The House Behind the Oaks
The House Behind the Oaks
◊ Installment 1 ◊
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. ♦
◊ Installment 2 ◊
The house behind the oaks was different from the others. First, it was in a neighborhood unknown to us: a foreign sort of place, where the houses did not press up close to one another as they did in our neighborhood, separated by low, jangling fences of rusting metal, around which clumps of fragrant sour grass had sprouted, but were spread out in a leisurely manner, each surrounded by a smooth expanse of lawn, like a row of large white ships undulating gently on a calm, green ocean.
Second, there was no concrete evidence that a house actually existed behind the sign. The other houses in the neighborhood were perfectly manicured, each bordered by delicately arching sprays of greenery, as if a master artist had painted a perfect rectangle of verdure around them, like a frame. But in the space behind the signpost, the frame had burgeoned and flourished, and overgrown the painting, so that all we could see was a massive snarl of oaks, and behind them, a few, faint glimpses of white, glimmering from behind the trees.
These glimpses seemed to mesmerize my parents, for they said nothing, only pulled the van to the side of the road, staring up into the tangled branches. My sister and I groaned, and unbuckled my brother’s car seat.
Oak leaves crunched beneath our feet as we climbed out of the car. The sidewalks in front of the other houses were swept clean and bare, but the space around the signpost could just as easily have been part of a forest; we could detect no glimpse of pavement beneath the masses of tiny oak leaves, which crackled and slid beneath our best Sunday shoes. We glanced around, startled by the dense shade that a cluster of oak trees is capable of casting over a glittering Sunday morning. Then we spotted the bottom of the stone staircase, leading up into the darkness behind the trees.
There is a mystery about staircases. You never know, setting your foot on the first step for the first time, if it will lead up to a place that will remain a stranger to you, or if the steps will become as familiar as your own hand, until you know every crack and rough place, which steps to lean on and which to leap over; until you can climb them in the dark without a flashlight because you instinctively recognize every crooked angle, and every curve. We walked up these steps for the first time gasping for breath. They seemed to shoot up into the darkness beside the winding driveway, never ending, too far apart for our short legs. My sister’s small, sturdy calves flashed in front of me, clad in stockings, like white stripes in the gloom. My father picked up my brother and carried him.
Perhaps it was because the steps absorbed all my energy that I never looked up until we reached the top. I had to concentrate on mounting that never-ending succession of crumbling stone, navigating the broken spots. But I did notice that, as we climbed higher, sunshine began to penetrate through the branches, casting puddles of green and gold light that rippled over the stonework, dancing across our skin. Then my mother’s brown slacks stopped suddenly, and my sister nearly crashed into her. My father put a hand on my mother’s shoulder, and we looked up at the white behemoth of brick, rising above us.
Of course, buying such a house was out of the question. First of all it was enormous, rising two stories above the towering driveway, with five gable windows and a tiny cupola perched on one end, like a comical top hat. And then, there was everything else.
The parking area in front of the house was a sea of mud. Sharp stones jutted out of it. We had to leap from one to the other to make it to the front porch. On the porch were the dingy, diamond pattern remains of what must have once been a trellis, but no roses climbed across it now. Pieces of the wood had splintered and rotted away, some of the slats lying in dusty fragments on the crumbling brick patio. The front door was boarded over.
“Maybe we should leave,” said my mother, looking at the dark windows, but my father shook his head, frustrated.
“Why would they hang a ‘for sale’ sign if the place isn’t for sale?” he asked, and he marched boldly across what must once have been the lawn, now a tangled mat of weeds and broken fence pilings, toward the backyard. My mother followed, and my brother and sister trotted obediently along in their wake. But I stayed where I was, staring up at a second floor window in the far, left corner of the house, for unlike the others, I could see that the house was not unoccupied.
