The House Inside Each of Us

My little sister and me, rockin' it old school, circa 1981-ish, in the backyard of our new house.

My little sister and me, rockin’ it old school, circa 1981-ish, in the backyard of our new house.

Miles run today: 3.5

Bunnies spotted on my run: 4

Apple pies made yesterday: 1

Happy Fourth of July weekend, my friends!

Back on the Fourth of July weekend in 1981, my family moved to Atlanta.

It was hotter than three shades of you-know-what, and the new house my mom had fallen in love with sat perched up on a hill of red clay covered with straw to protect what little grass-lets existed underneath.

I would be entering fourth grade in the fall, so most of the rest of my summer was spent in daycare, going to roller-skating rinks that played Beatles songs interspersed with the Steve Miller Band.

Our new house was a classic four-up, four-down. I often wonder if the current owners have knocked out  the wall between the front living room and den/family room in favor of a more trendy open plan.

I only started getting to know our new house that first summer: my front bedroom that looked out over our creek with the weeping willows, the big picture window in the kitchen where my mom sat to drink tea millions of times over the years, and the scary basement that held boxes of our old shoes… for what purpose, I never knew. (The basement had an egress window, which I kept in mind in case someone or something tried to attack me down there.) We saw baby owls sitting on tree limbs not far from the window over our kitchen sink, snakes slithering through the woods in the side yard, and chickadees (the cheerleaders of the bird world) visiting the bird feeder near our kitchen table.

My friends and I danced to old Coke commercials and Cyndi Lauper songs in my parents’ bowling alley-like bedroom. My mom and I watched Friday Night Videos on one of the four stations we got, since it was certain we were never getting MTV. And I drove my sister crazy by littering our shared, brown-butterfly-wallpapered bathroom with discarded clothing options each day before school.

Our old house has haunted me over the years.

Every now and then, I still dream about it. People I used to know drift in and out of it, sometimes late for school, sometimes chasing me through it, sometimes mixing up the different areas of my life into one big, confusing mish-mash of fun of a psychoanalysts’ conference.

The house wasn’t perfect by today’s standards: there was no granite countertop, the windows weren’t double-paned and let in terrific drafts of cold in the winter, and my mom’s hanging pot rack over the kitchen peninsula clocked me in the head on multiple occasions.

But it was the house that set the tone for the rest of my life: close friends nearby, easy access to the pool, my own room, sheltering trees, a salmon-pink pantry that my mom and I painted just for fun. Our driveway even weeded out the faint-of-heart: its hilly curves and bridge over the creek turned away all but the ones who truly wanted to visit.

When a friend called attention to Miranda Lambert’s song, “The House That Built Me,” years ago, I understood. I wish everyone had the chance to grow up in a house with such a strong foundation. We carry these houses with us through life, the rooms and their memories still intact.

What about you? What are your memories about the house where you grew up?

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Put Me On a Pedestal, Please

Do people offer you free gifts?

Free beers given to my husband for his birthday by a store: 2

Bingo games I have won in my lifetime: 0

Free bags of cheese I got last week: 3

People don’t look at me and get inspired to give me free stuff. I haven’t figured out if it’s my look (middle-aged, suburban, non-supermodel) or my lack of an English accent.

Until… just last week, the grocery store check-out lady who loves me reminded me that with the two bags of shredded mozzarella I was buying, I could go get three free bags of mozzarella.

Free, people. That’s like, a couple of extra pizzas I can coax out of my husband at no additional cost! I thought for a moment that my luck was turning around.

But my illusions were dashed yesterday when we went into our local wine store. One of the male owners–who is married, I might add–has a man-crush on my husband. When the owner guy found out it was my husband’s birthday, he trolled the shelves for the perfect-amount-of-hoppyness beer and gave my husband two free beers. For free. As a gift.

This has never happened to me. I think I have a look that either says, “She’s got things taken care of” or “She is not deserving of free drinks or gifts.”

I have been searching through my mental library for times when strangers have offered me gifts for existing.

None come to mind.

But wait! I was walking through the mall last summer, and a well-dressed guy and his partner stopped to tell me my haircut was “precious.” Does that count?

There were no gifts bestowed upon me, but I had a really nice day after that. My hair swished like a Pantene commercial, and I smiled benevolently at children pitching temper-tantrums. (Side note: they used to say they used horse mane products to make the models’ hair look shiny for shampoo commercials. Is that true? I have been haunted by that urban legend since I was a kid. That, and mashed potatoes used as ice cream in ads, which I’m pretty sure is true.)

Oh, it’s all coming back to me now: One time, in sixth grade, an outburst of entrepreneurial spirit occurred amongst my classmates. One girl acquired an obscene number of Coca-Cola, Sprite and other soft-drink-related stickers. (We lived in Atlanta, home of Coke, and her mom or dad probably got them at work.)

Anyway, she started selling them for something like a dollar a sheet. They were shiny and official-looking, and sixth-graders in the ’80s gravitated towards both novel and shiny things. In a type of pyramid scheme, she farmed some of them out where her lackeys began selling them, keeping a part of the profits for themselves but paying her for the acquisition of stickers.

The halls were abuzz. The stickers flew out of her locker. We all sported Coke stickers on every academic surface we owned: binders, pencil cases, parachute pants, even the notebooks that we traded in the hallways with our BFFs where we wrote notes about the latest gossip or how cute our crush looked when he sang, “Everybody’s Workin’ for the Weekend” at our lockers.

