Inner Maps

The house I was born in was built by my great-great-great grandparents and generation after generation had lived there.  I wonder if it was the perfect house for a would-be writer, or if any house a would-be writer grows up in is perfect, each place, each corner, invested with significance and meaning by becoming elsewhen and elsewhere.

I’m fairly sure that poor house wouldn’t pass US codes, though it was a well built stone house, with enough room for everyone.  When my parents had to marry for the usual reason – nine years before my birth – my grandparents changed the storage rooms on the lower southern side into a shotgun apartment, long kitchen running into long – and broad – hallway, running into living room.  They cut the “hallway” into a bedroom, with interior walls, leaving a narrow pass-through to the living room, and an odd shaped piece by the kitchen door, which, while not a bedroom, could accommodate a single bed and a dresser for a child’s needs.  They figured the young people would get on their feet and then find a place of their own.

They figured without the peculiarities of these particular young people.  You see, my parents have many admirable qualities, a few of which are carried to the point of oddity.  One of these is my father’s dislike of being in debt.  He can’t sleep if he owes anyone money.  Yes, even in mortgage.  (For the rest we try to live without debt also.)  This meant instead of buying a house and acquiring a mortgage, they lived in this shotgun apartment without running water (water was brought from the well in buckets and bottles depending on the use.  Even grandma’s house only had one faucet – cold water – in the kitchen.  The bathroom, a late addition, was outside the door to the kitchen, opening to the patio, and the fact that it had a shower, a real toilet, and a sink made us unusual and ‘rich’ in the village.  Our laundress loved washing our clothes because “they smell good even when I get them.”) and without a window.  There were glass insets at the front and back gave the only light, and the bedroom, where I spent a lot of my time when I was a sickly child and my dad worked out of town, got a little bit of residual light through a “window” to the living room.  Not enough to see without electrical light.  They lived in that apartment for sixteen years (and paid rent to my grandparents, so as not to feel  beholden) until they could build a house of their own and pay for it outright.  The price kept going up because Portugal (like most of the PIIGs) kept its economy pseudo-stable by inflating.

I grew up with jokes I didn’t know were jokes.  At the time, rice in Portugal was stone milled, and periodically we got a stone in it.  When this happened, dad would set it on the side of the plate and say, “There, Carmen, another stone closer to the house.”  Of course, I started doing it too.

It’s hard to resent my parents’ peculiarities, though, because I really had a very good childhood, even the 3/4 of it that were spent in bed, sick.

You see, when I was well, mostly I lived outside or in grandma’s side of the house.  For one, there really was no room for me in that little shotgun apartment.  We were joking about that the other day, Dan and I.  We wanted eleven kids, even though sending two to college is breaking us.  We wanted eleven kids in total disregard of financial realities.  But this doesn’t beat my parents’ cheerful working around physical-space realities.  Heck, my mom grew up in a similar apartment (only rented from strangers) and there were five surviving children.  Compared to that we lived in luxury.  One way to handle this was used on me part-time: you send the child to sleep at a relatives house.  This is how I shared my cousin Natalia’s bed for much of my childhood (though all the cousins were raised together, she was closer and to a large extent raised as a sister.  My brother and I both call her cousin-sister, and refer to her son as our nephew) read her romance books (she’s fourteen years older than I) and – because she memorizes stuff by reading aloud – memorized vast portions of high school biology and physics by the time I was four.

The rest of the time… well, for about four years my dad worked out of town and only came home on weekends.  So I stayed with mom in my parents’ bed.  Particularly when I was having respiratory issues, it helped to have someone there monitoring my breathing, in case we needed to go to hospital.  Sometimes when dad came home for his two nights a week, I was too sick to be moved, and he would make himself a bed on the floor of the hallway, with pillows and blankets – and more often than not spend half the night carrying me in his arms, singing old Portuguese ballads to me.  Then go back to work on Monday.  (Yes, I paid for that when Marshall had heart issues as a toddler.  I spent more nights awake, hovering over his bed, than I care to count.  But these things aren’t paid, of course, they’re freely given and out of love.  I think without dad’s love I wouldn’t be here.)

When I was well and the weather not too disastrously bad (I think mom invented “dressing in layers) I had a degree of freedom we don’t give our kids.  By the age of two I was dressing myself (from clothes mom left laid out) and sometimes mom managed to catch me on my trot through the kitchen, headed for that back door.  Or at least she detained me long enough to get a cup of something warm and a slice of buttered bread into me, before bowing to the inevitable.

My favorite entertainment system was grandma.  For those of you who read Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series, picture Tiffany Aching’s grandma, but from a non-sheep raising region.

