This house on the hilltop can’t be the one I remember.
That house was old and ugly. Its roof looked like a hobo’s jacket, precariously held together with layer upon layer of patches in varying shades of green. No one ever stripped off the old tar paper, just added new levels, stacking them up like lasagna noodles until the paper was at least two inches deep. That house had mint green stucco walls and darker green trim, colors chosen not out of design considerations but for their clearance sale price. This wooden porch should be constructed of warped gray boards so weakened by age that a few times a year one will collapse under the weight of a heel. The victim’s leg will vanish into a splintered cavity, only to emerge with jagged wounds from nails so rusty they’re the color of Oklahoma clay.
That’s where I grew up, not in Oklahoma but in an ancient farmhouse on the outskirts of a tiny Pennsylvania town. There were seven of us: Mom and Dad, my siblings Janet, Anita, Ron and Becky. And me. Seven people living in poverty, too proud to seek help, too dumb to realize we needed it, sweating in the summer heat or shivering under blankets when the lake effect snowfall overpowered our belching furnace and left us trapped indoors for days.
That was my house, not this thing on the hill. This one has impeccable aluminum siding, the kind my Dad dreamed of installing. The porch is so new the wood still looks yellow, and the massive TV antenna that used to climb from beneath the ground to well above the roof is gone altogether. We used to turn that antenna with a giant pipe wrench, so heavy I could barely hold it. My father would send me outside to tune in the Major League Baseball games he loved. We had at most five fuzzy channels, depending on the weather and the antenna’s angle — four from the big city, about 45 minutes away, and one that beamed from Canada straight across Lake Erie, airing “Davey and Goliath,” “The Lone Ranger” and old Hercules cartoons.
The only thing similar about this house is its general shape, which looks something like a bird in flight. Whoever among my ancestors built it in 1815 started small, clearing the wilderness and using native wood to erect the original two-story structure atop the hilltop, providing the advantage of high ground in case of attack. Each marriage brought more children and more construction, so the house expanded, sprouting wings on two sides and a tail on another. The porch formed the bird’s beak. By the time I came along, the window glass was wavy with age, and the threshold into the parlor had a noticeable dip from the many generations of my family who’d crossed it. My Grandma Lois, about whom I recall only ghastly things, believed that our house was cursed: If sold to anyone not of our bloodline, it would bring great misfortune. It was never clear to whom.
The back of the house pointed downhill toward the three-story barn, itself an eyesore. The barn’s gray walls were broken, as if it had barely held off a siege by angry villagers, and the vast double doors were locked in place by a steel pole. The side door opened into an area where once were cattle stalls; the exposed light switch was just inside the door. During the day, the barn was the greatest playhouse in the world. Old hay bales moldered in the loft, where my best friend and I would pretend to be Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. To impress visitors, I would tightrope walk across a broken beam, high enough up that I probably would’ve died if I had fallen. The building was vast and full of old and dangerous things. At night it was terrifying, a black square of emptiness blotting out the horizon and some of the stars.
This house may have the right shape, but it’s too neat and tidy. Our chimneys were in constant danger of crumbling; the cement blocks were held together with so many reinforcing materials the chimneys looked as if they had gangrene. This place has smooth and clean cinder blocks, and if I were up on the roof, standing beside the main chimney as I did so often as a child, I wouldn’t see the barn anymore. It’s gone, replaced by a smaller, more efficient model as clean and sturdy as the rest of the property.
It doesn’t seem right that someone came here and stole my childhood.
Here at the base of the hill, where twin driveways sweep up to the front and back doors, is where I set off a bottle rocket one Independence Day that tipped on its side and fired before I could right it. My father, trudging up the driveway, was about two-thirds of the way up the hill when he heard the commotion behind him. He looked back, eyes bulging, and saw the rocket speeding his way. The easiest solution would’ve been to leap into the bushes or duck and cover, but he broke into a run. The rocket hugged the ground, ricocheting off gravel. Dad had just crested the hill when the rocket slammed into the wall beside him and harmlessly detonated. He was angry, of course; embarrassment always turned to anger for him. But Becky and I couldn’t stop laughing. That bug-eyed look of his as he charged up the driveway like an infantryman in full retreat was just too funny.
