My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

As I wrote “My Year in the Yellow House,” I wondered whether the story would have broad appeal since it didn’t have any overarching theme or message. Just random memories. Nothing much to see there.

The yellow house many decades later—no longer yellow, but with the addition of front and side porches

I was suddenly taken aback at that notion. My essay was full of big deals. Unstated, but implied, was the fact that my youngest brother was conceived the year we lived in the yellow house, rounding out our family. How would my own life story be changed if that hadn’t happened? Most assuredly, he and his children think it was a pretty big deal.

Questions bubbled up.

For the family who lost their home and all their household belongings right down to their shoes and underwear, the blaze that destroyed their house was monumental. I wonder how it changed their lives. Did they have family nearby to put them up temporarily? Did they have a savings account in the bank to help get them back on their feet? Was their life savings, however large or small, stashed in a mattress that went up in flames? What happened to them, I wonder.

Was Glory’s tumor malignant? That’s what I always thought. If it was, did it go into spontaneous remission? Did her family’s faith cure her? How did she turn out? Or did the tumor kill her? When? How was her family—and their belief system—affected?

What about Carol’s family? Is there a more devastating blow than losing your young child? Did her family survive intact? Many don’t. And what did the world lose with no Carol to grow up in it? What about the family that never was? Would she have changed the world? Questions the answers to which no one will never know.

It was an eventful year on our small block. My own travails were pretty petty compared to what was happening all around me.

And yet, they weren’t. I heard something on the radio recently about how important it is to listen, really listen, to all the insignificant things your young child wants to tell you, no matter how busy you are with more important grown-up issues. The point was that if you don’t listen now, they’re unlikely to tell you the really important stuff later. But it was the next phrase that really struck me: “to them [the children] it’s all important.” Of course it is. It’s all they know.

To five-year-old me, it was all important. It would have been to any five-year-old.

My most potent memory from that year is the one where I was pushed into a tiny but formidable dark space, locked in, and forced to allow my most valuable possession to be desecrated in order to gain my freedom, having no confidence that the bargain would be honored, even then. My doll was my baby; it was an intolerable choice. And all because of someone’s inexplicable need to be cruel.

I don’t know all the ways the doll experience colored my life. Was that the moment the meek, compliant girl I grew into was forged? Was it what made me forever seek to avoid confrontation at almost any cost? Was Glory’s taunting what birthed my empathy for others? Or was it just a terrible moment with no particular future consequences other than a bad memory?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.

What about you? What questions still linger from your early years? Were there childhood moments—little or not so little— that changed your life?

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

I was five the year we lived in the yellow house. My brother was two. Our little two-bedroom home in Florence, South Carolina, near Cole’s Crossroads, was part of a modest and sparse subdivision, if you could even call it that. There were no sidewalks, and grass grew erratically in the sandy yards. Roads in the development were nothing more than not-too-packed sand.

alan yellow house

My brother’s favorite place to play was on the sandy road in our neighborhood.

Our house sat on a corner of the neighborhood’s main road. Follow it for a block or so and you’d be on old Hwy 301/52. Directly across the highway was Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, a popular family restaurant and the favorite spot for our very occasional meals away from home. As the name suggests, the restaurant’s main fare was fried chicken, along with french fries and hush puppies,* served in brightly colored, paper-lined plastic baskets—the kind you now see in a few casual dining establishments, but a true novelty then. We usually chose a booth in the knotty pine dining room, and Edwin Turner himself would stop by to ensure we were enjoying our meal.

Out front was the sign proclaiming the name of the place. As I recall, atop the sign sat a large rotating replica of one of those famed plastic baskets. My brother could never keep the words for Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket straight. He always called it Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket. When you think about it, his literal rendering made perfectly good sense—as children’s name mash-ups often do.CHICKEN BASKET

From the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/mg74r003g

We loved the Chicken Basket—for its tasty food, its novelty, the attention of its owner, its prominent role in our lives. In addition to special dinners out, Edwin Turner’s was a true landmark in the community. For us, it was the easiest way to direct friends and out-of-town family to our house.

But the restaurant is only one of many memories I have of that year. They are a mixture of good and bad. It was while we lived in the yellow house that my first real childhood friendships developed. It was also where I experienced my first significant encounters with sickness, trauma, and grief.

My childhood preceded the era of many vaccines in use today, and I was in bed with a severe case of mumps for what seemed like forever. The lumps on either side of my neck felt humongous, and the pain of swallowing was so intense that I demanded something to spit into so I wouldn’t have to swallow. Of course, it didn’t work, but I gave it my best, spitting several times a minute all day every day into the blue and white speckled enamel pan Mother placed next to my bed. To this day, I have an aversion to enamel cookware.

