Whether I’ve wanted to or not, I’ve hung on to certain numbers of significance in my life. They roll off my tongue when I’m playing the memory one-upmanship game with someone: 4023, the phone number assigned to our family on the Navy base in Rota, Spain; 1056, the address of the house on Navarra Lane; 3-8-55, the birthday of the boy I was supposed to marry but decided against. They’re random, just like so much of life can be.
It made sense that when I looked at my watch this morning, the time was precisely 7:47, the address of the house in Spring Valley where I spent most of my younger life. The house on Elkelton. The one that, when I decided to write about my life, I didn’t want to write about first because it would be too big a challenge. Yet here it was, expecting me to deal with it regardless of what I had decided the night before. I finished making my coffee and with no small amount of angst, headed up to my office wondering where to begin.
The list of 27 homes exists on a stickie on my desktop along with other bits and pieces of a life I try to reconstruct from time to time. I forget how long ago I created it but I know the idea came up out of curiosity. Perhaps I had recently read something about a person who had lived in the same house all her life, or the same town. Perhaps retired from the only job she’d ever had. If I asked my mother, she might be able to add a few more to the list I’ve created, but her memory is not as good as it once was, and it’s highly selective depending on her mood or the topic of conversation. Mine is a magnet. Picture a Rolodex that functions on auto pilot, each card representing something of significance–like the numbers above. I have no control over it, nor do I understand why some things are attached to the cards in the Rolodex in my brain, and others aren’t. But I do know that the house at 747 Elkelton Blvd. in Spring Valley, California has an extremely complex and detailed card.
It’s late summer, 1968. We’ve been with my mother’s parents, all seven of us wedged into a small, two-bedroom duplex for more than two months, transitioning from my family’s four-year stay in Spain. It’s been a wonderful summer–one filled with family reunions, new cousins, loose boundaries, and lots of getting reacquainted with the USA. Now, the five of us are back in the blue VW bug that carried us from East coast to West and headed to our new home–new friends, new schools, new everything.
After being only a good six-block walk from the beach for most of the summer, we’re now half an hour East driving down a busy road that runs the length of a long valley. A large school flies past the window on my right, a trailer park on the left. A distinctive mountain comes into view, its peak well above the hills surrounding it. At the second to last stoplight before we arrive, a large weathered billboard sits on the corner of Sweetwater and Jamacha across from a cluster of crumbling roadside business buildings, a liquor store, and an old farmhouse that will soon be torn down to make way for a Kmart. “Kelton Estates” spans the face of an old, warped plywood billboard in faded block-style caps. Cars for sale sit beneath it in the dusty rubble, signs posted across windshields. The “estates” are on the other side of the storm drain that lines the main road where eventually, we’ll discover we can catch crawdads among the cattails. As we pass the big red Thriftymart “T” and round the corner where the Foster’s Freeze sits, I wonder about what constitutes an estate. The $17,500 my parents paid for ours sounds like a lot of money.
Built in the late 50s, the homes are modest versions of the classic California Tract Ranch complete with fairy tale scalloped fascia, diamond paned windows and two car garages. Graceful Chinese Elms line the broad, four-lane street, shading fenced green lawns on either side. It’s not quite the Leave it to Beaver neighborhood I imagined, but it will do. There are sidewalks, and for a kid who has been without them for many years, they represent the promise of somewhere to skate and ride a bike, or draw squares for hop scotch.
At some point, the truck with our furniture arrives and familiar things are unloaded and unpacked. Things that had been shipped to Spain have come back across the Atlantic and combined with knick knacks and memorabilia my mother collected while we were there. They look odd in the new surroundings. More garage sale finds mix in to fill the house in my mother’s favorite Early American style; everything is colonial maple with wings and ruffles, or molded legs. The sofa is the only one I remember ever having, in its third incarnation, a nubby gold. The sofa I remember sitting on when my mother introduced my baby sister. The sofa we weren’t allowed to sit on unless it was covered with a sheet.
