Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Old House

The house on First Avenue that my parents rented until I was five years old was small and ramshackle. They relocated to tiny Ferndale, Washington from Seattle when I was three months old, moving north so Dad would be closer to school in Vancouver, BC. It cost too much to heat the whole house, so in the winters, Mom hung a blanket between the living room and kitchen to harness the oven's heat. The basement flooded each of the five springs we lived there, when the Nooksack rose above its banks. Stories about the Old House still send a shiver down my parents' spine.

But that’s not how I remember it.

When I think of that house, I remember the sunlight that came in the kitchen window; the bedroom and bunk beds I shared with my brother (18 months younger); the closet in my parents' room with a window that looked into the backyard.

All my earliest memories are set in that house.

At age 2, my brother ran through the living room and didn't make a sharp enough right hand turn into our bedroom. He hit his head on the corner of the brick fireplace and had to get stitches on his forehead. I've been scared of stitches ever since. He still has the scar.

Mom gave me a doll that she had when she was a little girl. The doll’s eyes closed when she was cradled. I ruined her with rubber stamps and blue ink on her round plastic cheeks and hid her under my bed. I never saw Mom get mad about it, but I've always regretted destroying an heirloom.

Dad played “Trucks on the Bed” with my brother. They drove wooden cars across Mom and Dad’s bedspread, making those sound effects boys can do so well. A pickup truck named Joel was Dad's favorite.

A lilac tree grew in the side yard, near the faucet where Dad cleaned fish he caught on days off in summer. I remember what it felt like to stand barefoot on the cold, mossy yard and breathe in the smell of the blooming branches; so many tiny petals on one stem that they looked like a single giant flower.

We had a sandbox in the backyard against the back of the house where we played with the kids who lived down the street, Melody and Raymond. We buried Melody one summer. I don't remember if this stands out in my memory because it was so fun or because we got in big trouble.

The old man two doors down fertilized his roses with dead fish. He gave Cheetos to Katie, the little girl that lived in the house between us. She sat on his front step and ate them out of a sandwich bag. She visited him often, but I was scared of him and his stinky, beautiful garden.

Our basement was always dark and wet. It smelled like dirt and Dad’s art supplies: paint thinner and oil paints. He stored mason jars full of paintbrushes down there, leftovers from his sign painting business in Ballard.

I don’t remember the tension my parents described to me later. There were long days Mom spent with two rambunctious kids while Dad pastored a small, needy church and attended seminary in Canada. Our household of four depended on the salary paid by church going dairy farmers. Dad drove a beat up old Volvo to school, so Mom would walk to the grocery store or local library to get us kids out of the house for a while. We read a lot of library books. My brother and I were unaware of any strain on our parents’ marriage. 

I do remember Mom leaving bowls of cheerios and a glass of milk in the fridge so my brother and I could feed ourselves breakfast in the morning without waking her and Dad up. I remember Dad coming home at bedtime, and my puppets Mooshy and Sheepy singing love songs. I remember playing outside a lot, and the day my brother and I stole the neighbor's tulip bulbs from a planter box, proudly assuming we had harvested onions.

That was the finesse of my parents raising kids. As far as we knew, everything was happy and healthy. Being together was something safe and good. And it still is. Mom and Dad weathered that storm.

My parents have been married for almost 35 years. They had three more kids after we moved out of the Old House, and we have a different set of memories as a family of seven in a ranch style house further out in the county.

When I say the words home and family, I’m describing something tangible. All the nurturing, inside jokes, discipline, love, and belonging that I cherish began in a wet, rented house on First Avenue.


Brand new baby brother

Library visit

Dad's graduation: 1985

Ages 4 and 2


  1. I loved your sentence, "But that's not how I remember it." Such savory descriptions of your childhood memories.

    I remember going to the library in your picture. I remember how everything inside was white. I know they had a big rainbow painted on the wall, but I don't remember if it was on the outside wall shown in your picture or inside by the children's section. And then how they later turned it into the police station after they built the new library building. I also remember you working in the new building in high school and how that seemed like such a cool job to have.


  2. I love how poetic and beautiful your writing is. Amazing.