The face that peered down at me was only a few years older than my own, but to me it seemed much older, almost a grown up, as a child of twelve or thirteen does to a child of eight. The boy had dark, sooty hair that made a cloud around his pale face. There was a ripple in one of the windowpanes, and it twisted his nose into an expression I will always remember, a kind of malevolent sneer, as if, stranger though he was, he could see into my soul, and despised everything he saw. I gasped, but even as I heard the crunch of returning footsteps on the lawn, the face disappeared.
“No one’s home,” said my father, disappointed. “But we can call the realtor in the morning.” He took a pen from his pocket, to jot down the number on the sign, and we retreated back down the steps, into the sunlight and the breeze, and the hum of lawnmowers making dark green stripes across light green lawns, and the safe, calm normalcy of an ordinary Sunday morning.
I did not mention the boy, but he haunted my dreams that night. I pictured the unseen room behind him as a kind of moldering cave, where he pace like a caged animal, glowering at the dirty, smudged window that divided him from the world of the sane, just beyond his reach. I did not know, then, how often I was to gaze down from that same window, myself. ♦
◊ Installment 3 ◊
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. ♦
◊ Installment 4 ◊
The woman’s hands were blue. They shook when she held one out to me. I stared at the transparent skin, draped loosely over the sharp, brittle finger bones like an old, worn out handkerchief tossed over a set of knives. I did not want to touch it, but my father nudged me, so I raised my arm and took the hand in my own. Her skin felt as soft and fragile as the translucent origami paper someone had given me for a Christmas present last December. I felt that if I squeezed too hard, I could have closed my hand all the way, crushing hers into a pile of fine, blue dust that would trickle out between my fingers, onto the threadbare carpet.
We were finally inside the house. It had taken weeks of phone calls, my parents calling realtors, the realtors calling the mysterious owners of the house, who for reasons best known to themselves, rarely answered. A few times, the realtors reported, someone did pick up, but said nothing. The realtors reported the sound of muffled breathing, followed by a click, and a grainy dial tone. For someone who wanted to sell her house, the owner seemed to be doing the best she could to hide the for sale sign in a tangle of leaves, elude the realtors, viewers and potential buyers, and bury the house forever in obscurity.
Finally a very determined realtor, with hair the color of a shiny penny, in red lipstick and a white suit, marched up those cracked stone steps and stood on the porch, ringing the bell for half an hour until, finally, this woman opened the door.
And now here we were in the dark, narrow hallway, where cobwebs hung in hammocks from the ceiling, cradling little bundles of plaster dust and chipped paint, and right away I could see that it was all a waste of time; no one could ever live in this crumbling, decrepit pile of bricks. The only question left unanswered was how its current inhabitants managed to survive here, but it was not a question I cared sufficiently about to hang around and hear answered. I waited for my parents to make their excuses and leave. For reasons I could not understand, they did not do so immediately, but shuffled along politely behind this woman, making soft, murmuring noises about carved wooden moldings so thick with dust that their contours were impossible to make out, and a living room in which wallpaper hung in faded strips from the walls, as soft and blue and fragile as the woman’s hands.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
No one answered. I looked up and realized the woman was talking to me. I hesitated. On one hand, she looked like a witch. In fairy tale books, it is never wise to accept beverages offered by witches. But a trickle of light had made its way through the living room drapes, and it slanted across the woman’s face so that I could see her eyes. In all my life, I have never seen eyes so tired and so sad. I shifted uncomfortably onto the side of my foot, and nodded, staring at the floorboards. They creaked under our weight as we followed her into the kitchen.
The kitchen was blue, too. I began to think it must be the woman’s favorite color. Sunlight poured through the leafy tangle of flowerless rhododendron bushes outside the window, and then through the thick, old-fashioned panes of the window itself, which rippled, distorting the images outside into a foggy, green smear. The dishes in the sink were piled high with soap bubbles, but they must have sat there for a long time, for a fine film of dust had collected on top of the bubbles, mimicking their swirls and eddies: a peculiar combination of cleanliness and filth that fascinated, even while it repelled. ♦
◊ Installment 5 ◊
“Have you lived here long?” my mother was asking politely. An unnecessary question. It was obvious the woman had lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years. I was only a child, but even I could tell from the way the cabinets sagged and creaked under their burden of plates and goblets, vases and saucers and odd-looking egg cups; from the way there was too much furniture piled in every room, with end tables in front of end tables, and chairs jammed too close around the dining room table; from the way the overgrown plant by the fireplace had begun to creep across the living room sofa, that one did not build up this kind of clutter in a matter of years. It would take centuries.
