If I ever have the chance to take someone on the Tour de Emily--you know what I mean, the trip you take with someone who wants to understand where you came from, to know the landscape of your oldest stories and the scenery of what formed you before they came into your life--I will take him to this house.
We will stand on the sidewalk across the street, and I'll point to it and say something like, "This is the place I remember being happiest as a child." Not the bigger house we moved to next (though that did have a kick ass swing-set my dad and grandfather put together, digging post holes and pouring concrete to give it a stability most of my friends' swing sets lacked); not the house in the country where I walked past grazing deer on my way to the bus in the morning. Nope, this house--this is the place I remember being happiest as a child.
(If my third child had been a boy, I wanted to name her after the street this house was on; that's how much space it occupies in my memory.)
We lived there for maybe nine months when I was five and six years old. I can pinpoint the time period because I remember having my sixth birthday party there. It had a fiesta theme with colorful decorations, and I wore a blue dress with a twirly pleated skirt that made me feel part princess, part ballerina. I believed I was beautiful and loved and destined for incredible things that day. I started kindergarten from that house and launched my love affair with school. I played in the backyard and snuck around the side to drink water straight from the faucet. I don't remember a day I didn't love being there.
The house was small (as you can tell), and my brother with cerebral palsy needed the second bedroom. So my mom tucked a twin bed into a corner of the utility room and called it mine. I fell asleep most nights to the whoosh-whoosh of the washing machine, buried under quilts made by my great-grandmother and her sewing circle of West Texas farm wives. I ran my fingers along the impossibly tiny stitches and traced the triangle patterns, pieces of pie wedged into circles of assorted color and texture. Sometimes I would still be awake when Mom came in to change a load from the washer to the dryer, and when the light flicked on, I would pull the quilt over my face to shield my eyes. While they adjusted to the light, I would peek through the threadbare places at the shape of my mother bending over the machines, moving the contents of one to the other, putting clean clothes into the basket to carry them back to the living room to fold. The first time I saw Harry Potter look through his father's invisibility cloak in The Prisoner of Azkaban, I thought of those nights under my great-grandmother's quilt: ancient quilts have powerful magic, too.
Life was sweet in that house; it felt like all was right with the world. Jonathan was making more progress than anyone expected, and on top of that, he was the happiest kid anyone ever saw. His tiny wheelchairs looked like strollers with polka-dotted or striped seat covers. He wore adorable glasses and his hair had grown in enough to cover the scars from his shunt surgery with fine golden-brown curls. One set of grandparents lived about a mile away, the other set a little closer on a different trajectory, and we were the only grandchildren on either side of the family. They spoiled us rotten.
The size of the house was the only problem. It worked with me in the utility room, but as the number of months we lived there suggests, my mom found out she was pregnant shortly after we moved in. She went on bedrest toward the end, and Jonathan and I were farmed out to grandparents, one of us to each set, for the last couple of months. At a critical moment my parents had an opportunity to buy a bigger house in the same neighborhood, so it was a no-brainer for us to move again. Jonathan and I came back from our grandparents' houses to new rooms in our new house with our new baby brother, and no one had time to notice when I made my way to the laundry room to sit with the machines that were constantly running to keep up with a family of five, two kids in diapers.
Fun fact: I love laundromats. I love them so much that the owner of the one near my sorority house in college spontaneously offered me a job one night. He said, "I can tell how much you like it here, and you seem like a good kid." I politely turned him down because I had a job in the Study Abroad office, but it surprised me that someone else would notice how relaxed and comfortable I felt the minute I walked through the door.
Sometimes I wonder what our lives might have been like if my parents had decided to stay there. I cannot imagine (rather I can imagine all too well) how stressful it must have been for my mother to go from bedrest to C-section recovery to packing up one house and unpacking in a new place while nursing a newborn and not getting any sleep at night. Maybe it would have been better to squeeze in tighter for a while, call in an architect to reconfigure some spaces, bump out some walls, maybe add on a few rooms. After dealing with several extensive remodeling projects myself, I know that wouldn't have been a picnic, either. But I guess my natural inclination is to make the existing situation work instead of replacing it with something new.
A version of that dilemma comes up often when I think of relationships these days. Some relationships have great bones with a lot of options for improvements or expansion. For those, it's worth dealing with the hassle of remodeling to remain connected to the original structure. You might have to call in an expert or two, move stuff around, and deal with some noise and dust in the process, but the end result is something better, more suited to your needs, more comfortable or beautiful or both.
Others can't endure any modification. Sometimes they are limited by external barriers, in the same way houses have to work around geographical features or zoning restrictions. In other cases the internal structure is fundamentally unsound or impractical, completely inadequate and unable to provide necessary support and shelter for the life you want to live. For me, external barriers are less of a problem than internal flaws--at least they are out in the open--but depending on the circumstances, it can make more sense to move on.
Once in a while you recognize right off the bat which is which, but more often the true nature of what you have to work with reveals itself over time, as circumstances change or needs shift. You reach a moment of decision when you look at the other person and have to decide whether to start researching architects or realtors; whether you should make room for scaffolding or a "For Sale" sign.
Not long ago, my relationship with my mother hit that point, and we called in her best friend to help us put up scaffolding and fix it. It is going to take awhile and involve cleaning out every closet and cupboard, getting rid of a bunch of old stuff that doesn't serve us any more, and creating space for things that draw us closer together. But we made a good start, and we're working with good bones.
I'm going to hit publish on this post and then book a flight to go spend time with friends, which is our way of dealing with the external barrier imposed by living in different cities separated by more than 1500 miles. Moving away was a point when we could have moved on, but in this case (and thankfully many others), the internal structure is strong enough to absorb the distance. We expanded instead.
The end of my marriage called for a "For Sale" sign, but my ex-husband and I had this excruciating rock-paper-scissors moment at the tipping point: he wanted architects (therapists) when I wanted a realtor (lawyer). We went to see the therapist just to explore all our options, but the session confirmed what I suspected: internal flaws plus external barriers meant the house couldn't hold us anymore.
I can't think of many other times I've chosen the "For Sale" sign, though. They make me lose my appetite.
When I look around the neighborhood of relationships in my life, I see mostly good ones. A few need a little maintenance; a couple others could use a new fixture here or a new coat of paint there. A lot would benefit from cleaning out some closets, getting rid of those shoes that hurt and the dress that doesn't fit any more. A little organizing across the board is probably a good idea. But it's a nice neighborhood; I feel comfortable and relaxed for the most part. Love and respect form really solid foundations, and anything built on those tends to endure.
I might not ever find a relationship that makes me feel as safe and happy as that little house we lived in when I was five. But if I'm honest, sleeping in the laundry room on a bed shoved in a corner would not work for grown-up Emily, no matter how snug and reassuring it feels in my memory. I don't fit in that space, not physically, not emotionally. The quilt I hid under all those years ago fell apart one small piece at a time; it won't let me pretend to be invisible anymore.
But if I ever get to the stage in a relationship when the Tour de Emily provides scaffolding as the structure expands, the little house will definitely be one of the stops. And if I don't ever get to that stage with someone else, I'll make sure to visit it myself from time to time. Just thinking of it now makes me smile at how little it takes to make me happy. And that's something I can build on.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.