Saturday, April 14, 2012

Your childhood home

I wonder how many of our children are going to have the memory of a childhood home like I do?  I lived in the same house from when I was 5 until I left home.  My father lived there for many years afterwards.   I knew everything about that house - I can still do a virtual walk-though of the place, right down to the squeaky floorboards and the place we blocked the corridor to train our fox terrier to jump on command.

Thing is, a house you grow up in is more than a place.  Its a scaffold for memory, a way to recall parts of your past that are otherwise inaccessible.  Doing those 'walk throughs' in my mind is like running my finger down an index card of memories.

Front door --->  Huge orb weaver spiders, setting up the tea table on the red-washed front porch when Granny shah came for tea, the spiders hanging, fat, in their webs.  The window that you could jiggle over the front door to break in if you lost your key.

Living Room -->  It was a small house but we still had a formal sitting room we seldom used.  The hallway with its low sideboard from which I still bear dents in my shins and rose patterned sofas my granny upholstered herself, in the days one still did such things without it being a hobby you bragged about on pinterest or marketed on etsy.

Back yard --> cowboys and indians, the frangipani tree we climbed while breaking fragile branches (the skin, dry like paper but oozing milky sap) and the castles we built from wooden crates our parents scavenged from somewhere.  David and I captured an Indian Mynah in one, once... waiting with a long string looped over the crate and through his bedroom window.

And I could continue in a way that doesn't make a good story but is, still, infinitely interesting to me like unexpectedly meeting someone kind who has shared a significant moment in your life and reminiscing.

"Do you remember when we....?"
"And wasn't that... "

Like the memory I have of finding snail eggs in Lauren Muller's hot brick wall.  Remembering when we buried the ancient egyptian artifact in her yard because we thought it might channel the devil.  To have been there gives the mundane meaning.

I've been pondering this since Wren asked me "where did I live before this house?"  He was 4 when we moved and I thought he would remember but I had to tell him stories about his old house to remind him.  I told him about the tree swing and the chickens.. then he remembered.  I was considering making a little scrapbook for him so he could see his first house.

Then I received an email from my best friend until 4th Grade.  Tamsyn's home was a lovely place in Durban.  I remember the house through a child's eyes - never growing up beyond 11 - so I recall  moments rather than places, the interior always dark and woody because the light outside was so bright.  I just learned from her that her childhood home has been demolished for redevelopment.

Tamsyn's home on Marriot Road

In my childhood home on the Berea I planted a tree.  I still remember the latin name - Erythrina Crista-galli - I grew if from a seed and planted it outside my bedroom window.  It grew huge and I hung a bird table in it and watched birds.  That was my hobby.  One day a burchell's coucal came to my bird-feeder!  It was thrilling.   The tree had a ridged thorny trunk that was impossible to climb but it made splendid red trumpet flowers every year and I was proud of it.  I was really sad to hear it had been cut down a few years ago.  I was quite angry about my tree.

And I wondered... are the places of childhood more significant to immigrants?  Is it an anchor to a place we recall fondly or is it this way for everyone who has a happy childhood?  Will Frost look back on this house and feel it is always his, in some unique and significant way?  Will he drive by and scold the new owners if they build a fence, if they remodel the exterior, or - god forbid - tear it down to build a town home?

Does everyone have a family home that is The One Place they remember best?  Perhaps a grandparents home or a place they visited every summer?  I really am curious.  Please tell me about yours...


Linda said...

Mine was my grandparents' home where I spent most of my childhood until I was 10 1/2, including living with them for a long period of time. After my grandparents had both died, the property was sold. The new owners opted to tear down the old house my grandfather built in the 1940's because it would cost just as much to bring it up to code as to build a new house. I saw the inside of part of it once. It felt flimsy to me.

One of the reasons I bought a house is so my girls will have a sense of home and where they grew up. This is the 3rd house they've lived in. I hope it is the last one they live in before going out on their own.

Shannon said...

Linda, it must be particularly hard to see a house your grandfather built, torn down. Ever since my grandfather and my uncle died I am having a hard time believing it. Its as if the house has been demolished but I still refer to them as being there - the house in memory is stronger than the reality. This is easier when one lives far away and there isn't a real break in routine - or a hole in the ground where the house used to be.

Perhaps this kind of reflection is part of growing old or, a sign that we have had a good time some place - good enough to cherish..

tamusana said...

Shannon - I remember climbing the tree in your garden. And the creaky floorboards, for that matter :-)

For me, at least, the Marriott Road house encapsulates my entire (very happy) childhood. (we lived in Musgrave Mews until I was 2, but I don't remember it.) We lived in that house for less than 10 years, but it is my reference point for everything else. Rather a high standard... my parents did wonderful things to that house. By contrast, I have no nostalgia at all for the house they spent almost the next 30 years in, in the NY suburbs. OK, the garden was special (again because it was my parents' creation... and because that's where I was married ;-). But the house itself--a US colonial style--I don't miss it at all, despite having lived in it on and off for many years.

Garrett and I have never owned a house. We've been in our current rental in Geneva for almost 5 years now -- the longest I've lived in one place since moving out from my parents, and the only place my kids really know at this point -- and it's a great place, a renovated carpentry workshop. But we haven't made it our own, haven't added any of the personal touches that my parents made to our Durban house, because it's not ours to modify. And I know we can't stay here forever... way too expensive.

Got to keep things in perspective though: at the same time that I'm mourning the destruction of my childhood home, I heard about the death of a friend's husband in Durban who had for decades documented forced removals, shack communities bulldozed (both during and post-apartheid). [see and] Unimaginable. As I said, a bit of very South African perspective.