The woman herself looked only slightly more lifelike than her dusty piles of furniture. I could see her better now, in the light from the kitchen window. Her hair was grey, and her sagging sweat pants were grey, and I felt that if I could peer closely into the cracks and wrinkles that lined her face, they too would be coated in a fine layer of dust, like the soap bubbles. I imagined the time it must take for her to dig her way out of the mounds of ancient furniture moldering in every pathway, and I could understand, now, why she so rarely answered the phone.
“I’ve lived here forty-two years,” said the woman, with a faraway look in her eyes. “I came here as a bride.”
This I could not imagine. My sister and I had been flower girls in a cousin’s wedding a few years ago, and I knew what brides looked like. Easier to dress up that crusty, crabbed oak sideboard, laden with ponderous crystal and tarnished silver, in filmy lace and satin than to transform this old woman into a bride!
She had opened the refrigerator now, and she removed a pitcher of juice. It was a deep, ruby red color, cranberry or cherry. She poured it into three cups made of swirling, bright blue glass, and set one each in front of my sister, my brother, and me. I held the glass up to the light. There was something deeply disturbing to me about the way those two colors came together. Through the swirls in the glass, I could see my own fingers, and beyond them I could see the rest of the kitchen, reflected in lurid, crimson shades. I wanted to warn my brother and sister not to drink it, but when I turned, they were already sipping at their cups. I waited until the woman’s back was turned, then emptied my own cup into the sink. It made a red mark on the soap bubbles, like blood on snow.
“And do you have children?” my mother was saying.
“No,” said the woman, glancing at me. “I live here alone.”
My head snapped back, and I peered at her suspiciously. Now I knew she was lying. I had seen the boy with my own eyes, peering down at me from the upstairs window, the first day we saw the house. I frowned at her. The woman looked away.
Now my mother was admiring the rhododendron bushes, and my father was running his hand over the wood around the window, with a deep sigh of satisfaction. I could not believe them. I watched as they moved from room to room, ignoring the water stains on the ceilings, and the thick scent of mildew coming from the curtains. They seemed to sense something about this house that escaped me, something that left broad, contented smiles on their faces, and expressions of sleepy satisfaction in their eyes, as if the house itself were casting some kind spell over them. They stepped over broken floorboards and around mounds of yellowing linen. And I followed them feeling puzzled, because even if we could somehow insinuate ourselves into this house, with its cracked chandeliers and creaking staircases, and its fancy, crumbling banisters, it seemed clear to me that we could never get this old woman out of it. ♦
◊ Installment 6 ◊
We came back on a Saturday two weeks later, when pumpkins had begun to appear in neighboring windows and the oak leaves heaped beneath the trees had changed to a rich golden brown color. They looked to me like masses of slippery gold coins, round and glossy, skidding under our feet like the treasure in Ali Baba’s cave. My brother loved the jack o’ lanterns. He laughed and pointed at them, leering at us from the windows, and my father promised to carve one for each of us later. He did that every year. I can still smell the ripe odor of pumpkin, as I scooped out the innards, and I can taste the silky texture of a raw, white pumpkin seed when I put one in my mouth, too impatient to wait for the ones my mother was roasting in the oven.
There were no jack o’ lanterns in the house behind the oaks. The woman greeted us with her usual, faraway expression, and I doubted she even knew what month it was, much less that it was nearly Halloween. Her hair looked as if she had forgotten to comb it that morning, and she wore the same, wrinkled sweatpants I had seen her in before. Kids who climbed up these steps to trick-or-treat were sure to be disappointed.
