A Thousand Words: Home Again, Home AgainSeptember 5th, 2009
by Christopher Eaton
CHICAGO, IL -
I don’t remember the first house I grew up in, though I have mental pictures of it from stories my parents tell. I know that it had a skylight. A school maintenance man climbed through it one chill New England day to rescue my locked-out family. New Hampshire houses weren’t locked in those days, so no one carried latch keys—inconvenient given that my toddler fingers were testing their new-found dexterity on deadbolts. Having denied my family entry, I sat in the kitchen, crying over the burned dinner and all the other heated activity I had set in motion.
I also know that the house had a fenced-in rabbit run out back, within which I was sometimes sequestered. This was so I could play outdoors without the usual close observation I required. We apparently had a rabbit, Snowball, who used the run as well, though I’m not sure how we worked out the timeshare.
A more eminent rabbit took up residence in town for four months each year. Each winter, the local high school boys sculpted ice statues, often out of colored water, giving the town a carnival aspect. Castles, princesses, dragons, and, most notably, Mr. Bunny added a surreal dimension to Christmas celebrations in our small corner of Puritania.
Mr. Bunny, larger than any real rabbit dared dream of being, wore pink handsomely and balanced a bowl of sweets on his knees. Every winter weekend, parents brought their children to partake of Mr. Bunny’s bounty. A senior student with a microphone and amp would monitor events and give color commentary on the juvenile pilgrimage.
Many children were truly surprised when the heretofore silent rabbit admonished them for taking more than one piece of candy. Some couldn’t cope with the new reality and maintained a respectful six feet between themselves and this omniscient lagomorph. Others, more bold or curious, walked around the rabbit, searching for a clue to his vocal talents. And a very few fell instantly in love with Mr. Bunny and gave him insulated hugs in their Michelin Man snowsuits.
Aside from Mr. Bunny, the only real memory I have of the house on College Lane is Mary Poppins. I remember Julie Andrews singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” with everything around me bright white and my sister in the room. I assume it was the nursery. Sometimes the song I hear is “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and the room has a darker cast. A memory from a different time of day, I suppose.
Years after moving away from the Northeast, I returned to New Hampshire to revisit my first home. The house stood on a treeless lot along a crescent road fronting a small green. It was flanked by several other equally white and unremarkable houses. Neither Victorian nor Queen Anne nor Craftsman—the house was a testament to parsimony: a box with a porch. White house, green yard, black driveway. Nothing broke the minimalist prospect. I didn’t feel like looking around back for the sure-to-be-absent rabbit run.
Back in my car, with the radio on, I headed for the White Mountains, a locale well-remembered from teenage years. I felt sad that my one-time home hadn’t stirred anything in me. But as I drove on, I realized that, with six nearly identical houses to choose from, I’d probably been getting all maudlin in front of the wrong one anyway.
The first house that I actually remember, though probably inaccurately, was the one we moved into when I was three. It was a split-level ranch on the Old Post Road outside of Boston. My father painted it green, my mother’s favorite color. I remember the green. The color is hard to forget. Dad repainted it each of the three summers we lived there.
It was a thoroughly un-New England house, but the setting was pure Wyeth. We lived surrounded by hayfields marked off by stone walls hundreds of years old. Birch woods grew along the edge of the fields, where wild asparagus grew, and a stream skipped its way past the trees. The road in front of our house was even rutted dirt.
Our neighbors, for the most part, were garter snakes and milk snakes, which terrified my mom, though friendlier reptiles would be hard to find. During warm months, the snakes would visit my mother while she gardened. As reward for their curiosity, Dad would transport the snakes across the road, over the wall, and into the next field.
Their anthropologic bent proved too strong, however, and the snakes always returned the next day to watch mom with her zinnias. Eventually, mom and the snakes reached a détente. As long as the snakes remained on their sunning rock, a remnant of the last ice age, she wouldn’t have them deported.
I was of little use in the garden. I was still at an age where I was more likely to rampage than tread softly. But I was allowed to help gather the wild asparagus. No child likes to eat asparagus—it’s bitter and it makes your urine reek. But I loved going out with my mother to cut the wild stalks that grew behind our house.
Fat green spears with tight rosette tips—asparagus is one of the more gratifying vegetables to pick. Like discovering obelisks growing out of the ground. My head would disappear and reappear beneath the field of hay each time I discovered a new bunch of asparagus for my mother to reap. This was the same fertile ground where wildflowers, foxes, and spent water rockets could be found.
On summer evenings, with bedtime pushed back a half hour, Dad would take us kids out to the back yard to shoot off water rockets. Each rocket was filled from the garden hose and then hand-pumped until enough air pressure accumulated to launch our plastic astronaut. At 30 or 40 feet, its liquid fuel spent, the rocket would arc back to Earth and invariably crash in the hayfield.
In addition to shrieking and trying to dance within the falling rocket-rain, our job as the junior partners in this enterprise included recovering the grounded missiles. High-stepping through the hay, we would scatter crickets like helicopters as we frantically patted down the tall grass, anxious that if we didn’t find our treasure quickly we might miss the next launch.
After four or five launches it was time for bed. Any unfound rockets had to wait ’til morning to be discovered along with the asparagus.
We enjoyed only three summers of rockets and crickets before state crews paved the road in front of our house. Presumably, the blacktop was the sign Dad had been waiting for. He had us load up the contents of the green house and follow the new road south to Florida—a land of no snow, no birches, and no stone walls.
But real rockets.