On Saturday, while T. was at her ice skating lesson, I took L. to run a few errands with me. We took a roundabout way to the stores, because I had to stop for gas and for money. Our route took us through a particular neighborhood—one we used to drive through daily when we lived in our old house. We still do drive that way from time to time but for some reason, that day, L. sat up and took special notice.
“Hey,” he said. “This is our old neighborhood!”
Then he began to point out familiar houses and landmarks, in that excited way you might when it’s been years and years since you last visited a place, and life and many detours took you far away from it.
“Can we go past our old house?” L. asked.
On our way back we did, looping down the road, past the neighbor’s house on the left, whose menagerie we pet-sat for many times when T. was just a bitty little thing and I’d carry her next door on one hip while L. would run ahead with the key in his hand, excited to open the lock for me. We looped down to the bottom of the cul-de-sac and past the house where a boy named John lived, across the street from another boy named Christopher. That first summer in our house I used to sit out on the front porch and watch the fireflies flicker around the magnolia tree. I’d imagine L. growing up: riding his bike with those neighborhood boys, skinning his knees, climbing trees. I’d plant a beautiful vegetable garden and we would live in that house forever and ever.
I did plant a vegetable garden, but L. was ten before he learned to ride a bike. T. was born and the house was suddenly too small, too confining; the problems with it too many and too cost-prohibitive to fix. We moved house and set down roots in this house, in our current neighborhood. I still drive past the old house, from time to time—when my errands take me that way, or if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic. Sometimes I’ll just do a quick drive-by, as if to remind myself that the house is still there; other times I’ll park across the street, always self-conscious when I do this, and watch the ghosts emerge. I might think I see the curtain move in the front windows and I’ll imagine L.’s round baby-face peering out, or I’ll think I see T.’s little hand steadying herself on the window sill as she pulls up to stand and look out. I know the house so intimately, even if belongs to someone else now. The butterfly bushes my dad and I planted in the front flower bed are bare and scraggly. The rhododendron is still there. I know that in the spring its flowers will be red.
L. misses the house, deeply and painfully. I know that moving was a difficult and terrible thing that happened in his young life. I miss that house, too, and I glorify it in my mind, the way you do with something when you no longer have to live with its problems and remember only what you want to. It seems impossible, I think, not to miss a place that is tied so closely to your children's own beginnings; to the possibilities you imagined one hot summer evening while you sat under the magnolia tree; to the image you have of your 18-month old son standing proudly in too-large pajamas next to the crib he hardly slept in, or of yourself, snuggling to sleep the first night home from the hospital, your boy on one side of you in bed, and your new baby daughter closing and opening her fists on the other side and gurgling those sweet newborn grunts, all satisfaction and sleep. It's difficult not to look back on the years in that old house and see them as flawless and golden, all of them--even though I know they weren't. But all starting places have a sort of magic to them, a sort of whispered potential that can still haunt you, still draw you back to them over and over again--even years after you have left them far behind.