“Why don’t you show yourselves around the house today?” the woman mumbled vaguely, and she turned, lurching a little it seemed to me, as she groped for the banister. We heard the slam of a bedroom door upstairs, closing behind her. My mother and father exchanged glances.
But we were free to roam about at our own free will, and that was a benefit. I was tired of plodding along behind the adults, stopping every few paces to listen to yet another polite question, or monotonous observation. My sister skipped away toward the living room, where we had caught a glimpse of a large, wooden rocking horse on our first visit, and my brother toddled along behind her. I slipped into the shadowier region of the hall, moving away from the voices until they faded into silence, and I could fancy myself alone.
I opened a door and found myself peering down a set of old, wooden steps, disappearing into darkness. A string brushed against my face like a cobweb, and I looked up to see a single bulb, screwed into the ceiling. When I tugged it, the bulb cast a glimmer of light across the rough floorboards. They were not like the floor in other parts of the house –silky, old wood, covered in tattered scraps of carpet- but coarse and bare, with splinters sticking out of them. I was wearing shoes, so the splinters did not bother me. I closed the door behind me, and started down the steps.
At first they seemed to vanish before me into utter blackness. But as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to detect a faint, greenish glow, coming from around the corner, at the bottom of the stairs. It lit up the cracked cement floor of the basement, which someone must have painted long ago, for there were places where rusty, reddish flakes curled up from the concrete. At the bottom of the steps, I fumbled for a light switch, but there was none. So I followed the greenish glow around the corner, and gasped.
The dollhouse was the biggest one I had ever seen. It was pale blue. It glowed faintly in the light. There were fuzzy spots on the roof, like patches of moss clinging to the shingles, but when I moved towards it and touched one, I realized that it was mold, growing on the paint. Every part of the dollhouse had been constructed in exquisite detail. A small, brick chimney rose out of the sloping roof. White shutters, on real hinges, framed each of the windows. The windows had real glass in them. It was foggy and smudged, but when I bent over and peered through one of the panes, I could detect small specks of furniture inside: a narrow bed with sheer curtains clinging to it like cobwebs; a small, yellow chair with each, individual leg intricately carved.
Had I been less distracted by the dollhouse, I might have wondered why it was glowing. There were no lights in the basement. No windows let in light from the yard, nor did the weak bulb from the top of the stairs penetrate to these depths. Yet the dollhouse was clearly visible, and even in the dark corners of the room, I could make out the blurred lines of broken furniture, stacked along the walls.
Then a shadow rippled across the blue of the dollhouse. If you have ever looked at the wall opposite a fish tank, at the large rectangle of light it casts upon the wall, and then watched as a fish swam in front of the light, you will understand what I am talking about. But this shadow was much too large to be a fish. With a feeling of sinking horror, I turned around.
The light was coming from an enormous, glass box, just behind me. Inside the box was a snake.
I was not raised in the country. Up until that point in my life, the only snake I had ever seen was the boa constrictor at the Lawrence Hall of Science, where we sometimes went for birthday parties or field trips. I always walked past it on tiptoe, shuddering, and I never volunteered to pet it, like some of my more insane classmates, when the animal handler brought it out. This snake was larger than the boa constrictor. It was coiled up like a thick, engorged garden hose, but if it had stretched to its full length, it could have reached from one end of the basement to the other.
I was so horrified I could not move. I stood there frozen, terrified in the way that only a child can be terrified, with the same kind of blind, senseless awe that a deer must feel, staring into the glow of a car’s headlights. The only thing that registered in my mind at that moment was that the door to the snake tank was open.
Sometimes, the only way to move past one type of fear is to be jolted out of it by another. I had not heard any footsteps, but suddenly a voice addressed me from the gloom.
“What are you doing here?”
I jerked my head away from the snake, and there, beside it, was the boy I had seen in the window. His face was illuminated by the green light, and it glowed sickly pale in the dark, like the wan, white underbelly of a fish. I think I screamed, because the boy jumped and I brushed past him, running for the door. If an exercise machine could be designed to make a person move as quickly as I moved up those stairs, the designer would make a fortune.
