Down the lane
Rain pounds on the windshield of our rental car as we drive up the gravel road in Ingomar, Pennsylvania, just north by twenty minutes from Pittsburgh. The temperature outside is unseasonably cold and we hear that several inches of snow had fallen the week before our visit. Today the skies are gray, and trees still cling to their colors, with hues of brown, rust, yellow and burgundy coated the rolling hillsides.
Big Papa and I are on our “Tour of the moms” trip. We plan to spend six days visiting our childhood homesteads and haunts, three days in Pittsburgh where he grew up followed by three days in Syracuse where I grew up. Both our mothers still live in the cities of our birth.
Turning left onto Wilvan Lane, we quickly spot the Cape Cod-styled house, now painted a soft yellow. Wilvan Lane is tiny with just a handful of homes sharing the intimate road named after two of the families who lived on it, the Wilsons and the Vandervorts. Big Papa moved to this house when he was four years old and his parents lived there until his father passed away and his mother moved into a retirement community. Since that time, it’s had two owners.
Next door sits a grand old stone house where Tom, Joel’s closest friend and the best man at our wedding, grew up. For Big Papa, a couple decades of adventures and mischief went down in the lanes and yards surrounding those homes.
We pull up to the house, just we’ve done the past couple times we’ve visited Pittsburgh. As we hop out of the car to take a few pictures, a woman opens the front door and calls out to us. “Are you interested in my house?” “Yes!” said Big Papa. “I grew up here.”
“Come on in. I’ll show you around.” Walking up to the back entrance, our tour guide introduces herself. Melissa has owned Big Papa’s former digs for several years now. She enthusiastically guides us through the house pointing to lovely original oak wood floors, heretofore unknown to Big Papa who lived with wall-to-wall carpet during his years in the house.
Big Papa shares stories from days gone by and Melissa describes what she’s done to the home since becoming its owner. We pass the laundry chute where Big Papa would toss his stuffed bear for a quick ride down to the basement. Traveling through the living room we reach the far end of the house, where there is a bedroom, a small bath, a sitting room and a porch that is now a sunroom. As we poke our heads into the bathroom, we see a handrail against the wall. Melissa says, “I think an old man, who was ill, lived here alone for awhile.” Big Papa responds, “That was my father, but he wasn’t alone.” “He’d had a stroke and my mother put in the rail and moved him down here from their upstairs bedroom so he could get around more easily.”
Next we head upstairs, where there are three bedrooms. Big Papa had to walk through his parent’s bedroom to reach his own, tucked into the rafters in a corner of the second floor. We turn the clear glass door knob and the door sticks a bit before we give it a good shove to open it. “The door stuck just like that when I was a kid,” Big Papa recalls. Looking inside we see a spacious room painted bright yellow. “I painted the room yellow, when I was in high school,” he recollects. “It’s a different shade now, but how funny that it was yellow thirty years ago and still is to this day.”
Our last stop on the tour is the basement. Big Papa’s father lay claim to this space and piled it high and deep with tools, wood, a darkroom and project upon project. As we chat, I hear Big Papa catch his breath. “My father’s workbench. I can’t believe that it’s still here.” We run our fingers along the weathered wood with its shiny patina from years of use. “I never could see much of the bench with all the stuff piled on top of it,” Big Papa tells us.
I wanted to reach out and hold Big Papa close. I know he is thinking about his dad, long passed. I’m sure he can almost hear small feet running down the stairs to see what mysteries might be uncovered in the busy basement workshop. He probably smells faint traces of developer wafting from the side of the basement where the darkroom once stood, and remembers how pungent aromas from fresh cut wood lingered in the nooks and crannies.
Big Papa told me that once, as a child, he secretly “cleaned” the basement work area as a birthday present for his dad. Tidying up the messy space seemed like a good idea at the time, until his father arrived home. A look of displeasure crossed his face. He didn’t yell at Big Papa but sternly told him to ask the next time he considered tackling a similar venture.
Leaving Pittsburgh for Syracuse three days later, we fly over a beautiful patchwork of fall color. Farms dot the landscape and small towns sit side by side with verdant woodland. I think to myself how lucky we both were to grow up in such a spectacular setting. I also muse about how different it is to go home versus to be home.
We arrive in Fayetteville, New York, a small village twenty minutes southeast from Syracuse. Another yellow house, my childhood home, comes into view as we walk up Highbridge Street from the Craftsman Inn where we’re staying. Fifty years later, my mother still resides in the house I called home for the first eighteen years of my life. It’s a small ranch-style home, built in the 1950s when new suburbs sprung up across the U.S.
