What I remember about houses

In Sharon on September 18, 2009 at 2:56 am

We’re off and rolling now, and I’m ecstatic about the way things are going. I’ve already found at least two places where our memories are different, and countless places where hers fill mine in seamlessly, as though she were carrying around half the story in her brain, and I the other half. That’s not necessarily what I expected, and it’s fascinating to me. I have responses, but first a quick bit of business. We’ve elected to go with first names, so I will go ahead and explain that I am Sharon and my fellow poster is Erin (a revelation that should explain the rhyming names fiasco. Add on to that that we once went to winter formal with guys named Rob and Bob, and that we have simultaneously dated guys named Josh, and you have a real banana-fana-fo-fana mess on your hands.)

And now, to the memories: The main thing that struck me about Erin’s post is the mention of the “perfect murder” question, and the remembrance of the taped mystery plays on the old tape recorder (which was black, and which I think had no microphone. We just had to bend down over it and talk into it – very awkward!). I have plenty of memories of that time, but somehow I never thought to bring it up. And I don’t remember asking about planning the perfect murder, but I’m certain that I asked it. It was something I thought about a lot. I mentioned being a bit macabre, but I don’t think that was the whole of it. I was simply an enormous fan of the mystery genre. My (paternal) grandparents have this bizarre house filled with old things – things on top of things, all over everywhere, big fat Buddha statues next to crucifixes and porcelain kittens – and on a visit to their place I uncovered boxes of old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I moved on from there to Agatha Christie. (In 8th grade history class we were assigned a project to make a diorama (remember those?!) about the life of a famous person who influenced us. This was in the early nineties, when grunge was king, and most of my classmates made boxes for Kurt Cobain. Mine was for Agatha Christie and was filled with old typewriter keys, miniature candlesticks and pistols, and a small train car.)  I also remember vividly a day when another friend, Elliott, and I were standing in the front office of our elementary school, waiting to talk with the secretary.  In the far left corner of the office, we could see this kid from the grade below us – Tyler, I think.  Or maybe Tanner?  It started with a T – talking to his mom on the phone.  He was a bully, although a fairly small one, and was having to call home fairly often.  This time it was because the back of his clothes were caked with playground mud.  We heard him say, “No, mom.  We weren’t fighting.  I was just running and I tripped.”

“I bet he’s lying,” Elliott said.  “He’s always in a fight.”

“He’s lying,” I said.  “If he’d fallen while he was running, the mud would be on the front of his pants, not the back.”

“You should be a detective,” she said.

And so I decided I would be.

So I remember the tape recordings. I especially remember being crouched on our knees in the grass in my backyard, bending over that recorder and taking on different accents to represent various characters. (My specialty was a syrupy-sweet Georgia Peach, an accent drawn from watching Designing Women reruns with my mom. I seem to recall that Erin was always willing to play male characters and drop her voice, something that I found very brave. This connects again to my sense that she was never afraid to be silly or to pick on herself, something it took me ages to be comfortable with.) If I had anything at all to do with the writing, I’m sure that all plots were based around Christie’s And Then There Were None, which I considered the height of artistic achievement. (Despite the general shyness, I was also an extremely opinionated kid, and I shared my views on “art” with anyone who would listen.  And even some people who wouldn’t.)  Those tapes are long lost, but there is another remnant to prove our memories. Summers weren’t the only times Erin spent with us. She also stayed a few days each Christmas, between the time that school let out and when her mom could get a holiday from work. Those visits overlapped with visits from my (maternal) grandparents – called Granny and Pop by everyone, including Erin – and my Pop LOVED his camcorder.  (It was enormous and cost over $1000, if I remember right.  Unbelievable, really.)  He also tended to dote on the only daughter of his only daughter, and when he visited in December he tended to film everything I did.  This included the plotting of advanced and complicated murder mysteries.  So there is some footage somewhere.  I’m hoping to digitize it and share it with Erin; maybe we can liveblog the watching experience!  I haven’t watched the tapes in ages, but I know that one contains a scene wherein I grab a leaf off of the ground and hold it up to the camera for our audience to see that it has been spotted with white paint.  I scream, “It’s been burned!  Maybe it’s from the power plant nearby!”   I don’t know how I jumped from white paint to burned leaf. I don’t know what the power plant had to do with the mystery.  Also, we didn’t really have a power plant nearby.  It was a sewer plant.