I heard my parents calling my name when I reached the main floor. I ran back toward the light and the sound. I was too horrified to tell anyone what I had seen, but I walked directly in front of my parents as we went down the steps toward the street, so nothing would be able to get me.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I thought I saw a tiny face peering up at me from the leaves. I bent over, brushing aside dirt and moss with my hands, and picked up a tiny, wooden doll, no bigger than my thumb. ♦
◊ Installment 7 ◊
We bought the house on a Wednesday. I was sitting on the tree swing in our backyard, watching the patterns the sun made, trickling over the short, mossy path leading to the garage. My sister was digging for salamanders in the freshly turned dirt by my father’s office. That office had once been a covered porch. When my brother was born, there was literally nowhere to put him, so the tiny den where my father worked was converted into a nursery, and my father moved to the porch. He built three extra walls to enclose it, leaving the floor as it was. I can still feel the cold of the scuffed, old bricks, seeping through my socks when I went in to borrow a pencil. We were spilling out of the house like an octopus confined in a goldfish bowl, with first one slippery tentacle sliding over the brim, and then another.
My mother came down the kitchen steps with my brother toddling in front of her. My brother had the reddest cheeks, and soft brown hair that curled around his forehead. My mother wore her tan dress, with a silky scarf I liked particularly: a turquoise fabric with a pattern in dark red and gold. In all the years of my life, whenever I see a scarf like that, I think of mothers.
“Mita, Lily,” my mother called, “come here.” I jumped off the tree swing. My mother was wearing her serious face, and immediately I stood up straighter, tugging at the wrinkles sagging in the knees of my tights. My mother only wore that expression when the situation was extremely somber. She wore it when she told us that my great-grandfather had died. She wore it when she warned us about kidnappers, on the day we started walking home from kindergarten. And she wore it, unintentionally I think, whenever she saw someone experiencing emotional pain. It would flicker across her face when she thought no one was watching her. It meant that we should stand up straighter, try not to giggle or squirm, and in general attempt, however fruitlessly, to be as polite as possible.
“Your father and I decided to buy the Carlemont house,” my mother told us. The Carlemont house was what my parents unromantically called the house behind the oaks, because it was located in Carlemont, a tiny suburb of the Oakland hills. “We signed the papers this morning.”
When you are six or eight, you rarely question the events that happen to you. At that age, you are too young to be exceptionally surprised by anything, because everything in the world is new and surprising. You take events as they come, and assume they are normal parts of how the world functions. So beyond my first startled reaction, it did not occur to me to think much about my parents’ decision. We were moving; that was that. I had better pack up my favorite Care Bear, and make sure my eraser collection stayed well out of chewing distance of my brother.
But I think that was the last time in my life that I accepted my fate so unquestioningly. The six month period during which we moved from the small, sunny house in the Kensington hills, to the house behind the oaks, also marks the time in my life when I first began to question, not only my circumstances, but myself.
Of course, looking back, it was inevitable that we would end up in the house behind the oaks. We were tangled together from the first day we saw it. My parents breathed in the foregone conclusion of our destiny in the air. The plum tree house had long since sold, as had the box house. The realtor had called my parents about each one, while they sat at the dining room table, ruminating over real estate documents. Their gazes had slid sideways over stacks of paper, to the spot where the brochure advertising the house behind the oaks lay, centered on the table. All the other brochures had long since slipped to the floor. You cannot escape your destiny, but you can choose how to react to it. Events roll into our lives like a mountain range, solid and implacable. There is no way to turn back or avoid them, but there are a million different ways to cross them. ♦
◊ Installment 8 ◊
I must pause here to tell you about my grandfather. How I loved him! I have seen pictures of him as a young man, dark and handsome, but I remember him in his sixties with almost no hair on the top of his head, and dark, shaggy eyebrows. No face could have been more loved. I think my reverence for him was increased because my father admired him so. As children, whenever we did something that my father liked particularly, he would say, “your grandfather would have been proud,” which we automatically translated to mean that he himself was proud of us, something I never heard him say on its own. To my father, the concept of my grandfather’s approval was so much more meaningful than anything else he could say, that his own faded into insignificance beside it.
