When I lived in Groton, Connecticut, my sister and I shared a bedroom on the second floor. After my mother told us to turn out the bedroom light at night, when she had gone back down the stairs, we would quietly take out flashlights and read under the covers. Inevitably, within minutes, my mother would call up the stairs, “Turn off the flashlights and get some sleep.” At first, I thought she might be assuming we were reading but didn’t really know. This was disproved when she never called up the stairs when we weren’t reading – not even once. I couldn’t figure out how she could see up the stairs, around a couple of corners, and through a door. The mystery was beyond my first grade mind to grasp. It wasn’t until years later that she told me: every night, she would go outside to bring our bikes inside. As she stood in dark, she could see the flashlight glow through our bedroom window. An outside perspective showed what was invisible from within.
This memory brings a smile and a reminder: sometimes an outsider’s view is necessary to solve an insider mystery. Also: the smallest light illuminates not only what I wish to see, but casts a light far beyond my ken.
[This is part of a larger series. For more, please click ” No place like home(s)” above.]
The Kindergarten year that began in the sunny Hawaiian September picked up in New Hampshire’s snowy January. My parents rented a house on Gray Avenue, across a local park from Lone Star Avenue. There were lots of kids in the neighborhood and some good trees to climb. In Autumn, my friends and I raked fallen leaves into multi-color floor plans – houses that lasted until a good breeze blew them to pieces. But the best part of my Gray Avenue home was what was in back of it. Well hidden from the street, stretching back from the top of the 10′ high backyard retaining wall, was a magic forest.
Like most enchanted lands, this one had a disguised entrance: a cinderblock wall marking the property line, separating our back yard from the next door neighbor’s. Block by block, the wall height decreased as it extended toward the street, until it was only one block high – a staircase to the springy pine needle floor beneath the tall firs. A few silent steps under the trees put the houses out of view. The light filtered through pine branches and all was quiet. A few minutes of resting among tree roots was rewarded with bird song and rabbit sightings. Ants moved over fallen branches covered in lichen and toadstools. Little hollows were scattered throughout the forest, full of pine scent and rabbit holes.
In the middle of it all, at the end of an upward winding drive, was a fairy cottage made of wood. In the heat and light midday, its red/brown shingles were bathed in the green of sunlight through the evergreen canopy. It was a most welcoming and most mysterious dwelling. I never caught sight of the forest guardians who lived there, but a few times at twilight I thought I saw two silhouettes against a picture window.
The last time I ventured into the forest behind Gray Avenue, I was thirteen years old – many years after I lived there. The staircase was still there, the roofs of Gray Avenue disappeared after a few paces, and my footsteps made no sound and left no mark on the needle strewn ground. The hollows, holes, ants, and birds welcomed me back. The wooden cottage still stood in the middle, lit by the forest filtered light. It was still there, this refuge just beyond the ordinary backyards on an average street in a beat-up old town. Still hidden to most, always welcoming to those who seek it in childlike faith and wonder.
But only a child, or one who will become like a child, will ever think to seek beauty and peace on Gray Avenue, just past the back wall and up a few cinder block steps.
There was a shared carport in the front of my second Hawaiian home – recently built adjoining duplexes in Navy housing. I used to climb one of the supporting poles a couple of times each day – there were no trees big enough to climb in that new development. I loved the higher vantage point because I could see the top of our car, and I’d touch the ceiling before shimmying back down to the ground.
People inside either of the duplex units couldn’t see what was going on in the carport, which led to problems with Neil, the boy who lived to the left of me. He knew I wasn’t allowed to go on his side of the carport, so he would run over onto my side when I was climbing and hit me with a stick or throw a ball at me. By the time I got down and ran after him, he was already back on his side, beyond my reach. Sometimes, he’d run back into his house, sometimes he’d laugh and do a victory dance just out of my reach. His parents never bothered to correct such behavior, so he got away with it.
When I told my mother about the whole thing, she did something I didn’t expect: she change the rules. “If Neil hits you, you can go on his side of the carport and hit him back.” It wasn’t long afterward that I was up the pole, and Neil ran over and hit me with a stick. As he expected, I jumped down and chased after him. But this time, I didn’t stop at the midpoint of the carport. He was doing a little dance just a few yards past, not even looking at me. For the first time, I ran across the line and shoved him to the ground. He was more surprised than hurt, but landing on the cement gave him a few bumps and scrapes. It was the only time I returned violence for violence because he never crossed the line again.
Had there been a peaceful way to settle the matter, I’m sure my mother would have taken it. In the absence of an alternative, turnabout became fair play. There are consequences to throwing stones and wielding sticks, and sometimes those consequences knock you on your bottom.
