March 28, 2022
From the home of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. —The Brothers Karamozov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
After yoga in Olympia on Monday, I went to look at a piece of property for sale on behalf of my Virginia sister and brother-in-law, not far from the house I was born to. I leave the Yoga Sanctuary, in the former Presbyterian church where I was baptized nearly seventy years ago, and take the still familiar route to South Bay Road.
I was eight when we moved. My snatches of memory from the time before are like the flimsily connected seeds of a dandelion: at first recall the details seeming firmly attached in my brain, but when I try to pin them down the whole thing blows away. What I know for sure, though, is my first memories are grounded in the House By the Bay.
There is the South Bay Market where we went for a few groceries, popsicles, and—without being properly dressed—a spontaneous photograph of me and my big sister that my mother always said was her favorite of us. I pass the Bennett farm where we bought fresh eggs. I can still catch a faint lingering memory of the smell in the kitchen, different from ours. Down home cooking, grease.
Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. —Helen Keller
I turn onto Sleater-Kinney Road at the elementary school. It’s a new building now of course, a classroom structure sits on the playground where I used to fly high on the rings: metal circles dangling from long chains. I look at the property then return to South Bay Road and continue toward our old house. I brought my mother here years ago. Our house had been replaced by a huge, multi-building monstrosity, the split rail fence my father built, gone, along with the front yard. I haven’t been back since. At least I’m prepared this time.
The house was a small unremarkable one-story, two-bedroom. But when we exited the kitchen through the backdoor, like the door at the back of the wardrobe, it was anything but ordinary. Down the steps and across the tamed yard. Past the lattice fence that divided the tamed yard from the less-tamed yard and on whose posts our pot caught falling snow to be mixed with sugar and vanilla for winter snow cream, and which disappeared under my mother’s trailing roses in summer. Beyond the huge homemade swing set and the outdoor fireplace my father built and the trees the grandfather I never knew helped plant, and through the narrow woods with the log cabin playhouse my father built at its front edge, was the bay. When the tide was out, it was a slimy, gooey mud flat smelling of sulfur; when the tide was in, it was the launching place for our family canoeing adventures.
I pass Rene’s house and Bonnie’s house, still there, then cross the bridge over the tip end of a fork of the south bay of Puget Sound. Shannon’s house, still there on the right. Beth’s on the left, and next to it a still houseless overgrown field.
The field to the west of the house between the neighbor Rood’s house and the Dockin’s boasted a ramshackle chicken coop with ancient feathers clinging in the crevices of the roosts, where Beth, Rene, Bonnie and I played restaurant, making pancakes of mud with red berries and vegetarian stews, along with colorful salads garnished with daisy and buttercup petals. The meal was topped off with watery coffee colored with tiny brown seeds that came off some weed when you grasped the top and pulled it through your fingers.
I do a u-turn past the Thomas’s house and drive back toward the monster house that fills the space of our house and the Rood’s house, so close to the road you can almost touch it across the high privacy fence. There are several houses in the once empty field to the east. The trees I played in between the house and the bay are gone.
The grass was taller than my head and full of daisies and all I could see was grass and sky. When the field was mowed, there was a makeshift softball diamond, where fathers and children hit balls and ran the bases.
“After all," Anne had said to Marilla once, "I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.” ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
I made believe, I made clover chains and dish gardens of moss and aluminum foil lakes in pie pans with my mother, I rolled down the small hillocks in the front yard between the pansy beds and played freeze tag in the twilight with my friends; I caught bumble bees in my hands, walked barefoot in the grass and everywhere else, and climbed the damson plum trees. I played between the laundry-fresh sheets billowing on the clothesline and swung from the line’s rusty t-poles.
I walked on the split rail fence my father constructed to separate our yard from the road and careened down that road on my hand-me-down Schwinn with the inevitable spectacular gravel-imbedded-palms catastrophe.
Hours and hours of stretched-out time were sewn into the fabric of my childhood; some of it with my friends, some with my family, and seemingly endless space and time for exploration and discovery with only my imagination for company.
We waited for the Fuller Brush Man, for the bookmobile, and for the tinkling of the bottles when the milkman left our order in the wire basket on the rose-trellised front porch; we waited for my father to come home from work, for school to start, for school to end; we listened for four rings on the telephone that meant the call was for us; we waited for the rain to stop so we could go outside and play.
“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away.” ― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
As I listen to the heart-call of those years by the bay and record what floats to the surface, I am mindful that though the words on the page are of the scenes of my childhood, what floods through me are the emotions of a time and place. The South Bay days were filled with carefree joy and a feet-stuck-in-the-bay-mud passage of time—childhood would last forever and nothing would ever go wrong.
And then we moved.
I drive back on Sleater-Kinney Road to I-5 and head for home and my familiar. I’ve lived in eight towns since the house by the bay, and in twice that many houses. Childhood is long gone. But it still dwells in me.
“In life, a person will come and go from many homes. We may leave a house, a town, a room, but that does not mean those places leave us.” ― Ari Berk, Death Watch
Remember to check out my author website: www.gretchenstaebler.com. Subscribe to my e-letter there and read the first two chapters of my memoir: Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, coming from She Writes Press in October. (Subscribe before April 3 in time to receive a bonus e-letter!)