I’ve read a lot of books. I like reading. You might even say that I devour them. I read quickly, trying to absorb as many details as possible in as short a time as possible because I'm anxious to find out how it ends, how the story develops, what the character learns. The inherent risk in this reading process is that I tend to forget unmemorable books soon after reading them. It's not until years later if I pick up a book that I've already (unknowingly, unrememberingly) read that I start to figure out that I've read it. The realization doesn't come at once, though. It comes page by page as I rediscover the plot and characters. A word or phrase or description or character will start to sound familiar, but since I don't remember reading the book, I don't know why it seems familiar. But with each page during the rediscovery process, more and more starts to ring with familiarity. I don't always remember what's going to happen next in the plot, but I remember that I once knew about what just happened.
Going home after 10 years is not unlike that. Well, "home" may be a relative term. I don't consider Walnut Creek to be home anymore. I don't even consider it to be my hometown, although I suppose I would consider this area, the East Bay, to be my home area. I moved, more or less on a whim, to the Los Angeles area nine years ago. I hadn't lived in my childhood home for four years before that. Home was something that was becoming redefined. Home was where I lived, where my furniture was, my cats, my friends, my bed, none of which resided on Trinity Avenue in the house I grew up in.
Driving north today started off as any ordinary road trip. There were the typical sparsely populated areas punctuated by the occasional rest stop or small town geared towards supplying weary travelers with their wants and needs.
After the 5/580 split though, the random, undecorated landscape changes. There are, of course, the fields of windmills on the outskirts of Livermore. Then there is Livermore itself, containing some vague memories. I attended church there for a year or so, making it only semi memorable. Not a lot of emotional attachment.
Then comes the junction for the 680. Now the memories, unbidden, start creeping in. Each exit going north closer to Walnut Creek triggers recollections of friends who live off those exits -- hours spent at their houses, driving late at night to and from dances or parties. There's the exit for my piano teacher. Also the Alamo chapel is up there. And the Bolen's used to live there; I wonder if they still do. And the Ostland's, but I know they moved to Illinois. There's where the Campbell twins lived -- memories of their boyfriend rivalries and time spent at girls' camp the year we pretended I was their older sister and had a lot of people fooled start filtering down.
Then the sign for Walnut Creek, population 63,400, which is only 9,000 more bodies than when I was in high school. Not as big as a population explosion as I had expected for a town known for attracting a rich yuppie demographic. They're the only ones who can really afford to live there anymore, and certainly only the elite can afford to shop there.
The other sign of note: "Downtown Walnut Creek, Next 3 Exits." I laughed at that one, thinking, "How much 'downtown' can there seriously be? Enough to need three exits? "Downtown" when I was a kid was defined as two blocks of Main Street. Really, I'm not making that up. Well, okay, Broadway Plaza had some anchor department stores with some boutiques wedged in between, but "downtown?" C’mon.
I debated as to whether or not I should do a quick drive by of the old homestead, but looking at the clock and knowing I was meeting Carmel for lunch, decided to hit it later. Then I looked to the right of the freeway, identifying streets and landmarks that had once been so familiar to me, and the pull was too great. At the last possible second, I crossed two lanes of traffic and exited on Ygnacio Valley Blvd.
Holy Cow! What have they done? What used to be Oakland Blvd. is now the off ramp to route traffic to Ygnacio Valley Blvd. Oakland Blvd. – the street perpendicular to mine, where I had waited for school buses to take me to elementary school, ridden my bike on, gone to the paper shack –has been bulldozed and reduced to a freeway off ramp.
I had to make a long, circuitous block to make it to Trinity Ave. What once used to be a straight shot from the freeway now requires the navigational skills of Columbus to reach.
Finally, I turn right onto Trinity Ave. from California Blvd. There's the Trinity Arms apartment building, with the N still on backwards as it has been for as long as I can remember. Funny the details you can remember when you see them again. Things you haven't thought about in years, or even knew that you were noticing, are all of a sudden as vivid and sharp as if you never left. It's an odd sensation.
There's old Mrs. Harmon's house, gone to ruin now with yellow caution tape protecting trespassers from the rickety stairs.
There's the apartment building my best grammar school friend, Adriana, and her family lived in. Looks the same, with a slightly lighter color of grey paint, but now seeing it, I have no doubt I could find my way to their apartment, even though they haven't lived there for 25 years.
Cresting the hill now, the same one that my sister used to make me get off my bike and walk up because she couldn’t make it up on her bike so she assumed I couldn't either. It's not as big as I remember.