And, actually, that brings me to the second point I wanted to make – the point about houses.  It’s interesting to me to realize how much Erin valued the house I grew up in, mostly because I valued it a lot too.  It was an amazing house, but not for any reason I can put my fingers on.  It might have been some magic worked by my mother, who valued that house more than she’s ever valued an object in her life – before or since.  It was her particular domain, and she worked hard to make it exactly what she wanted.  She’s something of a homebody, a powerful constant with a daughter who never stays still.  It took us a long time to understand each other, but I know now that when I look back at that house, I loved it and found it comforting because that’s exactly what she wanted.

That being said, I also want to mention that our house was in a neighborhood that eventually became one of Baton Rouge’s slums.  The Piggly Wiggly down the street was broken into on a routine basis; our cousin who lived a block away once had gunshots fired in her garage in the middle of the night.  There was a sewer  plant three blocks away.  This was not a serene place, particularly in the early- to mid-nineties.  The house was magical, and at the time we didn’t understand what was happening to the neighborhood, so we didn’t know.  We didn’t care.  We reveled in that house, in the backyard with the deck that my Pop (the abovementioned video director) built for us.

Once we were teenagers, though, Erin was the one with the magical house.  My family moved (reluctantly) into a new neighborhood near the university where my dad is employed.  Around the same time, Erin’s family left their highway-side home for a comfy wooden Acadian (so Louisiana!) with an enormous porch like something out of a film with dueling Cajun banjos.  Each bathroom had a different colored toilet, and the upstairs that she and her brother shared was enormous.  She had a real brick chimney jutting through her room, and her artistic mother let her paint song lyrics on her walls.  Our new house had no magic.  My mom’s spirit had sustained the old one, turned it from something ordinary into something orderly and comfortable.  She hated the new house, hated that she’d been driven out of her domain, and we never really grew comfortable.  I miss home often, but I NEVER miss that house.

And there’s something about the politics of childhood mixed into all of this too.  Important but unstated in both of our stories is the fact that one of our mothers worked and the other didn’t.  This situation formed a lot of things around us, but I don’t think we ever really realized how much.  Added onto this is the fact that we were the poorest kids in our grade.  We went to a private school that housed the children of high-dollar locals (although not the HIGHEST dollar), and I think on some level we had to have known that.   And sometimes I wonder if that’s another reason we banded together.  Neither of us was destitute by any means.  We had all our needs provided for, and several additional comforts.  But there were notable differences.  Her family drove an aging minivan.  Mine drove a Chevrolet Caprice donated by my grandparents. Our compatriots at school often slipped home in Mercedes.  (The only exception I remember to this was a girl whose grandfather picked her up everyday in an El Camino.  Somehow, though, it never registered with me that she fit in with us.  Her parents were missionaries/preachers and thus part of the school’s royalty.)

When I spent the night at Erin’s house, it was a different home, different atmosphere, different food.  But one thing was distinctly the same: things were never fancy.  The year before I met Erin, my two best friends at school were the daughter of an oil-company executive and a divorce attorney.  When I ate dinner at their houses, we ate at dining tables in a room reserved strictly for eating.  When I ate at Erin’s, we ate marshmallows out of a bag and bon bons out of the freezer, singing the jingle (“The thing about a bon-bon, it’s almost always gone-gone!”) and jumping around, never fearing that we might break or smudge anything.  When her parents made us dinner or breakfast, we ate it at a table in the kitchen, just like we would at my house – a table where we could be watched over and talked to while the cooking was going on.  (I also seem to remember her dad cooking for us fairly often, something that was new to me in my fairly gender-traditional house.  My dad only makes eggs and peanut butter toast, although I think this has more to do with his “absent-minded scientist” demeanor than his gender.)  Childhood involves a lot of socioeconomic politics that we just can’t grasp until too far in the future for the outcry to be relevant.  So we may have been divided by the politics of working/non-working mothers, but we were thrown together by economics.


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