I lived in the same house from the time I was seven years old until I was 35. That is, except for a year and a half in high school when we were upstate (and even then we came “home” on weekends), four years away in college and three years away in law school. I was a regular homing pigeon who found work in my hometown and always returned to the familiarity of my parents’ residence until I started a new job in New England and moved to a ratty apartment in Connecticut.
It’s been twenty years since I last turned into the driveway of the old home place, but I can still close my eyes, climb the front steps and mentally tour every room. There’s the entryway that we called “the landing” and the seven steps up to where we did most of our living and the seven steps down to the family room, the spare bedroom, the laundry room and the steel-paneled door to the garage. Even blindfolded, I could find the slatted door to the boiler room and the closet where we kept the vacuum cleaner and my mother’s mink coat and the sliding glass doors out to the deck and the little storage closet under the stairs that always smelled like mothballs and the alcove occupied by the rake and the spade and the lawn sprinkler.
My mother claims that she could return to the New York City neighborhood where she grew up and would still be able to navigate every nook and cranny for many blocks around her old apartment building, which still stands at the corner of Grand Avenue and West 181st Street. She ran those streets with her girlfriends all through junior high and high school. Some things, she says, you never forget.
For years, I’ve heard people say “it’s like riding a bicycle, it comes right back to you” to refer to something you haven’t done for a long time but mentally know like the back of your hand. Does this apply to places as well as to actions?
By sharp contrast to my childhood and young adulthood, since my wife and I have been married we have moved around a bit. We have hopscotched about this wonderful map of California and, a month ago, moved to our fourth residence.
I have long believed that we can get used to almost anything. Whatever surroundings we find ourselves in, they soon take on the aura of the familiar. The litmus test, however, is when you wake up in the middle of the night in a darkened room. For a split second, you wonder where you are. For just that moment, hanging in the interstices between sleep and wakefulness, I might be back in Massachusetts, out in the desert, in the north end of Fresno or even, depending on the depth of the dream from which I am just emerging, in my childhood bedroom on Rockland Parkway, one house from the corner of Alexander Avenue.
And when I haul myself out of bed and attempt to navigate my way to the bathroom, chances are good that I’ll bang my thigh or my hand against one of the pieces of furniture I encounter on my route. I am improving in this regard; after more than four weeks here, I pretty much have the lay of the land down. But not like the back of my hand, not like riding a bicycle (something, incidentally, that I never learned to do). I still have to think about it for a moment, particularly when I’m not wearing my specs and I’m still clearing the cobwebs out of my brain.
Now that I’ve come close to reaching a comfortable level of familiarity, my wife decided to rearrange our bedroom today. The new layout is much more functional and I love the way it looks. But in the deepest recesses of the night, I know I will once again experience that slight moment of confusion before I remember just how this tune goes.
I know it’ll be a while until my surroundings become second nature to me and I am truly able to call the parsonage home. Until then, don’t be scared of things that go bump in the night.
More than likely, it will just be me.