part of the Transcendentalist movement and influenced by the socialist philosophies of Charles Fourier, Brook Farm sold shares to investors for $500 apiece; an early investor was Nathaniel Hawthorne, though he resigned in 1842. Visitors and commentators included Thoreau, Emerson, and Poe, but the going was very difficult and after the main dwelling burned to the ground in 1846, its days were numbered.

All that remains is a print shop built by a Lutheran group in the 1870s. The only other thing to see there, which we found by happenstance during our expeditions in the woods, was Pulpit Rock, where Puritan missionary John Eliot preached to the Indians in the mid-to-late 17th century.

Anyway, my oldest daughter has to write a report on Brook Farm for school, so I decided to take her there today. We had a lovely walk in the woods, saw a garter snake darting through the dry brown leaves that were well-positioned to absorb some of the March moisture from the dirt path that took us along the Gethsemane Cemetery that now occupies the land that includes the Brook Farm site, and met with the cemetery owner who shared what he knew of the doomed community.

But that was only part of my venture back in time this day. Driving into Oak Hill Park, down Wiswall Road, and past the house I grew up in, I saw that my childhood's home was for sale. Not only that, but there was an open house going on. My daughter had never been in the house I grew up in. Together with my sister, who lives with my father, we decided to go in.

For some reason, or several reasons, I didn't want to go in and do the "I grew up in this house" routine, which I thought would be off-putting to the current owner, who is moving out in two weeks and is looking for a serious buyer willing to pay at least the asking price of $679,000. So we went in as a family of three exploring Newton and this neighborhood for the first time.

Walking in the front door, the first thing that struck me was how different it looked. The living room and dining room were completely done over, though the windows and views were all the same. Walking into the hallway, we turned left and went into the kitchen and I nearly gasped as it hadn't changed at all. Everything was the same, and I could see my mother at the stove and my father skewering meat at the kitchen table. Back down the hall, we passed the bathroom and went straight to the end, to where the mudroom led to the back/side door. This room was pretty much the same, but next to it, the faux-wood-paneled den where we watched so much television was now a bedroom.

The stairs were exactly the same, and the upstairs bedrooms were familiar though obviously looked different than when we occupied them. Interestingly enough, the two things that affected me the most were the two upstairs bathrooms. The one in the master bedroom, my parents' room, was eerily the same, including the bidet that my father had installed simply because he sold it in his plumbing and heating supply store. But that whole bedroom made me suddenly very sad and wistful about my mother. This was the room I ran to when a nightmare awoke me in the middle of the night, where I got to watch TV when I was sick. Their bathroom was where I first found my father's Playboys.

The kids' bathroom was a trip as well. Back in the day, it had very psychedelic peace-and-love wallpaper, a true period piece. Though the wallpaper was gone, the tile on the floor and walls was exactly the same and the distance from past to present seemed immeasurably minute. I looked up and saw the attic door and remembered the place where I drank my first beer (a warm Heineken Dark that a friend got from somewhere), looked at dirty magazines, and set up a clubhouse with Larry. On a small radio in that attic I first heard "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" by Queen.

Eventually, we looked around the back yard, with the woods just beyond. Had I a shovel, I knew I could have unearthed toy soldiers who perished in a long-ago battle. I recalled endless wiffle ball games, cookouts, parties. On one hand, I would like to have stayed longer, on the other I knew I had to leave. The memories were too powerful and even the happy ones are lined in black because it was in this house that my mother's illness began to consume her, and it was because of her declining mobility that my parents' sold the house. I have never been visited by my mother's ghost; until today, I didn't know that the reason is because she remains on Wiswall Road.

No comments: