Thursday, September 07, 2006

a list of houses

I realized the other day that I have left a number of houses, apartments, places throughout my life--and I never remember a moment in which I turned and said goodbye to that house or corner of my life. I was always traveling onward, forward to the next place and the next adventure.

It's something children raised in a military family know well.

I started thinking, then, of the places I'd left behind, never turning to see.

At the university gardens of the place I went to college there was a statue, just about life sized, called Lot's Wife. Yes, she was turning to salt, and sadly gazing back. Perhaps I feared to turn to salt if I looked back.

But now I can, and do, as so many of those places are doubtless long gone, held only in my mind.

I have no memory at all of the first place I lived, for I was there only 4 months. A small studio apartment, all my parents could afford. The train tracks ran in the back yard. For 4 months, therefore, I must have heard the train whistles day and night...indeed, perhaps for longer than that, as babies hear within their mother's womb. Might explain why the sound of trains evokes such longing and nostalgia in my heart.

The next place, too, I have seen in photographs but do not recall: an apartment near my grandmother's house, where my mother and I could be protected and cared for as my father flew planes over snowy wastelands and rescued people. The photos show me on concrete steps, hugging the neighbor's dogs. Walking about with an Easter basket. Trying to totally engulf a rosebush. I have dim memories, my first ones: my grandmother, gardens, mud, the black bristly fur of my grandmother's dog, Butch.

I think I recall the marble floor of the post office, the speckles, the little brass boxes that opened with tiny keys...but that might have been from later, for my grandmother would live in that region a long time.

We went on to yet two more homes; they mix in my mind, in the cold regions near the Rocky Mountains. I recall the garden shed of one place, and the afternoon with my dog Toby. I recall the lilac hedge at the other, where I spent my days happily hiding out, watching the sunlight come through the heart shaped leaves.

A vacant lot, spring mud, pink flowers, a striped snake.

A beautiful caterpillar, offered to my mother in my eager hand. I was inconsolable to find the beautiful creature a smashed jelly-and I was under 3 then. Death made no sense at all, certainly not death I had inflicted on something of beauty and magic. I cried for hours and hours.

The mirror my mother sat at, with her creams and potions and perfumes and wonders.

But not the house, not really--just the steps up to it. Our minds hold on to odd things.

From there to another place, another state, near a beloved aunt and her children (my father again away, flying). And again I recall--the lawn, and the sprinklers, in which I was sure fairies lived. The peppertree at the corner. The beautiful Martha Washington geraniums in the courtyard. Not my bedroom or my house at all...only the flowers, only the tree, and the play room at my aunt's house, where my cousins and I acted out plays I invented.

And to Japan for a long while, where the woods were my home more than the houses: first an inn in a village, where we slept on the floor in traditional style and my mother, brother, and I would walk through the village. How amazed I was to see writing that I couldn't read, how much fun it was to play with the little girls I met in the courtyard of the inn. We'd play dolls and tea parties and climb the huge boulders in the garden and eat strange little sweets offered by their mothers, who wore such lovely kimonos. I am certain my friends were speaking Japanese and I was speaking English, yet we'd play all day long, happily, fully understanding one another.

I missed them when we moved to the airbase, but then I gained the woods, with their violets in the spring time, and their little creeks, and the odd corners where I wasn't supposed to be wandering. Here a train ran, again, in our back yard. I'd amuse myself by staying up near the tree on the corner with its bell shaped white flowers like snowdrops, waving at the trains as they passed.

That house, a duplex, had two stories and a staircase my brother and I would sled down on pillows when we were left in the care of my Japanese maid, the ever supportive, ever indulgent young girl who would care for my heart and soothe my nightmares. There was a linen closet big enough to hide in; a space under the stairs with a tiny door, screens on the bedroom windows that my brother and I would loosen so we could sail comic books down to our waiting friends when we were supposedly napping.

But mostly--the woods. The pines, so huge and so comforting. The wild azaleas, the hillsides.

The place was surrounded with fences. I've never in my life let a fence stop me, and then I simply crawled under and went to the nearby village, where as in the original one I was greeted with tenderness and kindness. I brought what I thought of as great treasures to my friends: comic books. They talked with me, I talked to them. Again--surely they spoke Japanese, surely I did not, not beyond the simplest polite phrases.

And the winds of the typhoons, that nearly lifted me from the ground.

And the sight, every day, of Mt Fujiyama, snow crowned and perfect. I still dream of that mountain.

Briefly, for--what--a week perhaps--we stayed on the 3 by 5 mile island, Wake Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For, journeying back to the United States on a cargo plane, with my parents and my baby brother and my other brother, I couldn't sleep. My seat was over the wing of the four propeller airplane, and I looked out to the stars--I have always loved flying--and then saw the fire. Outside my window one of the propellers had sparks and flames coming from it. I thought it one of the most beautiful things I'd seen in my life, and woke my father so that he could enjoy it.

I thought he looked a little serious as he went to talk with the pilot. And then--another of the propellers started doing spectacular things. Both of them on my side! What beauty! What fun!

In all, three of the four propellers caught fire that night. It is a testament to my father's training and self control--and to my innocent mind--that I wasn't afraid in the slightest.

Fortunately the pilot was able to make a crash landing at Wake Island, where we were fed shoestring potatoes and canned prunes. I thought that was fun as well.
It took a while to get the airplane repaired, and in the meantime we stayed in a tiny house on the island, and spent the days walking the beaches. There were ships from the second world war; there were machine guns, there were signs still vivid of terrible loss. My father told me stories as we walked, stories of death and bravery and loss and honor. The ship--it was Japanese--yes, all the officers died there, rather than surrender.

I think it was my first real sense of what war was, though certainly Japan had had its hard memories, and Korea was raging then.

I picked up sea shells and stared at the perfect ocean.

The home we next found was a tract home in Southern California: row after row of identical houses on bare earth. Probably there had been orange groves there before, but now there was dust. I had a corner bedroom with window boxes (very nice for sneaking my cats into my bed come nightfall). My mother planted a Japanese garden in the front yard, astonishing the neighbors.

And again--I don't recall the house as much as I recall the plants outside, the canna lilies along the side of the house, the garden in front. Perhaps plants have always mattered more to me than interiors.

From there to the desert, to two houses: one on a street lined with elm trees, whose seeds covered the rutted roads in the autumn--or whenever those seeds fell--spring? fall? I don't know. A brick patio and a pyracantha, red berried, against a wall. Clover in the grass. My mother was so lonely here, I was lonely as well, uprooted. Down the back alley lived a girl my age whose mother was Russian. The mother read Pasternak to me in Russian, and told me to read Dr. Zhivago, which had just been translated (and I did; ever eager for a new book). The daughter was sullen and sad and loved to pull my long hair fiercely at every opportunity--I stopped visiting, but missed the wistful Russian mother a lot.

And then to a new home, overlooking a stretch of sand and Joshua trees. I had a room painted pale yellow; there were sliding glass doors to the yard. My mother planted a red rose and a white rose. I planted an apple tree with my brothers. We trained honeysuckle up the bare walls. Could I tell you how the rooms of that house were laid out? No. Could I describe every plant we put into the gardens? Of course.

And the hills beyond, desert hills, where I'd walk, disturbing jack rabbits and deer, finding strange flowers and plants, longing for the ocean.

After our next move we rented a very cheap apartment in a beach town. My brothers and I took turns sleeping on the floor or the one bed. There was an ugly magenta throw rug in the hall, and a few overdue library books left by the previous tenant (we returned them).

A more elaborate apartment: two stories, a corner room whose windows looked into the palm trees, where I would live for a time. And then a house, Spanish style, with fruit trees and garden space. I barely remember my room there, but I do remember the trees so well. The old apricot tree was my refuge and my writing space. The tame blue jays would sit with me there, and my white cat would pace below, quite disgusted with the feathery company I was keeping. We had orange trees, and an avocado, and I planted daffodils and forget me nots and mixed flowers of every sort, a riot of flowers.

Three rooms in a run down part of another town. The rent was low, I could pay it and pay my bills for college. The sofa was ugly plastic, the bed was lumpy. The kitchen had green tile. If you stood on tiptoes in the bathroom and twisted to one side you could see a square inch of the ocean.
I put up bookshelves, put my books in place, and was at home.

From there to a small cottage on the edge of a canal. I loved this house dearly, and it is odd to think that I do not recall the moment I walked away from it forever. In the front yard was a huge acacia tree. The main room had windows all around, and I made deep orange curtains. My lover of the time (a sad, sad story that) and I had a mattress (covered with a orange spread). We had a picnic table as a combination dining room table and work space. I bought a small graceful table to place near the little fireplace, and put flowers there. I sewed a stack of giant pillows, because we couldn't afford chairs, and we put straw matting down for carpeting (shades of my Japanese childhood). My lover's television was banished to the little alcove off the miniscule kitchen.
I planted flowers, all sorts of flowers, in that sandy soil. I put up bookshelves. I loved every corner of that crumbling cottage that so shocked my father--the peeling linoleum the cracked walls. I loved my lover too, but with the curious detachment that sometimes comes over me I realized the relationship had no real future. He was on a very...structured path. I was a radical, a poet, and would be, ultimately, a disadvantage to his career.

That lovely little white cottage saw storms of tears.

For a time my home was my grandmother's tiny apartment, as I saved money for an escape to Europe to join..yes, another lover. (My family was shocked, again). Such a perfect little place she had, but what was better was the evenings talking with her as I worked on a quilt.

The places of the first European adventure: a London apartment where I wasn't supposed to exist (I spent my days wandering London and at night slept on a mattress that was hidden during the day). A left bank hotel where my love and I shared a bed that must have been stuffed with horsehair: it was lumpy and hard and dusty. My first day I took all the bedding off, and scrubbed the place top to bottom. There was a desk looking out to the courtyard, hot water in a tiny sink, ugly curtains. I covered the walls with my paintings and bought plants to sit in the window: my Parisian garden.

Brief stays in a number of other countries--the steep Amsterdam steps, the place in Berlin that was shared with a guy who worked nights and was...kind of odd. The Bonn hotel with feather beds. The Florence place with the window that looked out--to a wall. The crumbling place in Venice, where light danced on the ceiling. And most of all, Portugal, where the air was washed with such light, and our tiny room was full of insects of all sorts, but the ocean was pure--and the food delightful.

A month on the floor of a friend's library room in Boston, then a house in New Haven, with a secret room at the top of the building and a long hallway. We painted everything sky blue.

A house in Kent, with apple trees and roses--another house that caught my heart so completely. And yet--I don't recall at all the moment we left it, shutting the door, going to catch a train and leave the village after more than a year...

The tiny cabin by the river, a house in town: Miss Murphy's garden. Another riverside cabin, and then...the cabin in the woods, hand built, now being ravaged by the bear visiting. We'll reshape and rebuild.

But still--how odd that I never paused, at any time, on the threshold of these homes, to say goodbye.