But I also adored my grandfather for himself, and because, looking back, he so clearly adored me. Anything I did as a child –and I was rarely a good child, unlike my brother and sister— seemed to be pleasing in his eyes. I never knew him to yell at or scold me, or look at me with anything but a beaming, golden expression of unconditional approbation. I remember sitting beside him at my great grandmother’s house. That house in my memory is a soft, dark swirl of fragrant Italian spices, bright colored knitting falling swiftly from my great grandmother’s fingertips, and words spoken in a melodic language I could not understand, which flowed in and out like the ocean, making a pleasing background for my thoughts. I remember my great grandmother rising from her chair by the window, moving slowly across the room on her walker, to wind up the cuckoo clock and make the little bird pop out, because I loved to see it.
And I remember my grandfather telling my Great Uncle Leo that I could read.
“Go on,” Uncle Leo scoffed, friendly but disbelieving. “She’s only four.”
I was five, but my mother had been forcing me to sit on the edge of her bed every night since I was three, painfully sounding my way through a set of blue and orange, hardcover books about Peter and Jane, an incredibly dull pair of siblings who spent most of their time watching their dog, Spot, run, and making such observant comments as, “see Spot run?” And, “Run, Spot, run!” If it had been up to me, Spot would have twisted a leg early on in the first book, and I never would have had to read such uninteresting drivel again. But eventually, words that had been stubborn black rectangles on the page, each one a stumbling block that had to be sounded out, mispronounced and corrected, began to blend together into sentences, and then thoughts, and when my mother handed me the battered, white fairy tale book that had been hers as a child, I entered a world that is still the closest I can imagine to Heaven.
“She can read,” my grandfather insisted. “Mita, come here.”
I went to him.
“Now, look at this,” said my grandfather, and he took from a thick book with translucent, yellow pages down from a shelf. It looked to me like the phone book, but I learned later that it was J.K. Lasker’s Tax Manual. The words were printed small and close together, like tiny, black ants, crawling across the page.
“Read this to your Uncle Leo.”
I looked down at my grandfather’s finger, pointing to the first paragraph. Previously, I had not imagined that anything could be more dull than Peter and Jane, but here was direct evidence to the contrary. I gazed up at my grandfather in disbelief.
“Oh,” he said, misinterpreting my expression, and his face melted into sympathy. “Is it too hard? That’s okay. We can read something easier later.”
It took me several moments to realize that I was being insulted. He thought I could not read that book! I put my hands on my hips, and reeled off the paragraph as rapidly as I could, glancing up as I finished into the astonished eyes of my Uncle Leo.
My grandfather laughed and laughed, clapped me in his hands and gave me a hug, laughed and laughed some more.
When he got sick, my grandfather came to live with us. My mother would put his breakfast on a tray every morning, and I would carry it out to him through the wet grass, its damp, silky strands brushing against my ankles. He lived in a large room beside the garage, which my father had long ago converted into a separate apartment. He could not get out of his bed, but the tray was a special tray, with little legs that came down so it would stand firmly over him on the bed. After we set it up, my grandfather would let me stay for as long as I liked. Sometimes, we watched Sesame Street together. Other times, he asked me about school. I recall a Sunday in the first grade when I stayed in there for most of the morning. I had recently been cast as a Lost Boy in our school’s production of Peter Pan, the drama department being short on males, and I found it the seventh heaven of delight, except that I did not have any lines. So instead, I memorized everyone else’s lines, and performed the entire play for my grandfather in the garage. He waited patiently while I held long conversations with myself, hopping back and forth to portray the different characters, using folding chairs for props and scenery. I glanced up every now and then to see how he was taking it, and each time, I met with his indulgent smile.