Glory (not her real name), with her white-blonde hair, lived across the street from us. She had a tumor on her lower back, just above her buttocks. Her parents’ religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical attention for Glory, but the tumor must have been extraordinarily painful because Glory, who only wore dresses, didn’t wear underpants—the pressure would have hurt too much.

Neither Glory’s illness nor her family’s deeply held religious beliefs kept her from being a bully, though. One day when we were playing in my bedroom, Glory locked me in the toy cabinet and refused to let me out until I gave her permission to tear my doll’s hair off her head. I was terrified in the pitch black cabinet, and I was devastated at the thought of what was happening to my precious doll. Mother was in the kitchen just a room away, but the cabinet doors and the wall between us must have muffled my piteous crying.

My very best friend, Teddy, lived on the third corner of our intersection. We played together much more often than I played with was tortured by Glory. One of Teddy’s and my favorite places to play was in the abandoned excavated lot on the fourth corner of our intersection. We loved it down there where our imaginations could run wild.

Then Teddy had a birthday—his sixth. When I got the invitation to his party, I was inconsolable. Six was when children started school; it stood to reason that Teddy would start first grade without me. It took both my parents and his ages to convince me that I, too, would be six before school started. Teddy and I would still enter school together, they assured me. (It turned out to be a moot point, anyway, since our family moved to another state before the school year began.)

Celebrating Teddy’s sixth birthday—no longer afraid he’d start school without me

Another playmate—another Carol—lived on the far corner of our street. She rounded out our little circle of playmates. Carol and I shared more than a name. We were exactly the same age, born the same day. We were also both dark-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned little girls. We could have passed for twins. I can still see the heavy bangs that framed her round face.

One day Carol was hit by a car. She was hospitalized for a few days before dying from her injuries. We didn’t have a telephone and Mother didn’t drive, so she had no way of delivering the terrible news to Daddy. When he came home from work that day, he found Mother crying in the kitchen. She blurted through her tears, “Carol died today.” It was Daddy’s shattered look that made her realize he thought she meant me.

You might expect Carol’s death to be my big trauma from those days. But the truth is, I remembered nothing about it until my mother recently reminded me of it. I was either too young to understand what was going on or I was, in fact, so traumatized that my memory blocked the whole experience.

From time to time a few other random memories of our year across from “Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket” flutter through my mind. Late one night, we were awakened by sirens and flashing lights. The whole neighborhood stood and watched as a nearby house burned to the ground, its occupants standing alongside us in their pajamas, watching helplessly as their house went up in flames.

The image of them, pajamas now the only clothing they owned, was indelibly seared into my brain. Ever since that night I’ve thought losing my home and its treasured contents to fire would be one of life’s worst tragedies. All these years later, when coming home from an out-of-town trip, I reach the bend our house is just around only to realize I’ve been holding my breath for the last little bit, waiting to be sure our home is still there, still intact.

My brother and I shared a bedroom in the yellow house. Our parents were awfully concerned about his incessant thumb-sucking. Afraid his habit would cause future dental problems, they tried every remedy they could think of. I remember his thumbs being heavily wrapped in adhesive tape. That didn’t work. Neither did the last desperate measure our parents employed: swabbing his thumbs with the latest advance in thumb-sucking cures. My little brother was unswayed. He stubbornly sucked away, bawling all the while because his mouth was on fire with hot cayenne pepper, the “cure’s” main ingredient. More than sixty years later, Mother feels guilty about trying that remedy.

We moved back to Florence a year or two later with another brother in tow. In one of those interesting twists of fate, he later became fast friends with Edwin Turner’s son, also an Edwin. Over the years, they shared quite a few adventures of their own. Misadventures, too. But that’s a whole other story—and his to tell. Or not.

*For the hush puppy recipe from Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, check outhttp://www.familycookbookproject.com/recipe/3394125/edwin-turners-chicken-basket-hush-puppies.html.

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall (written in mid-August)

First day of summer: words that conjure up notions of vacations, suntans, freedom from homework. Thoughts of fun in the sun with summer reads, picnics, hikes, swimming, tennis, softball and baseball, bike rides, day trips. All those traditional outdoor activities mean summer’s here.

In truth, when the first official day of summer rolls around, fall is already lurking in the shadows. The first sign, of course, is day length. Summer means longer days, right? But summer officially begins with the summer solstice—the year’s longest day. The very next day—officially the first full day of summer—will be a little shorter, as will the day after that, and the next, and the next. Every day for the next six months.

It’s about the time of the summer solstice that I inevitably spot a tree with that one red or yellow leaf. I’m a big fan of autumn, but I also prefer to live one day at a time, and that leaf sits there taunting me, reminding me that fall is inching its way into my life. To the astute observer, other signs of autumn’s sure return are all around. Those lime-green spring leaflets that sprouted on trees (wasn’t that just yesterday?) have been growing both larger and darker. Before they put on their showy fall display, they will continue to darken until, in the distance, they’re such a deep green they look almost black.