There's the Episcopalian church parking lot where I learned to ride my bike. There's the condominiums built where Mr. Ink's house used to stand. I used to hang out with him in his backyard, where between my Evil Knievel stunts of jumping my bike over the fallen logs in his backyard, he afforded me the honor of knocking the ashes off his cigarette butts for him. Our friend Mary was one of the first people to buy and move into those condos when they were first built. Number Four. Several years later, Susan and her mother moved into number Six after the divorce. I wonder if she'll be there tomorrow? I have no idea what's happened to any of these people.
There's Mrs. Kimball's house. It doesn't look any different, although that huge two-ton pickup in the driveway is definitely not familiar.
And there's 1950. The white picket fence that the Dinkel's built for my parents. And the swing hanging from the black acacia tree is still there. I can't believe that tree is still there, but the swing is, indeed attached to the tree I used to climb every summer day. It was a fort, a lookout, an escape, a treehouse. Looking at the limbs that have been trimmed back, my fingers and hands already know exactly which handholds they need to grab, and where my legs need to swing up to catch the lower limbs to get myself to the first level.
The walnut tree is gone, but the front porch is the same. There're the poles I relied heavily on to hang our outdoor Christmas lights on. The front window is the same as when my parents moved into that house in the 50s. Details I didn't know I knew are as vivid as if I had never left. I know them before I look at them, before I'm aware that I'm looking at them, I see them in my mind's eye, then see them with my physical eyes and they are the same.
I grab my camera and start taking pictures, quickly earning me a wary look from the woman next door watching the truck. I don't want to scare her, so I raise a friendly hand and walk towards her, my car engine still running.
"I bet you're wondering why I'm taking pictures of this house, don't you?"
"Yes," which even though I've used my best, most reassuring, friendly tone and smile, does nothing to convince her I'm not casing the joint.
"I don't want you to think I'm casing the joint getting ready to burglarize it or anything, but I grew up in that house, and I'm home for a high school reunion, and I just wanted to come and see it. My sister actually still owns it," I add as additional reassurance.
"Oh!" she brightens. "You grew up in this area?"
"No. I grew up in THAT HOUSE," emphatically pointing.
She tells me she knows the tenants and is sure they wouldn't have a problem with me wandering around and checking it out. I immediately take advantage of it, and walk down the driveway.
It's all the same, but different. It's not mine, anymore. It's still in the family, but not my family -- my sister's family. Strangers live there now. The outside is the same, although the "garage" has been remodeled somewhat, apparently into a studio apartment to accommodate an additional resident. That explains the extra mailbox in the front yard -- 1950A.
My arm reaches over the redwood-colored gate to unlatch it. It knows exactly where to go, even though I have not performed this action on this gate in decades. The backyard hasn't changed much, although the distance to the back fence separating our yard from the Presbyterian nursery school playground that I used to hit home runs over appears to be dramatically shorter.
There are no more fruit trees or strawberries, but the back patio is the same. I boldly walk up those stairs to peer into the living room windows. A Great Dane skitters across the hardwood floors, barking furiously, probably more upset that I have made it that far without him noticing me than he is that I'm actually invading his territory. There is different furniture in there and a bike parked in what used to be the living room. Everything seems smaller somehow, and even though I always knew our house was not spacious, it had sufficient space. Now I look at it with dual eyes -- as a child who spent 17 straight years there, and an adult who's done her fair share of apartment hunting. Could I live there now? It seems strange that I ever did, but with a small squint of my eyes, I can picture the forest green carpeting that used to cover the floors, and the day my dad laid that carpet himself. There's the fireplace which held first our Christmas stockings, before making way for the wood burning stove. Now, it's just a fireplace. I can see the refrigerator in the kitchen from where I stand. It's exactly where it should be. But there are socks on the floor that don't belong to anyone I know, and the dog is still barking, and I am immediately jerked back to the present and what is currently reality.
I walk back around the way I came, the dog's barking still accompanying me to show me who's boss around here. It doesn't bother me -- I lived there for longer than that dog will be alive. He considers it his territory, but it belongs to me. Even seeing it dressed differently, it is my childhood home. Just because I have not lived here for 12 years does not mean it isn't my home. I don't live there, but my memories do, those memories I didn't know I had, pushing their way through the layers of fog placed there by the passing years.
Is it possible to go home? Is it possible to return to a place that exists only in your memories? I didn't think it was. But I found out today, that just like rediscovering a book , the pages of the memory are just as easily accessed, turned, caressed, read, rediscovered, brushing away the heavy fog of forgetfulness. Even if there is a Great Dane barking running interference, yesterday’s memories are as brightly vivid as today’s events.
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Reading: "The Putt at the End of the World," a novel written contiguously by nine authors.
Excited about: A & M's new baby, freshly arrived to this world from the pre-existence on Saturday, August 12. Congratulations!