Yesterday, I took Nick out to a prestigious private school out south on State Line Road. He had an event, a volunteer day, for the Lincoln Preparatory Academy Robotics Club, of which he is an enthusiastic member. I took a route from our house that would avoid the neighborhood I grew up in. I’d seen it enough. I didn’t want to see it again.
But highway construction drove us in unexpected ways through the old neighborhood. I didn’t talk much about it to Nick, who was looking forward to his day with the other kids from his team and other schools. They were modifying electric kiddie cars and trucks for disabled children. He was imagining if the work would be like what he had done last year and how many other people would be involved.
Once I dropped him off at the school, I headed back through the city toward home. The way took me right by the house I grew up in at 9915 State Line Road. I took a gander. I’d driven by the house several times through the years, so it there was nothing new to discover.
But I was on my way to a memoir-writing workshop I hold at the Writers Place twice a year. This was to be the last session of our four-weekend endeavor and I’m always nervous about making sure the participants are having a productive, enjoyable time. The class is about memory and memory-making.It’s about how we recall with our feelings rather than with our reason. It’s about how we assemble stories from things as shifting as mirages.
This put me in an introspective mood. Here I was, going to deal with people who wanted to experience something of what I had in my writing. They wanted to tell stories they thought were important. Events, people, themes of life affected me in that house at 9915 and they deserved, for the good of my workshop, thought and contemplation.
It wasn’t that I was going to bring 9915 into our conversation. The workshop is about the participants, the people who want to start or continue stories of their lives. But for me to be wholly present, to be the leader, I felt I had to be honest with myself and stare into the chaotic void of my childhood.
As I drove by, I noted, first, that the trees in the front yard had grown in full. This is the most significant thing I pay attention to when driving by that house. I remember when we planted those trees, sprouted from walnuts my Grandpa Dobson collected on Locust Street just up from his house at 4208. I can’t recall now if all the three trees in 9915’s front yard are walnuts, but I know at least two of them are. I don’t know exactly what the other is, maybe a silver maple. There was a fourth tree some occupant of the house after us had planted.
This made me aware of the other trees along the block. I lived at 9915 from the ages of five to 20. During those years, the only trees in any of the front yards on the block were ours, and they were spindly and weak. Even today, they are not stately examples of their species—the soil too thin and clayey. But they are there. If there’s one good thing we did at that house, it was to plant those trees. Maybe this had led others to plant trees in their front and side yards, as the neighborhood, while not exactly forested, is certainly more sylvan than formerly.
The next thing I thought about was how little connection I have with the environs of my childhood. What mattered to me growing up were the woods that once spread over a half mile between the grocery store down the street to over to Wornall Road. It was there that the treasures of childhood are locked. Some 180 acres of undeveloped second-growth hardwoods with a large creek running though it provided a haven for miscreant youth preoccupied with smoking cigarettes and building fires.
But all of that is gone. I once found myself out south and drove around the Price Chopper parking lot, identifying the hill where we once raced our bikes and where we built our treehouse. I drove around the back of alley of the strip mall that was always down the street from 9915 and looked out over asphalt and commercial buildings and banks of new-ish apartments.
Thirty-six years is a long time in capitalist North America. I don’t view the loss of those woods in light of How Green was My Valley. I don’t remember a perfect age and have no nostalgia for the lands of my youth. The woods were utilitarian. They provided an escape from life in an arbitrary and often violent household. The forest gave succor and comfort to an injured little kid getting more damaged as time when forward. Even when I was a kid, I had a notion that the woods would disappear, that its boundaries would be violated much in the same way my own were.
This is not to blame a crappy childhood on my parents. Children and teens better off than us did their part. Nuns and priests also played a role. And I did my share of dismantling myself. I was the one who took to smoking cigarettes in hopes that it would make me feel grown up. I was the one who found alcohol did magical things to me. I’m the one who kept drinking and smoking long after I discovered these things did not make me more adult, accepted,or happy.
But I’m also the one who chose not to raise his kids in a sterile and class-oriented suburb where kids in new clothes tormented unendingly those of us who wore hand-me-downs and patches. My kids didn’t have to grow up on streets without sidewalks or places to ride bikes. They have not endured the rage and violence of alcoholism or the ways that twists mind and maturity. They have known their neighbors and had kids to play with wherever I’ve lived.
By the same token, they haven’t had treehouses. But we did build Nick a substantial “hut” of 64 square feet and a loft. He and his friends used it for a few years until they all grew out of it. As he said as we watched the trash truck haul away the debris after we disassembled it with nail-pullers and sledges: “We built it together and together we took it down.”
I’m not sure what Nick will take from his growing up. I know that Sydney, now 27, likes coming back to the neighborhood and seeing how it’s changing over time. The houses she knew were on the Westside and she has a fondness for our part of the world. The only house Nick knows is 1717 Jarboe Street. At 16, he’s still making and gathering memories. We’ll see what comes of it.
As I drove out of my old neighborhood yesterday and slowly made my way back north of the Plaza, I had a feeling I often have when I come from other parts of the city into Midtown. I’m coming into my own galaxy. I feel I’m entering orbit. I’m coming home, probably to the only one I ever really can call my own.
I don’t care to go into that house at 9915 State Line again, as many people are curious to see again what they knew as children. I don’t even care if I go into that neighborhood if I don’t have to. If I never do, I will not think of it. It will not haunt my dreams. I will not be less if I never see it again.