Grandma could do anything and most of it was magic.  All animals came to her.  The only creatures she willfully harmed were snails, against whom she had a to-the-death war.  She could make anything grow, too.  She would put bought, florist roses in rooting mix, then plant them.  And they grew.  She was never still: she cooked, she cleaned, she grew, she tended, she looked after man and beast.  And if I could catch her before she headed out the door, I – the youngest kid – could trail on her rounds.  As you can imagine this was fascinating stuff.  At the time there was a radio serial (there were only two TVs in the village, and we didn’t have one) about two detectives, Rock and Friend.  The family nicknamed grandma and I Rock and Friend, because I followed wherever she went.

Sometimes, though – about half the time – she wasn’t doing something she wanted me following her around for.  So, I was left to my own devices.  The kitchen door – and grandma’s kitchen door – opened to a broad patio covered in cement squares and covered by a grape vine trellis.  In the summer the leaves were thick enough to cast a green, drowned shadow upon the ground.  Grandad’s workshop (he was a cabinet maker) and the bathroom took up the North side of the patio, leaving a narrow bridge like path to the rest of the backyard.  On the other side we had hen houses and rabbit hutches and past that the dog house (though most dogs, except the flight risk) were only confined to it when they were in trouble (the flight risk was a rescued greyhound.  If he wasn’t behind closed doors, you had to tie him down, or he’d disappear for days.  I think he just liked to run.)  Then there was the path to the back yard on that side.

The path encircled the garden, past flower garden, vegetable plot, fruit trees, clothes-bleaching lawn patches, potato plot.  On the other side of the path was a shady area, covered by the same grape vine trellis, where cabbagy type of stuff grew, because it thrives even in shade.  Then there was, in the corner, the “hut” where broken things tended to end up to either be mended or made into fire wood.  Mama cat tended to hide her new litters there.  Then an area where the trellis was thin, so it was actually sunny, and where the firewood was piled.  

That backyard was remote unexplored country, and fairyland, and all the places of imagination.  that hut was often a palace, and the wooden pile an inapproachable mountain range.  My little red tricycle was Jeep and train and occasionally airplane, as I traveled the world seeing fresh wonders.  The patio itself, or a small portion of it, covered with a rag rug (I was not allowed to play “on that cold cement.”) with all my boxes of toys dumped on it (it helps to be the youngest of a large family) could be arranged into a futuristic house, where not only hot water, but hot chocolate milk came from the faucets.

When it was raining, or I wasn’t well enough to go out, grandma’s vast kitchen could become a lecture hall or classroom – she had a lot of chairs that could be so arranged – and if I was sick and in bed, I could build fantastic lego cities for imaginary beings.

There might be better training for a writer, but I don’t know what.  Beyond having to create my own playfriends and games, I got a lot of access to adults in varying walks of life.  People tended to forget I was there, provided I hid in a corner of the room (It gave me a bad habit of sitting on the floor and feeling more comfortable UNDER tables.  When I go back to my parents’ it’s almost impossible NOT to sit in my corner under the family room table.  Yes, they laugh.) and had a book I pretended to read.  I got to hear of people’s health troubles, of how various professions were run, of things that happened at college and in other people’s kitchens and in factories and–

I didn’t know it then, but I was doing research.  The reason I listened to these things was because I could use them as plots in my imaginary people’s lives.  These bits of village gossip tumbled into a hopper, in my mind, with the books I read – Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, and the adventures of Captain Morgan – and came out later in the stories I made up.  I suspect it still does.

The house doesn’t exist anymore.  Not as such.  It is a good thing in a way – it means people are wealthy enough they don’t have to live in their ancestors’ houses forever.  When grandma died, no one wanted the house.  (Okay, I did, but we could barely afford the house WE lived in.) So it got sold to people outside the family, who modernized.  It now looks sort of like an ersatz Tuscan villa, with a balcony running across the back of the first floor.  The backyard has lost all utilitarian aspects, and is JUST a garden.  The vines have been uprooted, because they were too much work.  The house has running water and bathrooms.  In fact, the bedroom in what was once the shotgun apartment – the room I was born in – is now a pink-and-white bathroom.  It is probably infinitely better.  But it is not the house I was born in.

