Things That Go Bump in the Night

Photo courtesy Google Maps (Street View)

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.


NaBloPoMo November 2013

In My Father’s House



My father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  John 14:2 (NIV)

I began writing this blog six months ago.  In that short time, I have attended three family funerals.

The third funeral was for my wife’s cousin, who passed away unexpectedly in his early forties after suffering from many medical problems for most of his life.  The service was held on Saturday morning in a rented hall.  We made the eight-hour drive on Friday and stayed over with my parents, who live about half an hour away.

My golden-voiced nephew sang two songs, the deceased’s sister gave a moving eulogy and we all leafed through a memory book full of pictures and poems.  The preacher’s message began with the above verse from the New Testament, emphasizing not only that Ricky had gone to a much better place than we can ever hope for on earth, but also that he had gone on ahead to prepare a place for us in advance of the day when it is our turn to join him.

We unfolded tables and chairs, and we shared sandwiches and macaroni salad while we reconnected with family and friends.  We caught up on the lives of children and grandchildren and we found out who’s getting married, who’s sick, who lost their job.  Cell phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, Facebook friend requests were made.  My immediate family drove over to see my parents; dinner plans were finalized.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in one of the several usually empty bedrooms in my parents’ house.  It took me a minute to remember where I was.  I did not grow up here; my parents lived in New York for most of their lives and had this house built when they retired to California two decades ago.  The house sits in a development many miles to the west of town, bordering the rangeland where the cattle munch hay contentedly and the waving grass extending as far as the eye can see reminds one of Kansas or Texas.  If I listen closely, I will hear a horse neighing or a rooster crowing or one of the bulls next door mooing.  In the evenings, my parents drag folding chairs out of the garage and sit in the driveway, enjoying the cool breezes and the nightly star show.

I haul myself out of bed and pad around on the pink and blue carpeting.  I walk from room to room, stepping on the throw rugs in the living room and family room and on the marble flooring in the entryway and the tile floor in the kitchen.  I sit down on the love seat, on my father’s overstuffed chair, on the straight-backed oak chair over by the wood stove that is never used anymore.  I look over the wall hangings — the framed sheep and horse prints, my mother’s oil paintings and her shell mosaic, my parents’ college and graduate school diplomas.

I once lived here for nine months.  It was not a happy time of my life.  I had just moved back to California following a short stint in New England, and I couldn’t find a job.  As if being out of work and broke wasn’t bad enough, I got sick.  And we had one of the worst winters the Central Valley had seen in years, with torrential rain and widespread flooding.  Then I found work two counties away and started commuting 3½ hours a day.

No, I do not have good memories of this house.  Could I ever live here again?  My parents will be 80 years old in just a few months.  We already have a big party planned for my father’s birthday.  How much longer will they be able to live here?  My parents have 2½ acres of grass and trees that have to be mowed and watered.  They are forever planting something or pulling something up.  They take the pickup to town and come back with loads of bricks, lumber, potting soil, fertilizer.  When the weather turns cold or rainy, my mother can be found working on one of her two sewing machines or sitting on the couch knitting, always with the radio on, tuned to her news and politically conservative talk shows.  My father will be in the office, looking at old cars on the internet or watching BBC productions on the little TV with the sound up loud.

My father has recurring growths on his now nearly bald head; he keeps having them removed.  Now he’s got one on his leg that needs to be treated.  He claims he can still mow the whole property as long as he has a cold beer afterward.  I can’t fault my parents for living the life of their choice, but I can see that this can’t go on forever.

Sometimes, late at night, my wife and I will start talking about what we can do to help our aging parents.  When we leave the desert this fall, we will be moving in with my mother-in-law.  But what of my parents out in the country?  A funeral makes one think about things that are normally banished from our minds.  What if one of my parents dies in the next few years, moving on to prepare a place for us in the better world to come?  Surely we can’t leave the other parent alone.  Would we ever considering living there, out in the middle of nowhere?  That house and property is too much work for two people, much less for one.  Would the house be sold, the surviving parent coming to live with us up north?

I think of these things as I move about in the stillness of the night, the familiar and the unfamiliar merging and separating as we stand on the cusp and peer over the edge.

My father’s house has many rooms.