As spring wildflowers transform into summer ones, so summer’s blooms have now, almost imperceptibly, given way to those of fall. Daisies are replaced by Queen Anne’s lace; black-eyed Susans seem to morph into yellow coneflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers. Floral hues become both more muted and more rich. The buttery yellows of summer’s evening primrose make way for the more mellow tones of fall’s goldenrod. There’s the rusty shade of spotted touch-me-nots in lieu of daylilies’ brighter tints. In the wild, pinks virtually disappear as summer subsides, and lavenders transmute into the subtler mauves of milkweed and Joe-pye weed and the rich purple of ironweed. In front yards, gardeners discard summer’s petunia palette in favor of the earth tones of chrysanthemums. Berries appear. Fruits ripen.

 

 

Birds’ feathers become a little less brilliant. Grasses develop gracefully drooping seed heads. Little by little, vegetable gardens show signs of wear as growth slows, pumpkins turn from green to orange, and early veggie plants dry up or go to seed.

dscf9200.jpg

The sun itself gets in on the action. Ever since summer’s solstice, its arc becomes a little more southerly, a little lower as it moves across the sky.

As I write this piece at the beginning of the third week of August, my calendar tells me we are just past summer’s midpoint. To be precise, sixty percent of our summer days have passed. Sitting outside in the afternoon, I hear a distinctive sound unique to this time of year—the thump of acorns and hickory nuts as they hit the ground in the woods. It’s not a safe time to be standing under a nut tree!

Then comes an evening’s after-supper walk when I unexpectedly sense another change. The days may still be warm and humid, but I feel the barest hint of chill in the night air. Sometimes, I even catch a slight change in nighttime scents—a little less floral, a little more spice. My ears notice the ever-increasing cacophony of crickets and katydids doing their late-summer thing. Their sounds also pierce the otherwise country quiet during the day, but at night the music is almost deafening, yet soothing in its own way and one more sign that fall is closing in.

Fall has always been my favorite season, so I welcome its coming. Still, it’s a little curious that just as we’re getting into the full swing of summer, autumn has already begun its birthing process. I guess that’s the way of things. The peak signals certain ending, but an ending accompanied by new beginnings—caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, seed to tree and back to seed again, adolescence to adulthood, retirement to a new life chapter,  the whole of life itself.

 

On Their Own—Sort of

The other morning, the Gnome and I were breakfasting at our favorite 24-hour restaurant chain. It’s the perfect place to pick up stories. It’s also a popular spot with the college crowd, partly because of its proximity to off-campus housing and its quick and reasonably priced fare.

On this particular morning we found ourselves in a booth just behind a group of college-age young men, five of them crammed around a table. We couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their spirited conversation. Nearly every sentence began with something like, “One time my dad . . . ,” or “When my dad and I . . . ,” or “My dad told me . . . ,” and so on. I didn’t hear these comments as some sort of my-dad’s-stronger-than-your-dad schoolyard oneupmanship, but more of a this-is-my-experience kind of sharing among peers.

After breakfast, we ran an errand at the nearby big box store, another popular hangout with the college crowd. Walking to the store from the parking lot, we overheard another pair of student types. This time it was, “My mom . . .”.

I was utterly fascinated. Not so much by the stories themselves as by their underlying significance. Here are all these kids, off on their own for probably the first time. Semi-independent. Feeling their oats. Maybe sowing a few wild ones, too. But what’s the nexus of their conversations? Their parents. They are still tethered. Their denials may be vociferous, especially to said parents, but the bond remains strong. I’m betting the young folks we overheard didn’t realize how parent-centered their conversations were.

Meanwhile, I imagine, the parents may have been mourning the loss of their fledglings. Or maybe they were feeling their own oats for the first time after a couple of decades of child-rearing. I’m almost certain, though, that they had no idea their children were putting them front and center in their relationships with their peers. In the parents’ wildest dreams, they probably never pictured their kids spending their early days of freedom sharing a piece of maternal advice or reminiscing with their friends about a fishing trip with Dad. Talking about watching maple syrup production with their folks.Retelling Mom’s stories of her own college years. Whatever.To moms and dads everywhere, know that your influence is strong. If you’re the parent of a newly-minted adult, don’t imagine for a minute that you’re not still an almost constant traveler in your son’s or daughter’s mind. Your kids may forget to call, but they are thinking of you. They are talking about you (hopefully in a good way). They are remembering your lessons. You’re still important to them, central to their lives.

And if you’re a grown child of parents who are still living, maybe you’d like to give them a call about now and tell them so. Give them a verbal hug. It’ll mean a lot. More than you can imagine—at least until you become the parent of a grown child yourself.