The village too is not the village I was born in.  Roads have been cut willy nilly – paved roads if you can believe it! – and the main road has been made obsolete by being cut in two by the highway.  The other road, the back road where, as a nicely brought up young woman I wasn’t allowed to go because it was shady and dangerous, is now the main road into the village.  And everywhere you look there are stack-a-prolle cement box apartments.  I was amused the other day because someone from the city posted a video of walking through the village and talking about rural solitude. … given all the skyscrapers all about this was almost unbearably funny.  I mean, what rural?  There are maybe three fields still being worked.  What solitude?  The place is a dormitory for the city of Porto.

Now, like the house, it is probably better this way.  The village was so poor that we, with our cold water shower outside the kitchen door were considered rich.  The village was so poor most people were raising a dozen kids in two rooms.  The village was so poor that 90% of the kids were taken out of school in fourth grade and sent to work in the textile factories.

But it no longer exists as the place I grew up in.  (I proved this by going for a walk with my younger son, last year, and getting hopelessly lost – that was funny because here we are, surrounded by poeple and carrying a cell phone, and the kid starts panicking “We’re lost in a foreign country.  We’re going to die of starvation.  They’ll find our bleached bones.”)

The woods my dad used to take me walking in, (with the dog: Lord) as a special treat on weekends, the place where we went to get tadpoles, the places we picked wild blackberries, the lake where dad taught me to make a pan flute our of reeds – all of those are gone.
Like the house, I no longer have any rights in them.  They are now foreign places, and I, too long away and too starkly aware of how they changed, a stranger to them.

But I suspect in my heart, I carry that home and that village around, just like the snails grandma fought, carried their shelter and hideout.

I can close my eyes and smell the herb garden, and see the greeny-drowned shade of the vines overhead.  I think these days the tricycle is most often a spaceship.

And sometimes I wonder if anywhere or anywhen else are real at all.

23 responses to “Inner Maps

  1. ppaulshoward


  2. Wow, this post really hits home for me-thanks so much for posting it. The project I’m actually working on right now (which I certainly wouldn’t be doing if I hadn’t developed a nasty habit of lurking about on a good writer’s blog :P) is actually set in a small beach town of about 20 years ago where I happened to live for a time. It’s been quite an experience to try and bring that to life on my monitor screen and when I think of how different that once-little town is today, well, it’s a pretty poignant contrast.

  3. The one part of my life that affected me the most was when my parents left civilization and worked on a ranch in Willow Creek Canyon. It was 60 miles from the nearest town, and on dirt roads. We lived without electricity and running water. We hauled drinking water. We boiled ditch water to wash our dishes and clothes. Sometimes we would haul our clothes to the laundromat about once a month. It was quite a trip. When my mother got pregnant I ended up washing clothes in a bucket. We had an outhouse.

    No, I wouldn’t do it again because it was too much work. It wasn’t idyllic…just hard work. When I joined the Navy, I was happy that it was so easy compared to my teenhood.

    • I had a freer life before twelve years old. We had two Shetland ponies and we would ride them all summer. When Mom wanted us home, she would honk the horn. If we didn’t answer, we didn’t get dinner. I remember not eating two or three times. We learned to listen for the honk and not go more than five miles away. If we were too far, we would not hear it.

      We lived in the high desert so we carried water with us. Sometimes we would stop at the canals and play in it, or drink the water. We didn’t worry about all those nasty things they do today. Water was water. You drank it. Also in this area, we weren’t connected to the city water. There was a water tanker driver that would come every two weeks to fill up the water tank under our house. The tank would also keep the house cool. We didn’t have air conditioning ever. I had my first taste of air conditioning when I joined the military. It could get hot in the summer.

      When my mother decided that I was old enough to be her maid, my care-free life was over. It was a tough change.

      • There was a hill behind the house that took us awhile to climb. It was really tall. We would slide down it. It is a wonder we didn’t break a leg or kill ourselves. It was mostly gravel and rock. We would use our feet to go faster or slower. Near the bottom was the canal where we cooled our feet. We saw horny toads, bullsnakes, rattlers, scorpions, mice, and rabbits. Our neighbors raised goats and cattle. There was a swimming hole up the river that the family would go to in the summer to cool down. Also, we would go up to Josie Moriss’s cabin and eat water cress from the small stream. (Josie was in a gang–) We did live in the old West. I knew a man who was old enough to have met Josie. He was the youngest of the Chew bunch.

  4. Even when they remain as they were, for most of us “the village we grew up in” no longer exists, for it was a village of the mind and of memory. Perspectives change when we sit at the table rather than under it; the vast swath of lawn I labored to mow as a pre-teen upon review is … meh. Not even an hour to push the mower across that.

