I dream of the house on Woodford Street from time to time. It’s my home base. Always where the homing beacon of my heart points me.
This was where my brother, Ken, and I were raised, in the city with the university, the Mercantile, and the Rose Garden. This is where we went to school, played with the neighbor kids, came of age, skinned our knees and bruised our hearts.
This house was the gathering place of all our relatives––aunts, uncles, cousins, greats and seconds. And even wayward parents. They always gathered at Gramma and Grampa’s house.
We had a little playhouse in the backyard, behind the white craftsman house with the maple trees in front.
I don’t know where my grandparents got that playhouse. It just seemed to appear one day, plunked down in a sweet spot beyond the apple tree.
The little playhouse was about as big as a walk-in closet, I suppose, say, ten feet by ten feet, yellow with white trim.
I was over the moon! This is where I would play house with my friends, wear rummage sale dresses, and pretend to be all grown up…with the world at my feet.
My grandmother stocked the playhouse with dresses and shoes, hats and gloves, the finest in rummage sale treasures she could purchase for 25 cents or less.
Among the fashion she brought to the playhouse were the most beautiful, most elegant and sublime pair of shoes my eyes had ever seen, before or since: alligator pumps.
They didn’t fit me, of course. But I coveted them. I stuffed them with tissue and clomped around in them, awkward and determined, waiting for the day my feet would grow into my dreams.
In the meantime, being a kid in my grandparents’ world was pretty sweet. We had the best backyard, by far, of anyone on the block. Of anyone we knew in the whole wide world, in fact.
And the playhouse wasn’t the only attraction. We also had the following, which pretty much made Ken and me rock stars:
The Swing Set. Our swing set was welded together from one of Gramma’s bright ideas and scavenged pipes. Grampa made it for us with seven silver pipes, some rope, and two wooden slabs for seats. If we swung high enough and hard enough, and pumped our skinny little legs with all our might, Ken and I could almost tip the whole thing over.
The Fire Pit. Grampa took a huge, 6-foot tractor tire, laid it on its side, filled the middle with sand, and voila! we had an outdoor hotdog- and marshmallow-roasting pit. The ingenious part of this contraption was its convenient seating arrangement. We could sit on the rubber rim of the tire and cook our dinner over red-hot coals, just like real campers. Ken and I would sit in a circle with our Grampa and eat wieners right off the stick, like the favored children we knew ourselves to be.The fire was only a few feet from our tennis-shoed feet, though, so we had to be smart––aware of danger. We were expected to come out of our childhoods unscathed.
The Ice Skating Rink. One particular winter, when I saw the Olympics on TV, I decided I wanted to be a skater. We’d trot off to the local skating pond once in awhile, with our rummage sale ice skates, and scrape around the ice as best we could. But…if I could have a rink in our backyard, I could really teach myself to skate, and I could get my Girl Scout ice skating badge.
So, my Grampa built an ice skating rink for me, under the apple tree. All it took was a giant piece a plastic, the garden hose, and a consistent outside temperature of 32 degrees or less. This being Western Montana in the winter, freezing water was no problem.
Two things about ice skating they should tell you before you strap on the 3/16-inch blades:
- Your coccyx is very fragile.
- Hot chocolate should never be sucked through a straw. That little flat thing with the red stripe? It’s a stir stick.
I did get my ice skating badge from the Girls Scouts, but I lied to get it. On my own, I couldn’t master the Backward Figure 8.
But I digress. The other extraordinary thing we had at our house, which other kids didn’t, was “the sweet piece.” Gramma was always baking something: apple pie with fruit from our own tree, rhubarb crisp with bitter rhubarb from the garden made sweet and juicy. And cinnamon rolls. Oh my God, the cinnamon rolls!
Gramma also baked bread. She was a baker without a recipe. She’d haul out this big Rubbermaid tub and toss in flour and eggs, sugar and yeast, each in its own turn and heft—a pinch here and a handful there. Measuring cups were for amateurs. She was a one-woman bread machine, kneading and punching, shaping and panning.
When the dough was ready, she’d slice off little slabs, flatten them into fat pancakes, and toss them in hot grease. We’d spread on butter in generous amounts and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top. I later came to realize this was called Indian Fry Bread. But I thought Gramma invented it, like she invented everything that was good and sweet and lasting.
(She invented the wedge salad, by the way. She’d quarter a head of lettuce with a butcher knife and spread on a pile of Miracle Whip. It was the Best. Salad. Ever.)
Gramma had other things that all the other grownups also had: choice and knowledge. They could do whatever they wanted, and they knew everything. Being a grownup was going to be awesome.
But the day that my feet grew into those alligator pumps never came. By the time I became a grownup myself, I had long since relegated the little yellow playhouse and all its treasures to sweet and trivial memories.
I had bigger shoes to fill. I had a bigger life to lead, far from Missoula, Montana and the white house with green trim.
But it seems as though I chased the perfect-fitting alligator pumps all my life.
I rarely felt right. In an ironic twist from my neighborhood rock star days, I began to see myself as less-than. It was as though, in the real world, being raised without parents was a grave shortcoming on my part. I carried on my back the secret knowledge that my parents had abandoned me, and that I was irreparably flawed.
If Gramma was a baker without a recipe, then I was a woman without operating instructions, trying to master the Backward Figure 8.
I clomped through my adult life with a naïve recklessness: ill-fitting and uncertain of my place in the world, but also optimistic, with the certainty of that kid who pushed the limits of the swing set, that nothing really bad would ever happen to me.
Bad things did happen, of course. People died. Lovers came and went. Babies weren’t born. Of my marriage, nothing good survived.
But I didn’t see the cumulative wreckage until I was much older. My feet had been too close to the fire for far too long. I had been running on hope, optimism, and an unreasonable amount of booze…
…until it was too late for anything but amends.
Through those amends, I sought to right what I’d made wrong, forgive the wrongs done to me, and seek the shape of my most authentic self. I wouldn’t be defined by my mistakes, or by the mistakes of my parents.
I let go of a life that never properly fit, and found the turn and heft of my own heart…
…one awkward, determined step at a time.
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