The old chicken coop is gone. So are the sugar shacks, where we used to boil maple tree sap down to a sticky syrup that we’d bottle up and sell at a store in town. I don’t think we owned chickens in my lifetime, but my German shepherd pal Scotty lived in the coop. Being the youngest of five children wasn’t always the greatest thing. My siblings made my life hell sometimes, so the fall and spring hours after half-day kindergarten were the only time I felt free. The yellow school bus would grind its way down our pitted dirt road, stop at the Gollmers’ house, then trundle a quarter mile to the edge of my driveway. I’d get out to find Scotty waiting for me. On windy days we’d run through the tree-ringed front yard and head out back, where I’d pretend I was a superhero who could control the weather. Scotty would join me as I fought imaginary battles or spread my open jacket wide to capture the wind. Maybe someday, if the breeze blew hard enough, I’d sail up into the air and disappear. My parents would miss me, and my siblings would wish they’d treated me better. I’d return years later, after many adventures on the sea, with a big white beard and a bag full of exotic gifts.
But time passed, as it always does, and the things I thought were forever proved to be temporary. Janet got married and moved out. Anita wed and moved on, too. Janet and her family, which by then included three sons, moved back in with us for a while after her husband lost his job, but they left again, and soon Ron did, also, marrying his tall Dutch girlfriend and spinning records at a Top 40 radio station. Then Becky married and left, and there was only my mother, father and me, the three of us in that sprawling house, each weekend and many nights spent trying to keep its failing systems operational. When my Dad took ill at 53, it seemed like just another problem to be fixed, another rusty machine to be oiled and greased and coaxed back to health. It couldn’t be anything serious. He was our center. But his back pain grew worse and worse, and that part we couldn’t repair.
The day of Dad’s exploratory surgery, my whole family sat in a gleaming hospital lobby trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. After a while someone in a doctor’s coat led us to an empty white hallway. My mother stood beside the church pastor. My sibs were paired with their spouses. I was 19 and alone. I don’t remember exactly what we were told, but the gist was that my father had inoperable pancreatic cancer and that, barring a miracle, he would die soon. In my mind it happens like falling dominoes: My mother collapses into the preacher’s arms, then my siblings, one by one, turn to their spouses for comfort. I think, “That’s it then. I have to be the strong one.” And through the next two horrible months, I don’t cry once. It is only at the graveside ceremony that the unexpected appearance of a friend tips my bucket a little, and a few tears drip out.
This house isn’t the one I grew up in. It can’t be. That house had my father’s fingerprints all over it — his fleet of aging tractors, his down-home engineering. That intact window on the back door — that broke once in the winter, and Dad sliced open his hand so badly he needed stitches. He used to pick me up and gently bump my head against that living room ceiling. There’s where the Christmas tree is supposed to go. Dad would bring home a big box of chocolates for the whole family, and we’d each have one a day through the holiday season. There’s the master bedroom, where Dad would wear long johns as pajamas, read books about politics, feed his addiction to nasal spray and snuggle with Mom. All his belts and orange safety caps hung on that wall.
But this can’t be that bedroom, and it can’t be that wall, because the central defining feature of the house I knew was the comforting presence of my parents. They’re not here. They haven’t been here for decades.
This isn’t our house anymore. Mom had to sell it. It belongs to someone else now. Our house, where all we had was each other ... it’s not made of wood and concrete and tar paper. It’s made of memories.
If I close my eyes, I can see us playing Wiffleball in the front yard, hosting Halloween parties in the barn, having corn roasts, sledding down the hill on winter days, engaging in icicle wars. I remember climbing my favorite maple tree like a loose-limbed monkey, rolling down the slope in fresh-cut grass, trying to dam the ditch, wrestling with my friends, being bright and young and carefree and happy.
I can feel the wind, and I wish, if only for a moment, that it would carry me away.