The backyard was once a frontier land, a blank canvas that could be anything. The swing set had the end swing for two people. It was a rocket ship. We got on and shot off to Mars. Suddenly it was pitch black outside. We could see the stars up close. So this is what outer space was like, where there was no gravity. We bounced cautiously through the strange atmosphere hunting for aliens. We found mysterious craters. This needed further investigation. I heard a sound. I reached for my ray gun from the holster. It was the light gun from the Sega Genesis tucked into my shorts. I looked over my shoulder at my sister, who was also reaching for her ray gun. It was the Nintendo light gun.
Then my mother called us in for lunch. We left Mars and ran for the kitchen.
We all have that place we once called home. But we grew up. Without realizing it, the gates of the Mars shuttle closed to us. It was just a backyard again. Just grass that needed mowing. Just earth and dirt and dog poop—and that cornered-off area where we miserably failed at planting tomatoes last summer.
The girlfriend and I have been house hunting. It’s a daunting decision to buy a house, but we’ve convinced ourselves its the right decision by making nervous affirmative statements about interest rates and the smart investment of real estate. However, the true reason we’re house hunting—the gut-level, emotion-driven reason—is because we’re sick to death of washing dishes by hand. Our cramped apartment has a queen mattress shoved in the closet and a weight bench in the bedroom serving as clothes-drying rack, but its the dishes that are draining our very life force.
And so we’ve been looking. And I can always tell when the girlfriend doesn’t like a place when we get back into the car and she begins repeating the word no.
“What made you think to put this place on our list?”
I thought she’d be temporarily blinded by the huge swimming pool in the backyard to notice the original shag carpet on the inside. The ad mentioned that the place needed “a little TLC.” Which actually means it needs to be completely gutted. We’re learning. In a woozy, hesitating, marching-forward sort of way, we’re learning.
I have been thinking about my grandmother’s house. After she died a few years ago, my family sold her house. A young couple bought it as their first home. I picture them walking through that first time and seeing the possibilities. Where their picture frames would sit perfectly on that ledge, how the couch might fit, and where the pool would go in that big back yard.
It’s weird to think how the house that is shiny and new to you once belonged to someone else—and always will in some way. When I think of my grandmother’s house, I remember the smell of chicken baking in the oven, and my grandmotherm in her threadbare button-up smocks, an old work uniform from the 1960s which she still wore around the house years after she retired. She smelled like Pond’s hand cream. The secret, she confided in me, was to put some on your face to reduce wrinkles.
“But you don’t need to worry about wrinkles,” she would say, touching my face admiringly.
As a kid, I loved her house, full of weird objects, old books and wax fruit and things. The fake grapes were the best because when you pinched them, they gave just a little, and that was satisfying enough. At Christmas, my grandmother put out the decorations, and I looked forward to them each year, as though I were seeing old friends. There were a trio of ceramic elves with mischievous painted-faces. Something as breakable as ceramic elves would have been off-limits at home, but nothing was off-limits in my grandmother’s house.
I never broke the elves as I moved them from the end table to the carpet to the coffee table. Each December the elves went on fantastic adventures through the living room while my grandmother hummed along with Nat King Cole on the radio and wished she could whistle like my grandfather.
“Your grandfather could whistle any song,” she said. There was a sadness in her voice, but it was a sweet sort of sadness that was also comforting, just like those old songs on the radio. I pushed the ceramic elves under the couch. They were in a cave now.
She also had a lot of wind-up decorative ornaments. A couple sitting together on a park bench turning slowly to a delicate version We’ve Only Just Begun. Snow White kissing Dopey to the tune of Someday My Prince Will Come. A red bird that played a song no one could identify anymore. I moved from ornament to ornament, winding each one carefully, getting them all going at once.
I always packed a few action figures and coloring books to spend the night at my grandmother’s, but I never needed them. There were wax grapes to finger. The hand strengthener to give a few squeezes. A tuneless symphony to conduct with the wind-ups. When I finished that, there were the stacks of old-lady magazines like Redbook and Woman’s World. I liked to read the advice columns.
Each magazine had their own generic columnist like Meg or Judy—no Ann Landers, that’s for sure. I would read the problem and then in my mind I’d try to imagine the advice I would give, though I could never think of anything, since I didn’t understand the problem in the first place. And yet the advice always seemed sound, a solution.
My grandmother also had a large collection of Readers Digest books, which she special-ordered from the ads in the magazine, thinking they might make an interesting read. She had the Princess Diana Life Story, picture books of the Kennedys, a book about diseases. But the one that always caught my eye was MYSTERIES OF THE UNEXPLAINED.
The book had stories about babies spontaneously-combusting, ghosts appearing in dead women’s hand mirrors, and tales of all the mysterious lights that were seen over deserts sometime long ago. Parents today worry about kids getting screwed up by video games, television, computers, and diets of sugar and meat. But what they should really worry about screwing up children is books. This book scared the shit out of me. I laid sprawled out on the floor, shaking while reading this tome of evil. Even the cover creeped me out with a strange, orange, circular light. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading it.
As I grew up, I became bored with the advice columns, even though my grandmother still saved the stacks of magazines for me. The elves became ceramic figures again. I forgot about the Readers Digest books on the bookshelf. Instead, I watched TV and chatted about work and college. I could squeeze the hand strengthener now, and she didn’t try anymore. She still touched my face, and her hands were older and frailer.
After my grandmother died, my parents began cleaning out the house, and invited me to take things I wanted while they were still there. I didn’t even want to step in the house. It hurt too much. I refused to realize the permanence of it. That one day, all of it would only exist in my mind. Moving and taking things made it seem real. Leaving them made it seem like they might always stay there, unchanged.
I only took one thing. I grabbed The Mysteries of the Unexplained book, and left. It wasn’t even a sentimental choice. I had no desire to be sentimental then. I just thought I’d like to read it that night.
Published in 1982, it’s still everything I want it to be. Black and white pictures, bizarre illustrations, big words. An encyclopedia of zombies, ghost slaves, aliens, Satan, hauntings, and creepy dead children. If it ain’t in here and cheesily illustrated, it didn’t happen. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I’m fortunate to have saved it.
The house belongs to the young couple now. It is their stories and memories and threads of life that interweave through it. The old threads do not stay behind. We carry them with our bodies or they simply dissipate through the air. Markings on the walls are painted over; the stickers stuck to mirrors are scrubbed off with goo remover. The children we were are now adults.
And now we look at houses that might belong to us. I look at the backyards, which might one day be a moonscape when we have a child. We look at houses, and I wonder if these walls could contain us, our things, our lives for now, those years when we were young. We look at houses, and then I think about how nice it would be to have a dishwasher.