But teachers got wind of the scheme and shut it down. The stickers now devalued, the girl looked over at me during science and passed me a few sheets, gratis.

Score!

I existed, and I was in the right place at the right time.

It never happened again. And I kind of got tired of the Coke stickers after a few days.

How about you? Are you given free things just for being yourself?

The Road Not Taken Because It’s Not There Anymore

The Pool. Good then, good now.

Cents I used to carry in case I needed to call home. From a pay phone: 25

Backpacks I owned before college: 0 (they were so uncool)

Letters I used to write per week. On paper. With complete sentences: 2

News flash: things change.

As I approach 40, my older child is about to start middle school, and each May is beginning to feel like the time I should make Christmas purchases because I know the holidays are about to come around (again!), I think about how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. Walk with me through the antiquated, bygone roads of my childhood:

1. Phones. Our son wants one. Really bad. Really, really bad. He may, in fact, be the only almost-sixth-grader who does not own an iPhone. And my heart aches for him.

When I started middle school, my mom and dad both worked. I stuck a quarter in my pocket and walked the three-quarters of a mile to school with my two buddies, carrying my violin case and a stack of books. It was uphill both ways. No snow, but like-Africa-hot can apply here.

If it rained on the way to school or the way back, their moms might take pity on us and drive us there. If not, tough cookies.

There weren’t any pay phones on the side of the road in our neighborhood. My mom and dad couldn’t have done anything anyway… they were in their cars, on the way to work. In retrospect, I’m not sure what the quarter was for. But it was a lot cheaper than carrying an iPhone.

I would gladly supply my son with a quarter, but he is oddly disinterested.

2. Afterschool Activities. After school, we didn’t watch TV or get driven all over Timbuktu to Ashram Yoga or Fencing or Getting in Touch with Your Inner Child or Lacrosse. We went over to whichever home had a mom who could tune us out the best and jumped around to loud music and called it dancing. This went on for two hours, at a minimum. It was the first time I realized my stomach could sweat. And I thought it was cool.

We also ate huge bowls of ice cream and mixed in: peanut butter, sprinkles, chocolate syrup, caramel, butterscotch and M&Ms. We didn’t get sick from eating such a feast, and we never put on weight. Our legs resembled those of a fawn, narrow and long and unencumbered with cellulite. Sigh.

3. Terrorism. We didn’t need to worry about Al Qaeda or terrorist attacks, because we were pretty sure the Russians were going to wipe us all out with nuclear bombs. Those of us who survived would need to know how to speak Russian, and I wasn’t great with languages.

We lived near a major Air Force base, so the coach who taught us geography said the best thing to do was to go out onto the runway and wait for the bombs to drop. Better to be close to the epicenter instead of still alive and feeling the effects of nuclear fallout.

I did not think Sting’s “I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too” lyrics were tongue-in-cheek. I really hoped. Like, for real.

4. Video Games. I was not good at video games, but my sister was. She played “Pitfall” like a champ, passing level after level, leaping on alligator heads and not getting chomped, swinging on vines in perfect synchronization…

Later, she said, “I liked it, but it never went anywhere.” It was the same few screens, over and over.

When a fellow blogger and her two teenage sons visited us this weekend, they showed my son the app, “Temple Run.” I talked to the older boy about how video games never used to do much more after the first few screens. Guess what? They still don’t. “Temple Run” has dodging and jumping… over and over.

5. Safety. We were in middle school, and we were tough. PE teachers didn’t worry about whether we would get hurt. They let us practice things like archery and said, in a laid-back kind of way, “Now, don’t walk behind the targets while someone is shooting.” Sometimes people did, and too bad for them.

During the summer, we hung out at the pool by ourselves. If we were lucky, a mom would drive us up there. But usually, we walked through a number of backyards in our flip-flops and only left the pool during adult swim and obvious thunderclaps.

The lifeguard was a druggie, but we didn’t know and quite frankly, didn’t care. Could he save us if we started drowning? No, but he sure was cute.

Sunscreen? Why in the world would you want to remain lily-white? The Bain du Soleil lady was our idol, and we compared forearm coloration with enviable scientific intensity, never again applied to something as mundane as mousetrap cars or high school chemistry experiments.

6. TV and movies. We all watched the same TV shows. There weren’t a whole lot of choices, especially for those of us who distinctly remember getting a color TV and whose parents thought cable TV was the work of the devil. I still remember staying up late with my mom watching “Friday Night Videos,” the poor child’s version of MTV.

My friends and I were horrified at the underarm hair on the lead singer of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. “Come On Eileen” was a song best listened to on the radio; it may, in fact, have led to MTV’s eventual switch to reality TV. Some things don’t need to be seen to be appreciated.

And when we wanted to see a movie, even multiple times, it was a mom or dad who was forced to either sit through the beloved movie or cover pick-up and drop-off. I saw “Back to the Future” three times in the theater, and “Pretty in Pink” was part of a friend’s birthday party: fifteen middle-schoolers kicking the backs of seats at the new movie theater in town. Divine.

Now, my kids often say they’ll wait until it comes out on DVD. No biggie.

What do you remember about middle school? What are you glad about that’s changed, and what do you wish kids today still got to experience?