    • Damn you KNOW that’s true. Mid-century, I lived a Tom Sawyer life in a Disney-esque small town, where Albert Payson Terhune was a family friend, and we went skating on the lake in winter and swam in a swimming hole on the river in summer. I haven’t been back, and can carry the place in my mind — albeit from the perspective of an eight-year-old boy. But I imagine it’s become yet another North Jersey bedroom community for New York commuters. And more’s the pity.

      • I’ve mentioned it here before, but will again recommend Sterling North’s memoir, Rascal. Set circa 1918 it tells of a boy’s 11th year, spent largely unsupervised by his widower father and in company with his raccoon companion… One is prompted to wonder what Child Protective Custodians would do about such a boy, building his own 14′ canoe in the family living room while keeping a menagerie in his backyard.

        G. Gordon Liddy has a memoir, When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country which similarly reports on and mourns the passing of an earlier, less “sophisticated” America. Others have also reported on that America, an America where the High Schools had rifle ranges in their basements.

        What once was commonplace is now become weird.

    • Yes, it’s amazing how much smaller those rooms are now – I remember the kitchen counters being so far above my head. I first learned this in sixth grade, when, for some reason, we had to go to the first graders rooms, where we hadn’t been since, well, we were first graders. Those desks were so tiny, like doll desks. We were all stunned.

      I do feel sad, knowing that there are beloved places I can never go to again, because they don’t exist anymore. It’s more than just wanting to see a place, it’s to revisit a time of my life, and I can’t. The houses are all still there, but they belong to other people now; they aren’t the homes I remember. And some, I don’t want to go in – the present owners haven’t taken very good care of a couple of them.

  5. The house I grew up in had an enormous back yard that connected to all the other yards in the neighborhood, more or less. Once sib and I grew old enough to bring ourselves home if we got into mild trouble, we were allowed to run free, making up stories in the gully, wading in a creek, playing on other families’ swing-sets. The ten or so school-age kids formed a pack that roamed over a very large swath of territory. Our parents developed a phone tree, calling in the direction we were last seen traveling. The person who located us then delivered the “time to go home” message. Imaginations ran rampant, as you can guess. And this was inside a major Midwestern metropolitan area!

    I can still draw a Marauders’ Map of that neighborhood: the lilac hidey-hedge (castles, fortresses, play-houses) tucked against a fence here, next door the missing back fence provided access to the gully (the Wilderness!), beyond that was the house with the woodlot and mulberries and blackberries free for the eating. If you followed the gully farther, beyond our customary territory, you reached the house with the rabbit hutches in the back yard that the cool teenager sometimes let us look at. Several other houses were nothing special in summer but had the best sledding hills come winter. And a few boasted climbing trees, but you had to be careful because not everyone liked finding 6 and 10 year-olds 30 feet up in their trees. And moms did not like it when we came home covered in resin as well as the usual bug-bites, scrapes, bruises, and nettle stings. I’m not sure Child Protective Services would even allow such a free-range childhood today.

    • my best friend had a plum tree in her yard — later, after we moved to “the new house” now forty years old — she lived across the street. (And was the owner of the boxer the chihuaha impregnated) anyway — her dad loved that plum tree. It was some rare variety. It was a young tree, still weedy, but we HAD to climb it. So we did. And at the place where the trunk divided, half the tree cracked and fell. Loaded with green plums. We saw death before our eyes. Being me (There’s always a solution!) I suggested we get ropes and tie the branch so it looks like it’s up, then paint the rope the color of the tree trunk with our acrylics. (I was a BAD kid.) So we did. We didn’t know of course, we were doing the thing that heals trees. It had just cracked, we in essence bandaged it, it grew together again. A year later, the indentation of the rope was visible and her dad came in the house ranting about how some idiot had tied a rope around his tree for a prank, and if he caught the idiot…

    • I gre up in saburban chicago where the yards were decent sized compaired to the urban rowhouses but not the acrages some of you describe. Until I was 10 we lived on the side of a fairly steep hill (the city soapbox derby was run down the matching hill across the way) where the 3 houses on the side of the hill had no fences so effectivly had one giant back yard. I roamed it with the kids from the top house and my squirt of a little brother. (The couple in the middle house were in the 40s but let us play in their yard). We had the best private sled hill in town, twice the height of the public one at the park! Growing up running around with the other kids is why I’m a Thomas and not a Tom. Tom Jr from the top house was a couple years older than me and we had to know who was in trouble when our moms were calling out the back doors. 🙂

  6. Thanks for that post. We moved a bit when I was young so I get quite a few of these “the village no longer exists” moments. When you are young you think nothing of it both because new is interesting and everything seems so permanent. I think moving around for me made everything seem even more permanent, because while I might not be there it always felt like “there” would always be there.

