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field trip, anyone? (part 2)

July 15, 2011

As I slogged up what felt like an interminable hill on my run yesterday, I found myself looking to the pinking horizon to pull me forward.  Keeping my gaze on the blooming sky, rather than the slow grade of the pavement, powered me successfully (though breathlessly) up the long hill.

I considered how my focus changes depending on my state of mind during a run.  For example, battling the final bloody miles of the 2010 San Antonio marathon, I willed my eyes outward to some distant point on the landscape, imagining the finish line and making promises to myself: “Survive this, and you never have to run 26.2 again.”  I couldn’t see the land under my feet — I had to imagine a better future if I was to endure the brutal moment.

On a good running day, my mind and my vision are trained on the geography beneath me, my immediate home.  On a good day, the synchronicity of wind and earth propel me, surefooted, without much thought.

Rarely, I look backward.  I hear the grit of an approaching bicycle or an unleashed dog and I swivel around.  I wish I could admit to shifting my gaze in appreciation, surveying the success of a conquered hill like that on yesterday’s run, but I most often look back in fear.

Earlier this week, on my uncharacteristically impulsive field trip to my childhood home in Winston-Salem, I gave myself a rare opportunity to look back with unadulterated love.  I was, in the words of the Avett Brothers, a breathing time machine, taking you all for a ride.

In preparing for my family’s imminent move to Texas, I realized that my children are roughly the same ages my sister and I were when we moved from Texas to North Carolina.  The circular nature of this movement compelled me to travel back to the first home I remember in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  On Tuesday, I loaded my little boys in the car with the promise of a field trip, typed my old address into the GPS, and set off on my backward gaze.

I wonder if you know that feeling of being in a familiar place, with the weight of its memories in your stomach but no facts to support it.  It’s the emotional memory of a place, the conjured colors and pictures — some of which are factually inaccurate — that lives in your cells, in your bones.

That is the weight I felt as I drove into my old neighborhood.  The first landmark I saw, turning onto the street my GPS urged me toward, was the church of my childhood.

Parkway Presbyterian Church

This was where I spent Sundays singing “Go Down Moses” and crafting Jesus out of felt and popsicle sticks.  On its playground, I cut my head open on the  merry go round, a piece of playground equipment apparently now obsolete.

from propertymortgageinvestment.com

I pulled into the church parking lot and looked back on covered dish suppers and Brownie troop meetings.  I felt it all, in stillness, for a moment.

“Why are we stopping, Mommy?” emerged little voices from the backseat.  “Where is the field trip?” After a literal look back at my confused sons (and the promise of a snack… soon), the stillness broke and the voyage continued.

Nearing my childhood home, I drove past the Peacehaven Pool (is that where I learned to swim?  I don’t remember).  I was struck by how beautiful the neighborhood remains, with its tree-lined streets and neat brick houses.  I wondered what my parents felt when they first toured the area, moving from Houston to this lush, hilly geography (after consulting with my parents, I learned that they arrived to house-hunt in North Carolina during a snowstorm and had to buy coats, sweaters, and long underwear for the trip, so unused to the cold were they).  Arriving here, I wonder what they missed about Texas.

As I turned onto my former street, I knew exactly where I was.  This was the cul-de-sac where I played kickball and Red Light/Green Light.  This was where, my sister would later remind me, she and I established lemonade stands and art sales, portending her future success as an MBA.  This was where we’d play with the “older boys” — probably fourth graders at the time — until the illumination of streetlamps called everyone home.  This was still, I noticed, a beautiful street.

And then I saw my old house, number 200, at the end of the cul-de-sac.

It looked very much as I remembered it, minus its imaginary red door (apparently, my Mom informed me, none of my childhood houses had red doors).  Cliched as it sounds, it just looked far smaller than I recall.  The arduous driveway I remember, steeply curving to the back of the house, looked like a mere slope.  The infinite backyard, so rife with opportunities for exploration, looked like — well — a backyard.  The neighbor’s Dutch colonial, a mansion to a preschooler, was less-than-intimidating to adult me.  Many of the neighbors’ houses evoked as many memories of life on the cul-de-sac as my own former home.

My parents told me that, within fifteen minutes of having moved into this home, the neighbors on all sides of the house came over to welcome them.  When they bought the first microwave oven in the neighborhood, my parents became semi-celebrities, hosting demonstrations of the newfangled contraption in their kitchen for curious neighbors.  There were play dates and dinner parties.  It was safe.  My mother calls this her favorite neighborhood.

Staring at the brick ranch of my childhood, I absently asked my kids what they thought of Mommy’s old house.

“It’s not so pretty,” my five year-old said, without hesitation.

Ah, well.  He would have thought differently if he, like my sister and I, had eaten grilled cheese sandwiches on the screened-in porch or sledded down the back hill.  He would have disagreed if he had come home from play, so red with Carolina dirt that not even a stain-whisperer like my mother could remove it.  He will think differently if he, like his mother, one day looks back on the geography that bore him, returning to a house his kids call “not so pretty” and a generous flood of memories.