Across the street is the large gray house where my close friend Dee lived, along with her ten siblings. I can feel my heart wince a bit as we pass by. Ten years ago, Dee’s parents moved to a townhome a few miles away and Dee died last Christmas. Time changes all things.
That I grew up in a yellow house, Big Papa’s boyhood home is now yellow and our home in Seattle, the Urban Cabin, is also yellow is a fascinating coincidence not lost on me. Four decades passed before Big Papa and I crossed paths. While we found each other on the west coast, our shared roots are in the east. Both our fathers had a woodshop and a darkroom in the basement and both were paralyzed by strokes. Big Papa has a sister, as do I, both of whom suffered from illness as children. My sister had cancer twice and, as a young teen, Big Papa’s sister began her lifelong struggle with mental health issues. We have many, many differences between us but there are an equal number of ways in which we are kindred spirits, our experiences cut from similar cloth.
My mother greets us at the door and before we are ushered into the house, we take a walk through the yard. Although I grew up on a very busy street, our property backed up to a sizable protected wooded area with two streams. My father was an avid gardener and part of our lot was filled with every edible plant imaginable. A compost pile still collects leaves in the farthest corner of the back yard, and I remember how my steps would quicken as I carried the remains of our meal out to toss in the compost. What danger I imagined lurked there, I do not recall. I am often surprised I felt scared to be alone surrounded by the trees in our back lot since it was also a place of great discovery. My father found milk glass dishes left by early settlers and ancient arrowheads, once used by Iroquois Indians who first walked the land.
As we walk and talk with my mother, we hear the sound of Limestone Creek gurgling in the background. Birds fly freely in the sanctuary established before my parents bought the house. No one will ever be able to build in these protected woodlands. I know my love of nature and plants comes from this magical place.
Back inside, my mother tasks us with going through belongings saved over my lifetime. Over the next three days, we uncover photos, trinkets, artwork and letters that fill boxes stored in our attic and closets of the house.
A flood of memories, some happy and others painful are brought to life as we pick through dusty relics lovingly stored by my mother. The members of my family are all ‘savers,’ with me being the least inclined of the foursome. Later, as we walk back to our room at the inn, Big Papa and I talk about the psychic weight entrenched in generations of memorabilia. What to keep and use, what to keep but store, and what to toss? We are the caretakers for our own treasures, those of parents and all the generations before. My father’s artwork alone would cover every inch of wall space in our house if I put them all up. What of my own creations? How do we show respect for what has passed and honor the present without drowning in stuff?
Should we successfully adopt, will my child cherish the twelve years of classroom photos, taken from Kindergarten on? Or will he relinquish them to the trash bin? Surely if his style leans mid-century modern, he won’t see the charm in our oak kitchen table or the dresser hand-painted by Big Papa’s father. Will he feel burdened, as I did, to haul something comparable to my father’s unwieldy darkroom enlarger for decades from apartment to apartment until I finally, with a mountain of guilt, dispatched it to the dumpster behind my building before shacking up with Big Papa?
We leave before dawn on the morning of the seventh day of our journey across the country. I feel heavy, loaded down with the gravity of memories from conflicted relationships, roads taken and not taken. While we can always return to the places of our youth, we are no longer young when we do so.
These four walls
A sense of place grounds us to the land we hail from and to the places we’ve laid our head. Familiar colors, scents and sounds are imbedded deeply in our souls, whether gentle rolling wheat fields, wide open plains or lush forests.
Traveling back to a place, the memories we conjure are at times pure poetry and in other moments wounds rubbed raw. No matter how far we roam, the stories from our childhood and the places we’ve called home become a part of our internal landscape.
I still recall the promise of an east coast spring when the first crocus pokes its brave head through the frost-covered ground in our yard. Walking past lilacs in bloom, I smell the sweet fragrance and can almost feel myself cradling the overflowing bunches against my chest, just as I’d done with the branches cut from the bush outside my childhood porch. Each fall, I thrill at the sight of rich red maple trees and remember the hillsides of central New York, covered with their vibrancy.
Even though decades have passed, and the scenery outside my window has changed, I will always carry with me, a piece of the places I’ve called home. No one will ever be able to completely take away the east coast from the girl.
Upon our return to Seattle, the taxi drops us off in front of the Urban Cabin, looking as chipper as it did when we left it. Our steps are sure and swift, and we bound up the front stairs until we reach the front door. Simultaneously, we both let out a great sigh of relief. Back walls torn off for our remodel and lives crammed temporarily into 450 square feet notwithstanding, our little yellow house never looked more beautiful. Tonight we will lie down side by side in our bed. Maggie, the cat, will curl up next to us and purr contentedly. I know, almost instinctively, which fir board will creak when I rise in the morning and place my feet on the floor. These four walls are rooted steadfast in our bones. We are home, our home.