Sunday, January 27, 2013

And the heart of my world was that house

Everything started at 2315; in the beginning, that was the whole of my world. I toddled the yard, played in the mud, spent summer mornings in my little-kid squat out on the hot sidewalk, watching the ants march past on their busy to-and-fro.

When the dog lady walked by with her boxers, I flew down our hill to greet her and to pet her dogs, despite Guv warning, "Stay away!" He had a fear of dogs that he could not shake, but those gentle giant boxers, and their owner, endured my embrace.

As I grew, my world grew. Fourth Street stretched to the eastern horizon; I did not go west toward busy 21st Avenue; there was nothing to lure me in that direction, but I wandered two blocks east to Longview Skating Rink, and, as my legs grew stronger, all the way to Holy Rosary Cathedral five blocks down. My expeditions were in imitation of Guv, who took nightly walks through the neighborhood.

The first time I walked all the way to Holy Rosary, I was astounded at my achievement, trudging past strange houses, cars whizzing past me on the busy street. The Cathedral was an end point, not a true destination; it did not occur to me to go inside, just to stare up at its mysterious holy vastness and broad concrete steps, then turn and trudge the five blocks home again.

"Guess how far I went!" I bragged to my sister, who said, scornfully, "That's not far." But it was far; to me, it was a crack in the earth, a hole in the universe, the beginning of my famous wanderings. 

New paths beckoned, paths that I eventually followed--winding Vermilion Road; leafy, quiet Fifth Street, lined with mansions; modest Third Street, with its dead end at the steep ravine.

I developed a bad habit of following people and going into their houses with them. I wandered off to Old Main, picking flowers and forgetting to come home. Late, dirty, with a damp fistful of drooping buttercups, I was punished for not telling anyone when I left. I was made to sit on the bench, that humiliating form of the Hertzel Family Pillory, little brothers dancing in front of me, mocking me in my shame, but the punishment raised a riddle: How could I tell someone where I was going when I had no idea where my feet were going to take me?

The authorities were unmoved.

Trish released me from the bench so that I could have my lunch; the bowl was overfull and as I tried to carry it to the table, the soup sloshed over my fingers, burned my hands, I dropped the bowl, burst into tears, and went back to the bench without being told.

One autumn, Ledhead's sister and I went Trick-or-Treating for Unicef, a project of her Sunday school. I had told her earnestly that we didn't go to church; Guv had been raised Catholic, but he had decided that it was a waste of time, and our Sundays were just like our Saturdays, though with better comics and the dread of school one day closer.

And so she and I went door to door along Third Street, ringing the bells of the bungalows, asking for money. At each one, Ledhead's sister felt the need to explain matters, announcing, "Trick or Treat for Unicef, I'm doing this for my church, this is my friend, she doesn't go to church because her father thinks it's a waste of time."

And the nice women clucked in sympathy, and one took me by the chin and made me promise that when I got older I would go to church, and I squirmed and said the magic word that caused her to release my face: "Ok," and even as I said it I wondered if this could possibly be a promise that anyone would expect me to keep.

We worked our way down Third Street, growing closer and closer to the Allens' house, and the thought of Mr. Allen, so tall and kind and handsome, hearing about my heathen ways began to eat away at me, worry me, make me fear that he would no longer smile at me, maybe forbid me from playing Barbies with his blonde daughter, Sarah.

We reached their house, Ledhead's sister mounted the steps, and I broke into a run. Through the Allen's Woods, that little patch of trees in their side yard, straight up the steep hill of Pilgrim Congregational Church, where we sledded in the winter and played kickball in the summer, across Fourth Street to my front porch.

That welcoming, weathered gray porch, with its white trim and its red front step, and through that balky heavy front door, into that noisy, crowded house, loud with piano music and shouting and laughter and siblings, that place where everyone knew me, still then my sanctuary, still then the place that had to take me in.


Dee said...

Long time reader, first time commenting (I think0. I love to read your writings.

laurie said...


rna said...

I can remember the sound of the doorbell when I read this, and how wide the boundaries of that small neighborhood seemed then.

Far Side of Fifty said...

How wonderful and exciting to explore all on your own. How wonderful that you felt safe at home:)

Pondside said...

That was so good, Laurie. I'm so glad I saw this.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Adore an essay that comes full circle.
I got in trouble when I was about 4 years old--I attached myself to our mailman and evidently followed him for BLOCKS.

Sandy said...

I grew up in a "walkable" neighborhood, also. It did not occur to me till many years later that the moms called when we left one house and when we got to the other...and we NEVER took the shortcut 'cause it was scary!

Deborah said...

How funny that your friend felt the need to announce your church situation to everyone along the trick-or-treat route. Such great memories!

Odette said...

a walk through your childhood...nice to have a glimpse of it.

Meganne Fabrega said...

You perfectly captured the exhilarating/frightening feelings of one's first forays into the world! Love the photo.

Naperville Now said...

from one wanderer to another...glad we are safe all these years later.