The House Behind the Oaks
The house my mother wanted had plum trees in the backyard. When the breeze swept through, flurries of tiny white petals swirled down from the branches, settling on the green velvet lawn like a pattern on a carpet. The house my father wanted was entirely different. A succession of large, airy, box-like rooms marched proudly down a hillside, completely empty of furniture or possessions. I think my father liked the rooms better because he imagined them staying that way. My mother’s house was like my mother: warm and comfortable and giving, down to the plate of cookies in the living room, with colored sugar on top, which we found particularly appealing. My father’s house had a chill in the air, and the rooms, though gracious, were remote, austere, the paint on the walls so perfectly smooth, so endlessly vast and creamy, that we could not imagine marring that flawless expanse by tacking up a single, sullying picture. Though I liked the spacious rooms, I felt I had to move through them cautiously, on tiptoe.
We visited both houses so often that I imagined a complete, separate life in each. I knew exactly how it would feel to wake up in the morning and slide my bare feet onto the soft, white carpets of my mother’s house, or the cool, hardwood floors of my father’s. I knew how our lives would evolve, separately and distinctly, in each. I was merely waiting to hear which life we were going to live: my mother’s, or my father’s. But since neither could agree on the other one’s choice, there was little chance of our living in either.
The house behind the oak trees was never entertained as a serious possibility, at first. It overwhelmed us with its nonconformity, its total refusal to be like any of the other houses. The garbage pile in the backyard, higher than our heads, the poison oak trees on the terrace, the python in the basement; these were the things of fairy tales or horror stories, not something one actually encountered in real life. But just as the poison oak trees sent out delicate vines: thin, spectral trailers nearly transparent, hung with fluttering sprays of blood red leaves, twisting and twining around the other trees, so that house was destined to tangle its way around our hearts. I remember the first day we saw it.
We were driving home from church. I recall that my sister wore a pale blue dress, with pink roses on it. My brother, age two, wore a dark green sweater, oddly dignified for his years. I do not remember what I was wearing, and I cannot tell you what I looked like. My memories of my childhood are a hazy collection of images of other people: their faces and expressions, the thoughts I imagined passing through their heads, never of myself. I know that I was small, but that is not based on a recollection of my own appearance; I knew I was short from the angle at which others looked down on me.
The church service had proceeded as per usual. I had spent most of it watching the colored light filtering through the stained glass windows, dying the parishioners varying shades of red and turquoise and gold, and singing off key during the hymns, in an effort to make my sister laugh. This was always difficult, for I had to sing loudly enough for my sister to hear, but quietly enough so that the adults standing nearby, their shadows falling over us like the rippling reflection of predatory birds over water, would not. Then the service ended, the final hymn was sung, and the congregation poured out of the church doors like fish spilling from a fishing net. My family piled into the back of our van, and we were swinging our way home through the quiet Sunday calm, when my mother saw the sign.
It was half buried in the trees. Only the bottom of the swinging, white beacon protruded from the low-hanging branches. But the letters were bold and red, eye-catching, and my mother caught her breath, and laid a hand on my father’s arm. My sister and I groaned inwardly. We knew what was coming. Our parents had been looking at houses for months. They had circled dozens of advertisements in newspapers; marched us up hundreds of driveways, across myriads of thresholds, poked their noses into thousands of closets and pushed up slews of windows, to lean their elbows on the sills and gaze outward, dreamily trying to imagine life in this fresh, untarnished space. My sister and I could not imagine what kept them motivated. We ourselves had taken a brief interest in the first five or six houses, selected our preferred bedroom, settled which wall to place which trundle bed on, slugged out ownership of the various portions of closet space, and then collapsed, groaning, on the carpets –which were generally softer than ours- to wait while my parents inquired about electrical outlets, wiring and insulation and attics and plumbing. It had long been clear to us that they were never actually going to select a house. We saw through their transparent behavior; they liked looking at houses more than they cared for purchasing them. We had examined every single, available house in the vicinity where my parents worked, generally winding up by driving to either my mother’s plum tree house or my father’s box house, and listening yet again while they tapped through the echoing rooms, reasoning with each other about school districts and street noise, and then we had driven home to continue life in the safe, little yellow house we had grown up in, where my father had spent his life, and which my sister and I knew we were destined to spend the remainder of our lives in, too.