I drive past the house where I grew up and spot a yard sale sign stuck in the front lawn. The house had been renovated and I’m curious to see it. This is my chance.
The woman who owned the house gives me a polite smile as I walk up the driveway. “I grew up in this house,” I say as I introduce myself. “Do you think I could just peek inside to see what you’ve done?”
Her smile turns genuine and she answers without hesitation, “Sure, I’ll give you the grand tour.”
We head to the back yard first. An above-ground pool and a playhouse take up most of the yard. There is no room for the kickball games, statues and freeze tag that every neighborhood kid played there on long summer nights when we were young. The cherry trees and pear tree that acted as bases are gone. “We had to cut them down after that ice storm last October,” she said when I asked. They were old even then; the pear tree produced small, rock-hard green pears that my brothers would pelt each other with.
At the side door, I walk up the three steps of the hallway into the kitchen and enter an alternate reality. Shiny stainless appliances and gleaming granite counters replace the worn yellow linoleum and white Formica counters where we baked hundreds of batches of Yummy Bars and Scotcheroos for bake sales and a dozen kind of cookies at Christmas.
A cozy breakfast nook with two stools replaced the huge table where we’d eaten every meal under the authentic wagon wheel-turned-chandelier — part of my mother’s “Early Pioneer” decor. “The wagon wheel’s gone,” she smiled, “It was one of the only things your parents wanted from the house.”
In the family room, I share some of my memories. My brother shattered the picture window when the “Clackers” he was playing with flew from his hand. “Clackers,” were colorful hard plastic balls attached to a string that you bonked together for some unexplained reason. They were recalled soon after as a dangerous toy -— too many broken windows, I guess.
In the five minutes that no one was watching, my two-year-old sister had fallen from the window seat, after pushing out the screen, and tumbled to the concrete patio 5 feet below. My parents were already at the hospital with my younger brother, who was having his tonsils removed. She suffered a concussion and was wacky for awhile, seeing nightmarish visions of bugs in the pink-flowered wallpaper of our bedroom.
Children’s books now sat on the shelf that had held sports trophies and my mother’s prized Hummel figurines — every one of them was broken and glued back together.
In the living room, I admire the glossy hardwood floors that replaced the gold wall-to-wall carpeting. “We were thrilled when we peeled back the carpet and discovered hardwood floors underneath,” she said.
Instead of the piano and my brother’s drum set, the sunroom is filled with intricate Lego villages and other works in progress. “We have a boy and a girl, seven and nine,” she said. “Sorry about the mess.” Her children are younger than my son and my nieces and nephews, who are all teenagers or college students.
But there, in the living room is my piano, the one I’d taken when, at the age of 23, I declared my independence and lived in a tiny apartment with a queen-sized bed, a couch and my stereo. Just before I left the area, I’d moved the piano back to my parents’ house.
When I ask if anyone plays it, she shakes her head. “Not yet, but I’m hoping one of the kids will take lessons when they get older.”
I hope so too.
As I walk through the house, every sparkling surface and tasteful painting has a double image of what used to be there. Like looking at the rooms through the lens of adulthood, remembering how it appeared to my child-self. The home that had held my family of 11 had been transformed into someone else’s vision of childhood, so different from what ours had been. It was filled with things — beautiful things, but still, objects. When we lived there, it had been stuffed with kids.
On the second floor, the boy inhabits what used to be our sewing room. I want to ask the woman how she’d gotten rid of the smell of the Frenchman who had lived in that room for six months when I was a teenager. He didn’t shower very often and had a peculiar fondness for an olive-green sweater that he wore constantly and didn’t wash nearly enough. That was probably a memory she didn’t need to know about.
We enter their beautiful master bedroom with its lilac walls and Oriental rug; here the transformation is striking. “It had deep red wallpaper with some kind of velvet texture,” she recalls, “And there was a big cross over the bed. My first thought when I saw it was, ‘Oh my God, this is where Jesus died!’”
The master bath has ivory marble surfaces, a Jacuzzi and a glass-walled shower big enough for their entire family. Growing up, that crimson-walled bathroom contained the only working shower — for six girls. In order to guarantee a hot shower, uninterrupted by a load of laundry, I had to get up very early. The door didn’t lock; you had to pull the drawer open in front of the door to keep everyone out.
The third floor attic is unrecognizable. When we lived there, it had an old rusty window fan that blew summer-hot air, heating the area to a temperature fiery enough to bake cookies. My defiant older sister had taken over the space, choosing privacy over climate control. She decorated its putty-gray walls with Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath posters, hung upside-down, and scrawled the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” in neon paint. It was freezing in the winter, prompting my father to mutter, “More like stairs to the icebox.”
Now there is air-conditioning, thick beige carpeting and American Girl dolls, Skylanders and a Wii — a room fit for the young prince and princess who play here.
Back downstairs, the tour is over. “We feel so blessed to be here,” my gracious hostess said. “I told my husband I’m never leaving. Please tell your parents how much we love it.”
I thank her and leave, eager to be outside, away from the renovated remembrances, back into my own future.
My memories don’t live in this house anymore but in my imagination, a place far beyond the tree-lined street. I think of how happy we’d been living there, amid the chaos and laughter. All that love lived on in the brick-enclosed walls. The old house’s heart still beat strong for this new young family, just as it had for mine.