Thursday, July 01, 2010

Indiana, 1987

Inspired by the same image as was the depressing poem below...after a bit of time mentally shut up in the box...

The smell of rain on hot concrete takes me back to 1987, the summer before I turned eleven. The house in which I grew up underwent major renovation that summer: the kitchen moved downstairs into what had been the garage, the old kitchen became a much needed additional bedroom, new carpeting went in, new electrical wiring. And so, the six of us kids and Mom went to stay with her parents in Richmond, Indiana for the bulk of the summer.

It was a whole 'nother world, so far as we were concerned. Our house in Vermont was far back on a dirt road off another dirt road, no other houses in sight unless you stood at just the right spot and peered at just the right angle through the trees, in which case you might catch a glimpse of one single other house further down the road. With all the dirt roads 'round about, so far as I knew, all cars had a permanent layer of dirt. So did kids, unless they were cleaned up for church, and even that wasn't a given. We had no sidewalks, no flower beds--no lawn, for that matter. Just woods and trees and streams and barbed wire fences.

Grandma and Pop lived in your typical suburban neighborhood: a quiet street where everyone knew everyone, and many of the neighbors had lived in the same houses since they were raising their own kids back in the forties and fifties and sixties. Each house had a little short front lawn and flower beds, a big back yard, and almost nothing to the side. I was fascinated by this last. I remember standing spread-eagled between their house and the next, trying to touch both houses at once. I almost could.

I remember watching Pop mow the lawn: following him into his shed, which smelled like gasoline and freshly cut grass and oil and warm tarpaper, to pull out the mower. I remember the lightning storms that rolled through frequently, the smell of ozone, thunder that rattled the dishes, rain pelting down on the street, making the air steamy and heavy with the smell of wet concrete--a new smell, very different from the earthy, leafy smell of rain back home.

I remember Grandma's incredible garden, with neat weedless rows. In the hot, humid Midwestern summer weather, vegetables grew like nothing back home. They're considerably better now about bringing fresh produce into Vermont than they were in my childhood, but oh, were those Indiana vegetables a revelation! I remember the taste of tomatoes fresh off the vine, still warm with sunshine, thick sliced with a little sprinkling of salt, and sweet corn that was actually so sweet I wasn't sure if I liked it. I remember fresh cucumber salad--fresh pickles, Grandma called it--with sliced onions that bit you back, and a cider vinegar and sugar dressing. I remember radishes, baby carrots, green beans. Grandma was fascinated by the way we kids consumed vegetables. I don't think she understood just how different they were from what we were used to--better than candy.

Everything was so clean and shiny in town! Clean cars, clean sidewalks, clean streets, tidy little gardens with dark soil all contained. I liked it and I didn't. I liked being able to ride Grandma's big red balloon tire Schwinn up and down the street and to the cul-de-sac one street over without any ruts or deep sand or mud. I liked that we could walk to a store for popsicles, or run through the wet grass barefoot without fear. But at times I felt, as I probably always will, a restless uneasiness at not having unpaved, uncharted wilderness to wander in, away from sights and sounds of people, following tracks not made by human beings. We visited my uncle's land in Ohio late in the summer--we were promised woods, and my heart beat fast as we pulled in by his house at the end of the long drive and spilled out of the car onto wobbly legs. I ran out behind the house find that there were roads all through the woods that could be navigated by golf car, with signs pointing to outbuildings and the house. Like a park, I thought, and was disappointed and quietly polite the rest of the day. I missed my woods--real woods, unfettered trees and big rocks where you could sit and think. I've felt the same way wherever I've gone: the New England forests have a hold on me that nothing else can ever quite replace.

I suppose we all felt it, one way or another. I remember one day when my littlest brother at the time, Bill, disappeared for some long minutes. He's legally blind and had a tendency to wander at that age, because he couldn't see where he was. He'd set off in a direction and just keep going until someone intercepted him. It wasn't such a big deal back home: you knew if you called long enough and searched hard enough or looked for footprints, you'd figure out where he was. He wasn't very fast. But in town? We were frantic. We searched the house top to bottom, we called, we checked with neighbors...we found him, crammed under one of Grandma's hedge bushes, happily paddling around in the muddy soil beneath. You can take the boy out of the country....

It was a good summer, but it was even better to go home at the end of it. Dad met us halfway, driving down in our huge brown Ford station wagon. He'd stayed behind for work, camping out wherever he could in the midst of the destruction and construction, taking care of my beloved Manx-mix cat, Cinders. I'd hardly realized how much I'd missed Dad until we saw him at the hotel, tired from his drive, a little constrained in the presence of Pop and one of my uncles. Suddenly overwhelmed, I hugged him with a sort of desperation. His cheek was pressed to mine. He smelled like him, and like home.

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