My grandfather was a brilliant man, but he did not approve of doctors. Had he consulted one sooner, they might have told him about the cancer before it was too late. By the time he was diagnosed, it had spread through his entire body, into his bones. As it grew, it broke each bone apart slowly. The pain must have been incredible, but my grandfather refused to take the pain medications. He said they clouded his mind. I never recall him mentioning it, though. He was always the same with me: patient, smiling, uncomplaining.
My last memory of him is not of his face, but of his voice. My father and I went to visit him as he lay dying. By now, he had moved in with my great grandmother, who could watch over him during the day. My father left me in the hallway, and went in to see him alone.
“Joe, Joe,” I heard my grandfather cry, his voice echoing to me in the hallway. “It hurts, it hurts!” It was the first time I ever heard him complain, and the last time I ever heard him.
There may only ever be one or two people in anyone’s life, or none at all, who love and approve of one unquestioningly. When my grandfather died, I lost the only person who ever approved unconditionally of me. ♦
◊ Installment 9 ◊
But after my grandfather died, the last link tying us to the little house in the hills was broken. It was the only house I had ever lived in, and every detail of it is imprinted on my memory. In particular I remember the floors, which were closer to my eye level than the rest of the house. The bedroom I shared with my sister had a golden brown carpet. We would loll on it with our legs propped against the wall, playing games, coloring, telling stories. I told her that when people die, they turn blue. That is why we cannot see them up in heaven; they blend in with the sky. I pictured my grandfather up in that gauzy, blue stratosphere, blue with perhaps a fleck of white or two, to camouflage him when a cloud passed by. Though I could not see him, I sensed his presence all the time, like a warm beam of light, hovering just behind my shoulder. We cannot see light, but we know it is there all the same. I was certain he was watching me, and therefore I intended to be on my best behavior for the rest of my life.
The floor in the living room was made of wood. There was a scratch in the floorboard by the fireplace, where I fell off the coffee table when I was three. The coffee table faced out over the Kensington hills, and I used to scramble up into a large, decorative bowl in the center of it, pretending it was my boat. Through the window I could see the steep hills we lived in, dropping away to what looked like a wide, flat valley of houses and trees, which grew smaller and smaller until they reached a fuzzy, grey stripe that was the San Francisco Bay. If one unlatched the window, I believed, one could sail right through it onto that bay, rowing along in one’s boat. But if one rowed too enthusiastically, one fell off the coffee table, and left a permanent mark on the living room floor.
And then there was the floor in the kitchen, which had tiles with brown and orange flowers on them. Once, I sneaked into the kitchen looking for cake. When I could not find any, I decided to bake one myself. I do not recall exactly how I got into the cabinets and the oven, but I do recall that the cake was a warm, flat rectangle made entirely of flour, baking powder, blueberries and milk –the four ingredients I remembered seeing my mother put in cakes- and that it was not very good. I ate it crouching in the corner of the kitchen, looking down at those tiles on which a fine mist of baking powder had fallen, like snow on the flowers.
I can walk through every room of that house in my mind, cataloguing the memories that happened in each, in the eight years I lived there. What must it have been like for my father, who had lived there for thirty-six?
At any rate, we were going to move to a new house now, one with more kitchen space and a second bathroom, where my parents could each have an office without intruding on the porch, one with closets for everyone and a basement and an attic, and perhaps –I wondered- one where my father’s memories did not crowd upon him at the sight of every mark on the walls, every tile in the floor. We would find an empty, shiny, new-smelling house where we could start with a blank slate, where the echoes of a family’s history did not whisper to us from every corner, resounding in the stairwells, and hovering in the very air we breathed.
We could not have chosen a more unsuitable house. ♦
◊ Installment 10 ◊
On the day we moved, we woke up early. All of the boxes and crates that held our furniture had been packed. They lurked in doorways and inconvenient places, as if someone had turned our house into an enormous pinball machine, and we were the tiny silver balls that had to find our way around impediments. My father and uncles would be moving the boxes later, but first my parents, brother and sister and I were going to drive to our new house all by ourselves.