Some might also call this little gem “not so pretty:”

Oogoo Sue Sherry, photo credit: Aimee Richmond

This is the doll mentioned in my previous field trip post (in my writing I called her a Baby Alive named Sherry, but in reality she was some other brand of doll named Oogoo Sue Sherry).  My sister-in-law, a brilliant photographer, captured this startling image of Oogoo on her last visit to my parents’ home.  Oogoo is and has been, by all accounts, a truly hideous doll.  Her hair has never been quite right, she has scratched up eyeballs, and she wears a thin, but permanent, layer of gray grime.

This doll was my treasure.

In photos from my preschool days, I can see that this doll looked, um, well-loved from the beginning.  Through my child-eyes, though, she was perfect.  These were, of course, the same eyes that saw a precipitous driveway where adults saw a slope, a castle where adults saw a modest two-story.

These are the eyes through which my own children see the world.

Studying the driveway at my childhood home, I recounted — with no small measure of guilt — the number of times I have admonished my children to “pick up the pace” or “stop dawdling.”  How easily I’ve forgotten what it is to be three feet tall, close enough to the earth to see its wonders, far enough from the sky to feel its enormity.  I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be small.  I’ve too easily dismissed my children’s treasures — their Oogoos — as expendable.  Coming here, to this monument of my preschool years, has sharpened my vision.

Reluctantly, I left the cul-de-sac.  The kids were bored, and I had promised them a field trip (mine was the house; theirs was the Greensboro Children’s Museum) and a snack.  Later, I watched them dart around the museum in wonder, playing in the full-sized fire engine and pretending to drive an actual police car.  I didn’t interrupt them.  I let them play as long as they wanted, with no thoughts of dinner or bedtime or any other horizon.  My feet were trained on the geography beneath me.  Both field trips were rousing successes.

In the event that you might benefit from my experience, I’ll offer another tip for moving with young children:  Give them ample chances to say good goodbyes.   In the same way that I don’t always attend to the eyes through which my kids see the world, I’m not always certain of how they feel the world.  While we had celebrated their beloved babysitter Barbara’s last day working for us with a picnic, it seemed clear to both she and I that the boys didn’t really understand the finality of our leaving.  They seemed to need another — a better — goodbye.  Yesterday was Barbara’s birthday, and she invited us over to hike in the woods around her house and swim in her creek.  The boys splashed and slipped in a waterscape that looked almost exactly like this all afternoon:

The Eno River, Photo Credit: The Stir Crazy Mom's Guide to Durham

The day was perfect.

After we said goodbye to Barbara this time, my older son leaned back in his car seat.  “I’m just waiting to move,” he said.

Confused, I asked him to explain.  He sighed.  “Mom, I’m ready now.  I’m ready to move.  I wasn’t before, but now I am.”

He couldn’t fully articulate it, but I think what he meant was that he had needed a good goodbye, said to the one person here who means more to him than anyone else, in a good place at a good time.  I’m so glad we were able to give him that.  I hope he will look back in love — I know I will.

I’ll also keep training my gaze on the now, doing my best to feel the vastness of each sky and the slope of each hill despite the frenetic efforts of my planful nature.

Meanwhile, I’ll be wishing you a weekend of clear vision and bright memories.  Thank you so much for showing up.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    July 15, 2011 12:11 pm

    The church I attended as a child (Seabrook United Methodist) took on several feet of water during Hurricane Ike. The buildings were considered a total loss, and the congregation later rebuilt on higher ground. Though organized religion and I parted ways many years ago, I still found it gut-wrenching to drive over the bridge and see… what? Nothing but a cleared lot where the church once stood.

    I really like the term “emotional memory,” though I think it’s probably redundant. Anyway, there’s something almost ineffably powerful about revisiting your childhood haunts, especially after many years have passed. I’m almost tempted to quote the Beatles’ “In My Life” here, but I’ll spare you.

    • Jeff permalink
      July 15, 2011 8:51 pm

      The phrases “gut-wrenching” and “ineffably powerful” seem more than a little hyperbolic in retrospect. Strike them.

      • July 16, 2011 5:44 am

        Jeff, I will strike your phrases if you insist, but I happen to think hyperbole is the BEST THING EVER (sorry — couldn’t resist)! Really, though. I do.
        I also agree with you — “emotional memory” is redundant. For me, anyway, history is so much more about reaction and affect than facts.
        Your story about your church reminded me of a time, years ago, when my husband took me to visit his favorite childhood home in Houston. When we got there, it had been razed and a McMansion stood in its place. He was horrified.

  2. Jeff permalink
    July 16, 2011 8:53 am

    Horrors! I’m happy to report that my neighborhood remains largely, blessedly McMansion-free. In other areas nearby, however, the original houses are ever fewer and farther between.

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