For nearly two decades now I’ve been imagining, usually in conjunction with other people, where I want to live, in what relationship to others and to a larger world, and in what kind of space. Even as part of a couple, the atomized way so many of us live, scattered in small units, wasn’t satisfying. A few years ago, I decided that one way to understand what I long for was to look back at my first experience of home.
A jumble and a hideout – home
My mom and dad must have known they’d have a large family when they bought the two-story white house at the top of a dirt road in the hills above Pacific Beach near San Diego. They’d been married about a year and moved in with two children, a ten-year-old son from Dad’s first marriage and me, just six weeks old. Four more sons arrived over the next five years.
When I visited as an adult, not only was it on a paved road surrounded by subdivisions, but the house seemed to have shrunk in size. For my first thirteen years, though, it was a large, expansive place. In addition to the main house, a little cottage was tucked at one end of the drive, in the shade behind a huge pepper tree and under a tall fat palm. For a while it was occupied by Richard, a mute man with a hunchback, who, though certainly gentle, was for me at five or six just a little scary in his mysteriousness. My mom’s mother, a little scary in her own way, moved into the cottage after Richard, when Mom’s health no longer allowed her to manage all the work required by such a houseful of children.
The house with its surrounding yard was always full of people. Five cousins, an uncle, and two aunts lived nearby. When my aunt Petie died, three of the cousins moved in with us for a time. What with brothers, cousins, grown-ups, and neighborhood kids, the house was a gathering place, especially when Gran’s cookies came out of the oven.
The property Mom and Dad purchased included eight acres, most of it a sagebrush-filled valley behind the house. Dirt roads were the norm in the neighborhood. In addition to a few homes, there were flower farms, cactus ranches where hybrid varieties were bred, and, in the valley behind, a chicken ranch, dairy farm, and our fairly wild section, full of caster bean plants, eucalyptus, and some sort of wild greens that Gran often boiled for supper. Both our immediate yard and the valley were perfect for exploring, building forts and secret living rooms, and creating fantasy worlds.
My older brother took cars apart in the driveway turn-around. It seemed the younger boys regularly got into little fights that I, a little older and, of course, “wiser,” felt compelled to try to break up fearing they’d really hurt themselves. My mom’s sister Helen may have died there; a photo of her standing in the front doorway is the source of the only memory I have of a visit she made when I was quite young. Death wasn’t talked about much.
For all the activity of the place and all the people living there, as the only girl I always had a room of my own, tiny but my own. At the end of the upstairs hall that led to my room, there was even a small bathroom, far enough away that almost no one else used it much. The little pink corner room, just big enough for my bed and a built-in closet and set of drawers, had two windows that let me look out toward the ocean. I may not actually have been able to see the ocean but the long perspective allowed me to dream and imagine I could see it and much more.
Living in that jumble of a place, with people of many ages coming and going, combined with having in easy reach a quiet place to get away and be alone probably set a pattern I look for still. Perhaps, like the modeling clay we used in elementary school, the kind that never really hardens but gets a little stiffer over time, we all get molded and shaped in our early lives and, even though we’re constantly reshaped by new experiences, some memory of earlier forms remains in the clay.
The image here, appropriately fuzzy like memory, comes from online maps and only dimly reflects a few physical attributes of my actual first home. The human, social, and emotional aspects of the home have to be added to this photo through imagination.