July 2013

You can't go home again

By Gail Binkly

It isn’t much of a house, by today’s standards. Built in the 1940s, it is one of many homes in a modest neighborhood, all of them similar: tiny kitchen, three small bedrooms, one teensy bath.

But it stands out in my mind, because my sister and I grew up there. For more than 50 years, it was our home, and then our sanctuary.

The minuscule closets held our clothes, many of which were sewn by our mother, who also taught school full-time and cooked all our meals. Our dad rose before dawn to set out on his route as a letter-carrier. We were barely clinging to the bottom rung of the middle class, but to my parents’ credit, we didn’t realize it at the time.

We had a grassy lawn with a number of trees and shrubs, behind which we hid on summer nights while playing hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids. My father, who was just a big kid himself, developed an alternative game called “gorilla” in which he (the gorilla) concealed himself in our back yard. One by one, we had to leave the front yard, which was illuminated by streetlights, and timidly venture into the blackness of the back, trying to make a trembling circuit all the way around the building before the “gorilla” could catch us. There was a lot of enjoyable screaming when the gorilla burst out from his hiding place to chase each terrified victim.

When we were finally exhausted, we’d flop on the cool grass and look at the stars (you could still see them in those days in Colorado Springs) and Mother would bring us popsicles – the home-made kind, Kool-Aid frozen in little plastic molds.

The house has no basement, only an unfinished crawl space. In one corner is a large, deep hole that raised eyebrows when the place was inspected recently. “Thirty-six glass jugs filled with an unknown liquid,” the inspector reported finding in the hole.

But for anyone who lived through the fearful ’50s, there was nothing mysterious about a dug-out area filled with water bottles. It was to be a bomb shelter. I have dim memories of watching my dad wielding a jackhammer down there in the dusty cool. I’m not sure how long he thought the four of us could last in the crawl space with our water bottles. Certainly it wouldn’t have been long enough for the world to detoxify in the case of a nuclear detonation. But Dad thought he was doing the right thing, protecting his family from the Russians.

In one corner of the back yard, under a shrub, is where we held meetings of the “Panther Club” when we were small. The club consisted only of Rhonda and me and one friend, and I don’t think we actually did anything but hide under the shrub, but it was nice to be part of a secret organization. Unaware of the real Black Panthers, who could not possibly have been as cool as we were anyway, I hand-stitched masks of black velvet with elastic straps for us to wear during any ceremonies we might need to perform.

Rhonda’s bedroom faced the back yard, and as a rebellious teenager, she used to slide her window upward and sneak out on summer nights to visit a “foosball parlor” a mile away. Once, she fell into a big mud hole while crossing a field coming home. Not wanting to raise questions by putting the mud-covered clothes in the laundry, she stuffed them into a corner of her closet and forgot about them. They were discovered a year later, stiff and moldy, by our horrified mother.

Rhonda’s bedroom door got a good workout in her teen years, as it was slammed frequently – whenever my parents told her, “You’re not going to school in that outfit!” In those days we wore our bellbottoms long and our skirts short, and we were always trying to make them one inch longer or two inches shorter.

I didn’t slam my own door much, but I kept it closed in order to carve out a little solitude so I could read. When that didn’t work, I’d sit on the floor in the bathroom, nose buried in a book. When someone yelled for me to come help with the housework, I’d shout, “I’m in the bathroom!”

Our home was modestly furnished. For years we used a coffee table with legs that screwed off, fashioned by my dad in a highschool shop class. When I was 14, my parents decided we could afford new bedroom curtains with matching bedspreads, to be sewn by a woman on Dad’s mail route. I got to go first. I selected fabric with big aquaand- turquoise flowers in a typical ’60s style. A couple of months later, my new curtains were delivered. They looked beautiful, and I eagerly awaited the matching bedspread.

A year went by. Then another.

I occasionally asked my dad, “When is Emma going to finish the bedspread?”, but he had no answer. Needless to say, everyone else in the family soon made other arrangements for decorating their rooms.

I graduated from high school, then college, then graduate school. I got my own apartment. By then Mother had taken over my old room and put up translucent blinds.

Twenty years after I’d left home, long after the turquoise draperies had gone to curtain heaven, Emma delivered the bedspread. I brought it to Cortez, where it served us for years. But to this day I have never had drapes that matched my bedspread.

After Rhonda and I both married, my parents remained in the house. It was a nice size for them. And there was always a spare room for us when we came to visit.

When my father died, the house became Mother’s alone. Driving the seven-hour route from Cortez, I always knew when I pulled up in front, there would be a welcoming light shining from the living room. Mother would be in her favorite chair, New York Times crossword in hand, my sister at her side, watching TV. There would be warmth and laughter, and a sense of being in a safe haven, far removed from the storms of the outside world.

After she died, neither Rhonda nor I had the heart to tackle the task of sorting through furniture, possessions, memorabilia. We just hung on to the house. But it wasn’t finished being a sanctuary. A friend of ours, fleeing a bad marriage and an emotional crisis, needed a place to stay, and there it was, waiting for her. We were glad the house was occupied again.

When she left, we knew we had to get on with cleaning it out, but even then we lacked the initiative until our uncle drove all the way from California to help us.

Finally, on April 29 of this year, we sold it. Not without some tears, of course, but with a sense that it was time for new people to fill it with their own experiences. It seemed apt that the young couple both work in education.

Can a house hold the impressions of the lives that have been lived there? Can floors and walls and a yard be infused with memories? In movies, houses seem to be haunted only by tragic ghosts and horrible spirits. If that’s the case, ours is sterile.

But if a home can retain echoes of ordinary people – sometimes happy, sometimes angry or sad – then the new couple may some day hear the faint sounds of a bedroom door slamming, a window sliding open in the night, or someone yelling, “Gail! Are you ever coming out of there?”

Gail Binkly is a writer in Cortez, Colo.