Yesterday we had some friends come over for the afternoon, and they stayed for dinner. Because we went from ice and snow a week ago to 80-degree weather on Sunday, we headed out with them to a park we haven't been to in years. When we first moved to North Carolina, we rented a house for eight months in a neighborhood near the park. Those days now seem so far away, yet at the same time, close enough to touch. L. was only 13 months old when we first moved into the house--a blue two-story with cedar siding (and lots of woodpecker holes). I was a stay-at-home mom, trapped in suburbia for long, endless, often mind-numbing days without a car.
"What do you think about when you think about that old neighborhood?" my friend asked me in the car, on the way to the park.
What do I think about? I think back with nostalgia, of course, to those days when I was the Mama to a baby on the verge of toddlerhood. I think about L.'s stout little legs, and his dimpled hand in mine. I think about how wispy his hair was at the back of his neck, and how his cheeks puffed out in concentration when he tried to draw with a fat crayon clutched in one fist. But I also think about the tremendous isolation and frustration of those months. I see myself there, in that house, alone, a solitary face at the window, looking out at Scott leaving for work in the morning, or at the group of moms and dads at the school bus stop on the corner. I think about being trapped in a house that wasn't really mine, in a city I didn't know or even like at that point, in a suburban neighborhood that seemed so vastly different from the one I had grown up in, and from the city neighborhoods of the upstate New York town we'd moved from. I think about the tremendous, eerie silence of the neighborhood streets, as I walked L. from one end of the neighborhood to the other, pushing a stroller, wondering where the other people were--the moms like me, someone to talk to, someone to listen to me.
On a whim on Sunday, I drove us back through the old neighborhood, and I stopped the car in front of the house we'd once rented. Maybe it's owned now, who knows? A boy's bicycle was on its side in the driveway, and in the backyard an intricate wooden play structure was standing on the very same spot where L. and I used to dig in the dirt and run his Tonka trucks up and down the tracks we made with his plastic shovels and rakes. I was glad to see a family in the house--to see it loved, but even after all these years, and two other houses later, I still felt a pang inside, a strange pull--a quick urge to walk up that driveway again, and up those wooden steps to the side porch, the way we had once done so many times. I had this crazy, half-formed notion I'd find us in the kitchen: L. in his highchair at the table and Scott and me moving about the kitchen, finding our rhythm again together after a day apart--his world of full-time teaching and colleagues and meetings coming home to meet (to clash with?) my world of Play-Doh and diapers and the turtle sandbox on the back porch. Maybe our cat would be there--curled up in the papasan chair, in a living room filled with toys we no longer have, and some we still do.
It's a funny feeling to drive away from your past like that; to blink away the ghosts of years ago and turn and find that they're still with you. Only now your baby-toddler is an eight-year-old boy, a stretched-out, beautiful version of the same baby you rocked for hours to sleep. And in the car next to him is a daughter you didn't even know you'd have one day, her face turned to the sun, her lashes impossibly long and curled.
What do I think about when I think about that house and that old neighborhood? I think about how life has changed and stayed comfortingly the same, too, even through challenges that family of three in the kitchen couldn't have foreseen. I think about how amazing it is that love can multiply the way it does--holding us up through the dark times, the good ones, and the everyday ones in-between, too.