Revisiting the Past

One of the few upsides to Covid-19 was that my California employer allowed me to work remotely from Louisiana for the summer. In the last 25 years, I hadn’t spent more than a week at a time visiting my family. My college-aged son was studying from our home, so I left him in charge of the house and drove across the southern states with my computers and makeshift office.

After a Sunday afternoon of swimming, one of my sisters and I were heading back to her house when we decided to drive through our old neighborhood. We turned onto Canterbury Street and approached the first house that my parents had built, the house where I lived in until age 5. There was a man, presumably the newest owner, working in the front yard.

“Stop and roll down the window,” I said to my sister.

I waved the man over, and as he stood near the window, I said, “My father built this house. We used to live here.”

We chatted briefly and he invited us to look inside the house. They had remodeled since purchasing it. As we walked up the driveway to the back door, my sister mentioned that I was visiting from California. The man said, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote that book about your family.”

“Storkbites,” I said. “Yes.”

“Well, my wife read it and really enjoyed it. But she said that I didn’t need to read it.” My sister and I exchanged a confused look.

We entered the house through what looked like a converted garage but had been our playroom and now theirs. The room held a lot of memories—laughter as well as tears. Sometimes, kids can be really cruel to each other. We crossed the threshold into the large family room where the couple had painted the dark wood paneling a lighter, less dungeonous color. The man introduced us to his wife. She told us they had sold their previous house to another one of my six sisters. We also realized that my nephew had taught their son cello lessons. What a small world, we agreed.

We toured the backyard first. The husband pointed to our old merry-go-round now sitting in the neighbor’s yard. The fiberglass horses were missing as well as the awning.

“They’re fixing it up,” he said. I thought about the hours of fun my siblings and I spent riding the horses, going round and round.

We headed to the swimming pool area. I pointed at a room that sat above and to the right of the pool. “My brother and his friends used to jump from that roof into the pool. They were quite the dare devils.” 

We reentered the house and I noticed a bookshelf with owl figurines. I asked if they collected owls, and indeed the wife did. I told them that my father was also an owl enthusiast. His collection had grown to hundreds by the time he died. I laughed to myself because as I visited my various sisters’ houses this summer, I noticed  they all had part of my father’s huge collection displayed around their homes.

Our tour took us through my parent’s master bedroom to a door leading to a maze of bedrooms and halls. At the first bedroom, the woman pointed to a missing chunk of wood from the door jam. “These gouges were left over from the chains that your father installed on the doors,” she said. Her husband asked, “Why would your dad lock you kids in your rooms at night?”

I looked at my sister and said, “To keep us from leaving our bedrooms so we wouldn’t disturb our mother.” When spoken aloud, it sounded cruel and bizarre, like something out of a movie. “I guess we’re lucky the house never caught on fire in the middle of the night.” The energy in the hallway flattened like a punctured tire.

“Well,” he said, “here’s the room you called the Dark Room.” He opened the door to reveal a large, windowless closest lined with shelves. The room looked like a catchall for decorations and not-ready-to-discard household items.

I told the couple how my sister and I shared the dark room. It was the only paneled room in the house that had been painted at the time. In an effort to learn my ABCs, I had taken my mother’s black marker and written the alphabet in large letters across the paneling. I remembered how I proudly showed off my cleverness, singing the letters as my mother and I stood in the room. When fury settled on her face, I knew I would be yanked out of bed that night for a spanking.

“Yep, she was not very amused,” I said.

One feature of the house I hadn’t remembered but loved now was the abundance of large windows in the children’s bedrooms. I imagined my siblings waking up to the morning sun, awaiting their mug of coffee-milk that my mother delivered to us to kick-start our day.  

The tour ended in the kitchen. My mother had loved the color pink. We had pink bathrooms, pink metal fencing around the swimming pool, and a pink Formica kitchen. The owners had renovated the kitchens and bathrooms, removing all evidence of her infatuation.

My sister and I thanked the owners for the tour. The wife said she had invited another one of my sisters to visit the house, to see the changes she and her husband had made to our childhood home. My sister had politely declined. The woman wasn’t sure why she wasn’t curious. I knew why. For some, the past isn’t safe to revisit. They would prefer to let the memories remain buried.

I, conversely, am always ready to uncover something curious or unknown about my family. I’m like an archeologist, constantly gathering and unearthing information from any available source. For decades, I have studied our past and tried to piece together all that makes us who we are today. It helps me to develop theories of why we behave the way we do. To have empathy for those who treated us with less kindness and care than we deserved, to understand that perhaps their behavior was a result of the hurt they themselves had endured. To learn from the past and to move forward.

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