I live less than a mile away from my childhood home. It would take me about three minutes to get in my car and drive to my old street. On a nice day, I can walk there in less than fifteen.
I moved back to my hometown ten years ago. I didn’t see our new house until the day I moved into it. My wife, Cyndi, and I were living in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania with our son, Frederic. He was 10 months old at the time. Cyndi was charged with the task of finding a new home for us when the company I worked for no longer needed me in Pennsylvania. Since Cyndi and I grew up a quarter mile away from each other, she focused most of her attention in familiar territory. I resolved that, if she were happy with the house we bought, I would be too. Luckily, she can see beyond blue and white laminate floors, and carpet in the kitchen which would be replaced by hardwood floors throughout; a small home with potential to help raise a family.
I pass by my childhood home on a regular basis. The main street that leads to the subdivision is four lanes now. My brothers and I used to spend the afternoon sitting on our bikes yelling at cars as they drove by. “Honk your horns!” We’d take turns, and whoever was lucky enough to get a response received a point. Semi-trucks were a bonus of two. People were happy to comply with our request back then more frequently than I suspect they would today. There were no cell phones to contend with in 1981.
We lived in a circle of five homes back then, and every house had at least one child of similar age to the rest of the kids. There were 11 children just in our small radius: five boys, six girls. I can still remember mostly everyone’s names: Randy, Sharon, Lisa, Toni, Nicole. And, of course, the Fosco Boys: Darrell, Ira, and myself—Cory.
We spent so much time together—it was rare when a day went by that we didn’t find something to do. Kickball, softball, volleyball, dodgeball. Any sport with a ball, really. Before houses were built in the field behind the Harmon’s, we swam in the pools of dirty water that would form after it rained. This was something we did without our parent’s consent or knowledge. There were a lot of things we did that they didn’t know about then, but might now.
Several years ago, I wanted to see the inside of the house that built me. I wrote a letter addressed to the family who bought the home from my parents just after their divorce. When the couple bought the home, they were newly married and had just given birth to their first child, a boy. By the time they received my letter, that baby was a freshman in college—just like I was when I left. I wondered which of my ghosts haunted and comforted him in the years of his youth.
The family invited me to tour their home. I was nervous when I pulled up in the drive. My wife took my hand and told me to breathe deeply. The house looked the same, save for a plethora of nicely trimmed evergreens my father never had the time or talent to tend. I walked around the side of the house and noticed the fence was missing. In fact, all of the carpentry we finished as a family was gone. The unsteady wood deck off the back patio, the particleboard tool shed: both replaced by sturdy craftsmanship. My father was never a skilled carpenter, but he refused to hire a professional when he could do a job himself.
“I don’t like throwing away good money,” he would say. “Besides, a little hard work won’t kill you.” I’m the total opposite.
I did like the reward at the end of each day. My father would pop open a Stroh’s and take a long pull from the cold beige can. “Don’t tell your mother,” he would say, as he passed the can to me. He didn’t really care what my mother thought, I knew that, but I kept the secret to myself, as instructed. Cold beer has never tasted so bad and so good since.
When I finally had enough courage to ring the doorbell, the entire family greeted us—three children, like we were, but a different combination: one boy and two girls. They seemed genuinely happy to see us. I wondered how many times over the years we opened the door to guests with as much enthusiasm. Most often, my mom was still getting ready and my dad was in the basement picking out the right jazz 8-tracks to play based on the occasion we were celebrating. The welcome party would have been one of my brothers or me as we worked hard at keeping our dogs—a black Lab named Baron, and a Bichon Frise named Suzy—at bay from mauling our guests.
I stepped into the foyer and was immediately faced with my past. The furniture and décor were different, but the layout of the home was the same. I hadn’t yet walked into the kitchen to see the major renovation and expansion project the family had completed, but as I looked into the living room/dining room combo, I was sure I saw my former self waving me over to sit on our old brown sectional couch to watch a movie on the five foot projection TV we once had.
I continued into the room and longed for the silver foil wallpaper. I looked down and expected to see brown patterned carpet with occasional stains from accidental spills and paint splatter. I wanted to see the dining room table where we were only allowed to eat at for holiday meals or when company was over. None of that was there and I felt crushed.
I knew the family had made this house their own—why wouldn’t they?—but I couldn’t help but wonder why their union survived longer than ours had. It was the same house, I reasoned. The same five bedrooms, the same three-and-a-half bathrooms, the same fully finished basement complete with a pool table, a custom oak front and back bar, parquet dance floor and strobe lights, brick fireplace. These are the things that defined who I was, and they were all gone.
As the family let me tour their house memories flooded my mind.
“See that spot over there?” I said. “That’s where my grandmother chased me, trying to get me to drink pickle juice.” I got a big laugh out of that one.
“Over there,” I said, pointing to a spot on the ceiling I was sure was still there. “My brothers and I threw Snap Pops in the house one day.” The mom looked confused. “You know, those little white things kids throw on the ground on the Fourth of July.”
“Oh, those,” she said. “Yeah, the kids used to love them.”
“Us too,” I said. “So much so that we wanted to see what would happen if we threw them up at the ceiling.” The father looked up and stared closely at the spot, as if he was making sure there wasn’t any lingering damage that existed all these years. I’m sure he made a mental note to grab a ladder after we left, to inspect the situation close-up.
“Let me tell you,” I said. “They leave a spot alright. My father noticed it right away when he came home from work. He didn’t ask us where the spot came from. He immediately assumed that our house was struck by lightning.”
“Didn’t you tell him?” the son asked, looking at his parents with disbelief.
“No way,” I said. “We would have gotten in too much trouble. We just let him believe the house was hit in a bad storm.”
I sensed the boy was uneasy with my answer. Maybe his parents raised him better. Maybe they taught him to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. Maybe his parents ruled with their words rather than their fists. Maybe the house was different.
My father used to tell people the lightening story all the time. He almost was proud of the fact that we were hit, but no major damage occurred; like we dodged a bullet shot at us by Mother Nature.
As we walked through the bedrooms and the rest of the house, I chose to share some memories, and others I kept private. I told them a funny tale about a shaving mishap in “the boy’s bathroom”, where—at nine-years-old—I cut my face so badly I ruined one of my mother’s new bath towels. I didn’t tell them about the time I watched my parents argue at the kitchen table and my father got so angry that he picked up his dinner plate and slammed it on the floor. Shards of ceramic and pieces of chicken flew in every direction.
I shared additional stories about my grandmother who used to stay with us for several days at a time. I often feigned illness so I could skip school to play poker and Rummikub with her in between episodes of her favorite soap operas. She knew I was faking it as much as I did. I think she liked the company.
In each room, I peered under furniture and looked into closets searching for my former self. The new family had lived in the house longer than I did, so my ghosts may have left, searching for me elsewhere. We were chasing each other, not knowing who would catch the other first.
I am happy that only two families have lived in my old house—it keeps the history more manageable. Where we live now, many families have come and gone. Things are so similar in our town, yet vastly different from when we were kids. Just like my old home, the outline of life is familiar, but the people have made life good or bad.
I am a fortunate man. I get to raise my family in familiar territory. I get to learn from the mistakes I made as a child. I get to make changes in the way I raise my children and how I chose to communicate and love my wife. If I need a reminder of how life can be different for me, all I need to do is get in my car and drive three minutes. Or on a nice day, I can walk there in fifteen.