Every so often, I wonder if Neil learned that picking on others – even the little girl who lives next door – is harmful to self. Sometimes it’s a scraped knee and bruised shins. Sometimes it’s invisible, but even more harmful: the growing fear that the world takes no notice of you. Violence never makes you bigger or more visible, it makes you smaller and your true self even more obscured. It’s an irony that the biggest bully on the playground has the smallest and weakest sense of self.
[Map from hawaiicity.com]
We arrived before our Navy housing was ready, so my first months in Hawaii were spent off base, off Kam Highway. Everything about the house was wonderful to my four year old eyes – green grass, brilliant hibiscus, tiny lizards inside and out, and a banana tree complete with pink snails at its base. Mama-san lived across the way, Keiki and Puna across the street, and the Yokoyamas at the street’s dead end; all of them ate interesting food – candied hibiscus flowers, poi, and fish wrapped in leaves. Almost everyone had a clothesline, and I would run between the hanging clothes with the other kids who lived on the street.
I don’t remember a lot about the inside of the house – the kitchen counter where I’d make peanut butter cookies, the glass orbs and other objects hanging in a net on the wall, the fish tank with its light and cover. What stands out is how interconnected we were. Mr. Yokoyama was our local dentist, my sister went to school with the neighborhood kids, the fish in our glass tank were retired show champions that came from Cheryl’s father.
This was my first encounter with different cultures. The life patterns of each family were unique, but also a living out of religious and cultural norms quite different from my own. When everyone went home for dinner, the same food was not on everyone’s table. Even the time when dinner was served varied.
It’s a blessing that we had to live off base for a few months. My first experience of people who spoke different languages, honored God and neighbor in a different faith, and had skin of a different color than my own was a neighborly one. Is there any better way to be at home in this diverse world than to live as a neighbor with people from all over it?
Lone Star Avenue
My grandparents’ home was the place we called home between the relocations that came along every eighteen months. Sometimes we stayed for a few weeks, sometimes a few months. It was a beautiful in-town Victorian, complete with a walk-in closet full of old coats and a ladder up into the cupola. At one point, it had been a school. The black phone in the front hall was one of three numbers on a party line – ring one. There was an apple cookie jar in the kitchen and a garden gnome in the back yard. Behind the furnace was the door to the bomb shelter/storage for canned goods, a cold war legacy etched in stone and concrete. My grandfather’s workshop stood in the back – a miniature white clapboard house with electricity and a wood stove. More than any other place I lived, this was the home of my childhood.
One of my earliest memories of Lone Star Avenue stands out because I was so very sick. Feverish and unable to keep any food down, my mother and grandmother made a bed for me in the den where they could keep an eye on me day and night – and I could see and hear them. The family doctor made a house call. I remember the coolness of clean sheets and pillowcases, hearing my mother and her mother talk while making dinner, and my grandfather reading stories to me. Awake, half asleep, or deep in slumber, there was always someone who would hear me if I called.
Lone Star Avenue was where I learned that the walls of home won’t keep out all illness or protect me from every harm. It’s also where I learned that love sometimes expresses itself best in fresh linens, storytelling, and a hand to hold when I need it most.
Perhaps that is why Jesus washed and dried the feet of his disciples, spoke in parables, and touched the sick with his own two hands.
I remember my second home in disjointed details – a nubby orange couch, the backyard swing set, a white driveway to the road, and fire ant mounds. There was a drainage ditch to jump in the front yard. Across the road was the forbidden field of tall grass (snakes and other poisonous critters). The fog truck would chug through the neighborhood every so often, releasing insecticide mist that left a metallic taste if inhaled. I don’t remember the storm, but I have a vivid image of trash cans floating on floodwaters.
I remember a neighbor or two, just in flashes – running around in the front yard, playing on the swings, and kicking a red ball. I can see my mother drinking coffee as we ate breakfast, my sister playing with me in the driveway, and my father airplane swinging me until I was dizzy. I remember saying prayers at night.
This was home to my toddler and small child self. We moved before I turned four, but I visited it one more time a couple of years later. A hurricane had hit the Gulf in ’68 or ’69, leaving its claw marks in the back yard. It was the last time I set foot there.
I can’t tell you name of my street or how many other houses were on it. I don’t remember the kitchen or where the bedrooms were located. Such things weren’t important enough to make an impression. It is a child’s world – the smell of grass, the heat of the sun, and a few daily activities are all that remain. It was a place I felt safe and loved, and a time shared with parents and my older sister.
As a place for first steps, words, and memories, it was more than enough.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…I Cor. 13:11 NRSV