    The peach tree that was in our front yard(my first memory). The barn I played Dracula in. I’m not sure which B&W movie it was, but my father liked it so we saw it in the theater when I was 4 or 5 (’78 or ’79) and it scared me to death. Which was behind the house we lived in when Mom and Dad split. I remember her painting every room of the small duplex we were going to live in and it seem so exciting. The side yard where I buried my first pet, Fishy(fair bought gold fish). The long dirt road that went through the fields to my grandparents’ home. We stopped one night to catch frogs. All the other various houses. The town I lived in when I was in JR High has grown into a fairly big city now.

    It is strange to look back and see the places where those memories belong no longer exist. They’ve been cut down, paved over, or in some other way changed so much as not to resemble them any more. It isn’t always a bad thing, but it is kind of sad that some of them that were so important as a kid no longer make new memories for people. Some in their new ways may make new memories while others are no longer a “there” worth making memories of.

  7. When I was growing up, we used to pass a sign that said, “Welcome to Burlington. Pop. 435” on the way through. Now, I think there may be more than that who live in the subdivision that was built behind my parents’ house, where the neighbor’s old farm was.

    But my personal greatest memories were of the YMCA Camp where my dad used to work, because he used to take me there in the summer time, and I would either go around to the activities with the rest of the campers, or else I would go fish in the creek that wound around the bottom half of the camp. I helped out in the kitchen during breakfast and lunch, when I got old enough, and the cook was one of the best I have met personally (he also was head cook at a community college in the fall, winter and spring), so eating there was a treat most campers don’t get.

    Back then, they had trampolines and taught how to shoot rifles. Now they can’t get insurance to cover them. it’s a real pity, too, because I lived for the trampolines. They also had enough cabins for about 110 campers, and having 120 at meals (counting staff) meant the camp was full. Now, they have two different sites for campers, and each one takes meals in two shifts. Younger son is currently there as part of the staff this year. For someone who is so defiant and hardheaded at home, he seems to work out ok doing things for other people.

  8. masgramondou

    Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be…

    I think these sorts of villages/houses are called “quaint” and “picturesque” (which is NOT pronounced pictureSKEW). I believe that the official definitions of these words omit vital details such as freezing cold in winter, baking hot in summer and damned uncomfortable. Not to mention being great places to visit but horrible to live in.

    • Yes, exactly. I think it’s a sign of progress. As a kid I just didn’t realize how uncomfortable it was. Mind you, I suspect most of the apartments still lack heat/air conditioning, but they PROBABLY have running water and electrical.

  9. I was going to write about my childhood on your blog, but the post grew longer than I thought was proper. I posted it on my personal blog. Maybe I could get permission to share the link? In some ways, our childhoods were similar, in other ways, so absolutely different there is no comparison.

  10. I was thinking as I read this that some of my favorite posts of yours are essentially essays that tell stories of your life and somehow wrap it around and tie it (even loosely) to writing.

    You might consider packaging them into books when you had time. I know that sort of thing doesn’t sell terribly well, but it ought to sell sometimes and, hey, it’s already written so the only time it takes is to format it into an ebook. (Though, I suppose belatedly I realize that it might be too close to what traditional publishing wanted to “package” you as and you weren’t comfortable with it. If it is, please feel free to ignore my suggestion.)

    For what it’s worth, I typically am not interested in reading this sort of thing, but you write it so well and it’s always very interesting and insightful that I actually look forward to it.

  11. I don’t find your dad odd at all, I saved my money until I was able to buy my place and build a house on it for cash (it helped that I worked out of town for several years, where the boss rented a house). I have a strong aversion to debt, and every rig I have ever owned I paid cash for. In fact the only time I can ever recall being in debt was one spring when I hadn’t been working for close to a year, and had overspent the summer before, I ran short on money and had to live of a credit card for about three months, until I went back to work. That is the only time I haven’t paid my credit card off in full every month, and the only time in my life I have been in debt.

  12. My neighborhood has changed a lot also, although maybe not as much as yours. The trees that were saplings when I was a kid are now taller than the house, and the yard is more attractive for it. But the climbing trees had to have their lowlying branches cut off. The woods and farmland around my street has been mostly turned into developments, and the mall is only a mile or so away. Orange daylilies don’t line the roads anymore.

    But nowadays there are bike paths and ways to get around the plats that kids in my day didn’t have. An enterprising group of kids (if not arrested) could easily take a bike camping trip this summer without much adult contact, beyond having to get close enough to an electrical outlet for a cellphone charge every few days.