* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column has been slightly edited since it first ran in 2000.
On the occasion of moving my daughter to college from her childhood home in Davis, I decide to visit mine. I have not gone back to 59 Bradley Road since my mother died 13 years ago.
I drive from Rhode Island to my hometown in suburban New York, discovering upon arrival that it’s easier to find my old street than to start down it.
Cautiously rounding the corner from Wilmont Road in my red rental car, I use my eyes to slow down my heart.
Bradley Road, narrow as ever, contains more parked cars now, and the vacant lots at the top of the block boast new two-story houses. The new homes maintain the style of the old ones, but the overall effect makes me think of a classroom that can hold 31 students but looks crowded that way.
I pass the former home of Susie, my classmate with polio, and the old black and yellow sign that says, “Slow Children at play.” It still needs a comma.
As I drive down Bradley, my fingers tighten on the steering wheel and my breath grows shallow. What if someone has painted our house? Suddenly, I know that if it is blue or brown, or anything other than burnt mustard yellow, I will feel as if someone has repainted the sky.
Relief. The house is still dark yellow, the chimney brick red. Someone has replaced a dozen broken chimney bricks with patches of light gray concrete that look like clouds, ascending towards the TV aerial.
I feel grateful to the new owners for a few moments, and then I get testy. Why did they replace our straight, simple porch rails with those ornate round bars that need a coat of paint? Their new deck outside the dining room is a good idea, but it has the same ugly railing.
In a moment, I am out of my car and checking the plants. My father’s “little fat hens,” a chubby, low-growing plant with greenish flowers, have been cut back to make room for tomato plants. No one seems to be at home, so I tiptoe down the driveway, passing the kitchen window where my mother used to wait and watch for me on every visit.
The last time I walked down this driveway was on the occasion of her funeral.
I’m glad she doesn’t know that the maple tree, an autumn beauty, is gone. And the forsythia, such a lovely word to pronounce, is missing too, her pride and joy in springtime. She would be glad that a few lilies of the valley remain, even though she used to warn us about their poison, and she would cluck and worry over the lilac tree that endures but looks as spindly as ever.
How can I explain the way my mother pervades every moment I look at the house, as if I were looking at it for her, because she can’t do that anymore. She would have loved the shiny hummingbird, a new visitor, that flits past the living room window.
But what is this crazy insect sound — grasshoppers maybe? — that buzzes loudly all around me? Did that used to be here? It’s pounding in my head, dizzying me as I ask myself, “How does the house look — really?”
Different. Changed. Invaded. Stolen. Oh no, not a word like that, not when the new owners put those cheerful butterfly cut-outs in the window and planted little round pine trees, like four green snowballs along the driveway. In spite of the ugly porch railing, they care about this place.
Of course someone had to live here after we did, and someone must have lived here before us as well. Every place on Earth, no matter how personal, has always been used by someone else. I just didn’t think about that when I was younger and this was home.
I look quietly in all directions for about 20 minutes.
Then I get into the red rental car and drive to a nearby restaurant named Friendly’s to eat lunch. Lingering in my booth, I notice several older women, some the age my mother would be now (mid-80s). I peer at their faces and ask myself, “Did she know Mommy?” “That one, did she know her?” “How about her?”
I wonder if someday my daughter will see Davis through the same eyes of longing.
In a few days, I will fly back to Davis, returning to the only home my daughter has ever known. Whenever she visits, I will wait by the window.
I hope I can do that for a very long time.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org