The House Behind the Oaks
These memories are still so clear to me that I can picture them vividly in my own mind, like flipping through a stack of photographs that time has not yet begun to fade. But I must remind myself that not everyone shares my recollections, and therefore, perhaps a description of the principle characters is in order.
When I close my eyes and imagine my parents as I saw them then, I mostly picture their legs, which were closer to my own eye level than the rest of them. I remember my mother’s sheer, nylon stockings, and the nearly invisible, tiny creases they made on her ankles and the backs of her knees when she moved. And I remember my father’s shoes, which were shiny and brown and made of leather. I used to scramble up into his lap while he sat in his office, with his feet propped up on the desk, and I have a vivid memory of my own feet, in scuffed white sandals, propped up just in front of his, his shiny brown shoes rising behind mine like mountains behind hills, twice as large.
But the typical reader probably prefers to picture a character’s face, rather than his feet, so instead of describing my parents as I saw them then, I will describe them as I saw them recently, in a photo album from my childhood that someone handed me at a family reunion not long ago. The pages had begun to turn yellow, and the glue holding down the plastic covers stood out in darker yellow stripes, between the photographs. I flipped open the front page to a collection of snapshots of a dark-haired, newborn creature, who looks more like a drowned rat than a baby, with a wrinkled, red face, and a pink dress, the smooth, satiny ruffles of which make a ludicrous contrast to the shriveled, squirming thing they encase. Above my own face, I was shocked and appalled to see the faces of my parents, not because of their looks, but because of their youth. I was raised, it suddenly occurred to me (far too late to do anything about it), by a couple of babies. My mother gazes out of the page with enormous, green eyes, full of light. Her expression is not one of pride, but rather of childish uncertainty, as if she is questioning how she came to be responsible for this squirming, pink thing in her arms. Beneath her, under a ruffled bonnet, I look a great deal more confident and secure than I had any right to feel, considering that I was about to be raised by a twenty-one-year-old college undergraduate, who surely could not have had more than the faintest notion of what to do with me. In the picture, my mother has thick, shiny dark brown hair that hangs to her shoulders, and pale skin, and her lips are parted in an ambiguous, questioning shape, as if life has yet to mold them into a more fixed pattern.
My father, on the opposite page, looks as handsome as a movie star, but again I am referring to a young movie star, more suited to roles as a teenage rebel or prankster, not those of a father figure, who ought to have looked infinitely more mature and respectable. My father is short but strong, with wide, burly shoulders. I inherited the height and the shoulders, but failed to inherit his startling good looks. I did inherit his eyes though, unusual eyes because they are a very light shade of brown, almost yellow in the sun, framed by much darker lashes. In all my life, I have only seen three people with eyes like that: my father, my grandfather and myself, and I always felt proud to share my eyes with two people I admired so fervently.
My mother was only nineteen when she decided to marry my father. If a nineteen-year-old today told me she was about to get married, before finishing college, and give birth to her first child nine months later, I would predict ruin and failure: a college dropout at the very least; an early divorcee in all likelihood. But my mother finished college, and my parents are still married. What made them so confident that they could succeed, when I, twenty-one-years later at the same age, was barely capable of taking care of myself, much less my pet fish, who met with a tragic and untimely death after I forgot to feed it for five weeks? What made them think it would work for them? It was this same kind of brazen, inexplicable confidence with which they looked at that decrepit house behind the oak trees, and imagined they’d be able to turn it into something livable one day.