We drove crouching on the floor of our new minivan. It was a splendid purchase, made shortly before we moved, when we traded in my mom’s faded, blue Honda that had been around for as long as I could remember. This minivan had come straight from the manufacturer, and everything in it smelled intoxicating and shiny, like a freshly opened can of tennis balls, mixed with carpet fibers. We had never owned a whole van before, and it was our great pride. My sister and I took it upon ourselves to explore every nook and cranny, and we were now knowledgeable enough to conduct a full tour, reeling off the number of drink holders and hidden compartments, and displaying with especial pride the triangular plastic handles that made the back seats flatten out. Today, the seats had been removed to make way for the future carrying of boxes and furniture. We had to sit on the floor with our heads down between our knees, so as not to be spotted without seatbelts by the police, in the event of which, we were given to understand, we would almost certainly be arrested. My mother told us to say goodbye to the old house in Kensington forever. This seemed sad, and we cried. But behind the tears, we were not really upset. We did not understand what forever meant then -I still vaguely expected, somehow, to see my grandfather one of these days- and there was an undercurrent of thrilling excitement, and adventure in the air.
When we pulled into the driveway of our new house, something was wrong. There were no ruts in the muddy parking area, made by the heavy tires of moving trucks. No skid marks, from furniture dragged over brick, stood out red against the faded white dust of the porch. At our old house, one could breathe in the evidence of our move in the very air, which was full of cardboard filaments and bits of tape. But here, everything was still and serene. The safe, green tangle of oak leaves surrounded the house like a protective shield, as if nothing had changed here in a hundred years. When we looked up at the second floor windows, they were still full of fluttering curtains, waving in the breeze.
My father’s eyebrows drew together. The moving truck with all our furniture was scheduled to arrive in an hour. Keys to our old house had already been handed off to its new owners, and we had packed duffel bags with sheets, to sleep on our beds in the new house tonight. A change of address form had been turned in at the post office, directing our mail to our new mailbox, which, now that I looked, was hanging lopsided off its hinges, crammed full of faded envelopes and rotting newspapers. A gardener was coming to exterminate the poison oak in the yard, but how could he? The grass was still piled with mounds of rusting furniture, over which red leaves crawled like fire ants, intricately twined into every brittle hinge, and ancient rivet.
My father turned off the ignition.
“Stay here,” he said, presumably to me and my siblings, but I was too curious to remain where I was. I waited until my parents reached the front door, and then I slipped from the van, and ran around to the side porch.
The screen door was hanging askew. I pushed it open. My eyes widened in shock. The hallway was still blocked with the same mounds of decaying furniture and mildewed table linens that had been there the first day we visited. Nothing had moved one inch. I pushed past a dusty grandfather clock and peered into the kitchen. The same dishes bulged in the same creaking cabinets, and the sink was still piled high with plates and soap bubbles- could they be the same soap bubbles? Stale food overflowed from the top of the refrigerator, and a tiny mound of spilled rice had trickled down from one of the countertops, forming a miniature mountain on the kitchen floor. There were no boxes anywhere; no one had made any pretense of moving. I pushed through the kitchen to the dining room, and then the living room. Everything was just as it always had been. The same, curling green vine from the plant by the fireplace still curved lovingly around the worn, velvet sofa, perhaps an inch longer now. I turned, taking in the piles of books lining the walls, the abundance of lamps, lined up one on front of another on every surface. Surely it would take months to cart all this away. I heard my parents’ voices on the stairs. I ran through the door into the front hall, up the stairs, where shadowy portraits of ancestors still peered scornfully from the walls, down the hallway, where open doors gave me glimpses into bedrooms still overflowing with the forgotten leftovers of other people’s lives, to the room at the end of the hall, in front of whose open door my parents were standing. And there was the old woman with the faraway eyes lying, drunk, on the bed.
(To Be Continued…)