My mother has it all planned. She’s been talking about the bedroom I’ll share with my little sister; it’s going to be Peacock blue and chartreuse. Having to bear the odd combination of pride and embarrassment I always felt growing up with the surname Peacock, I immediately picture the tone of blue, but chartreuse? She says it’s a type of green, but with more yellow in it. I think of a peacock feather’s eye, imagining the tone. She makes curtains of boldly printed sheets, dyes an old white bedspread to match, and takes my sister and I to an import store for a large, round paper lantern shade we suspend from the popcorn ceiling on a hook. The grey linoleum floor remains bare until wall to wall blue and green shag is installed at a later date. My sister and I will fall asleep in the garage-sale-find double bed while listening to crickets through the wide open window on the few hot summer nights left before school begins.
A patterned rust high low wall to wall carpeting fills the small, open living and dining room space in our new house. Floral patterned gold, green, and rust bolsters are mounted above the front windows. Soon the portable air conditioner purchased in South Carolina years before will be mounted in one on the front of the house. On unbearably hot summer days, we will look forward to sleeping on the living room floor on old sofa cushions, lulled by the cool air and white noise. We’ll watch daytime television for hours on end, making up for all the years we had no television.
One of the girls next door is out front and it seems we’ve already clicked. She’s a year younger than I am so won’t be going to my school this year. She has big, brown eyes, a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and long, straight-as-a-board, glossy, chestnut brown hair. She’s funny and animated. I don’t know her name, but ask if she knows someone named Susy. The woman behind the counter at my sister and brother’s new school mentioned that we would be neighbors and I wonder where she lives. The girl laughs after a stunned moment and points to the house next door. “Right there! I’m Susy!”
She and I will have great times together growing up. Like two of my best friends from the Navy base, she has a piano. On a trip to Sears with my parents to purchase a washer, dryer, and refrigerator, I finally can’t stand not having a piano. I don’t realize it’s something most kids don’t ask their parents for or even that one could be expensive. Neither of my parents had one. Their parents didn’t have one. In fact no relative I knew of had one. Who did I think I was asking for a piano and what kid begs for piano lessons? I ask my mother why, if we aren’t able to afford much, can we afford everything but a piano? The miniature piano my sister had been given one Christmas like the one Schroeder plays in the Peanuts cartoons and comic strip had been good enough to figure out how to play chopsticks and a few other easy pieces like Ode to Joy, but twelve inches of keyboard isn’t much if Beethoven is on your mind. I’d grown up with parents who played LPs of The Beatles, Andy Williams, The Animals, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. How I know anything about Beethoven is a mystery.
A 1909 upright Hamilton takes up residence in our house. It’s top heavy and has been altered, but its great blackish hulk is a welcome addition to my life. My stepfather secures its keyboard with metal brackets because at some point, someone had removed the wooden ornamental brackets designed to do the job. My parents decide to paint it avocado green to match the rest of our 70s color palate and give it an antique finish.
I love finally having my own piano. That I’ll be able to take lessons, and learn to play whatever I want. That it and music in general will provide me an escape from day to day life. Susy is a part of that. We’ll have competitions where we play from the John Thompson lesson books until we made a mistake, then it will be the other person’s turn. She’ll be better at it than I am, but not for long. I imagine Julliard of all places. How I know anything of the school is beyond me, but the idea is there. The only drawback is that I’m afraid to play for anyone.
If anything represents who I am as a human being, this would be it: I’m confident until others are involved. This characteristic will become far worse before I’m able to break free of it.
To be continued…
This is a draft of a memoir. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo and writing about my life in houses. It’s uncomfortable to put myself out here like this, unedited and by the seat of my pants, but I’ve got 14 days to get a good foundation down for something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. We’ll be off to England then for several weeks, and I hope to have something solid enough to work with when we return. Thanks for reading. All input is appreciated.
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