From the kitchen window in the house I grew up in you could see my lawn. It stretched out flat like a sheet of green for 70 feet to Clark St. It was a front lawn made to be the play place. When my parents moved there it was decided that the front yard would be the place to play. Their last home had a beautiful, big back yard, with swings and a garden and even a great tree for climbing. But without fail the boys always ended up in the front yard. It was where you wanted to be. You didn’t want to miss out on other kids coming and going. It was the late 70’s and that was what you did. You played with all the neighbor kids.
The lawn on Clark Street was lined by woods to the left and the driveway to the right. It’s a gravel driveway in my mind. Mostly chalky dust still painful to walk on but worn so thin by the constant comings and goings of so many. It’s probably been paved close to 20 years by now, but I’ve been gone for most of that.
It was the lawn where pictures were taken. In formal clothes or shoeless and ragged and smiling from joyful exertion and childhood exploring. It was the lawn we ignored from the porch while we ate breakfasts and read newspapers and chatted. The lawn we’d look out to on beautiful summer mornings, a thing not to be missed where I’m from, where snow is likely to cover the grass for 6 months solid, if not more, and laugh embarrassedly but lovingly as our parents would lie on the grass holding hands. Who knew what crazy things they were talking about, it wasn’t the point at the time. The point was how weird our amazing and beautiful parents were. I could write those conversations now and while I’d be hard pressed for accuracy, I suspect they would read those words and hear the conversations they had, enjoying the privacy of their tiny shangrila in the middle of so much youthful burbling and angst. They’d have been telling each other the funny thing one of the kids said that the other hadn’t heard. They’d be recounting the plans for the summer and making decisions while holding hands in the grass my mother liked to keep a little long and a little wild. They’d be living love the way you do when it surrounds you and consumes you and you find yourself awash in the logistics of simply maintaining such a healthy harvest. My father would have the chance to be funny. He was always funny. The quiet and opportunistic kind of funny. Observant and smart. The best funny, the kind that leads with the ear. But he’d get the chance to be funny for his lady. Funny in a way the kids wouldn’t get and she couldn’t resist. Before long, but not too quickly, life would remind them it’s time to get back at it and they would. But they’d be back.
Across the street, a slow, unlined simple village road, was the park. It was Corbett park but to us it was just the park. The park that watched us grow while it grew and changed over time. The park that had everything we ever needed, everything I ever needed. The park where we hid in order to explore being dangerous and being bad when we got older, where we could spend hours when we were little on now ancient seeming playground apparatus that our children will recoil at if they ever have kids of their own. Hardly believing that you could be spun so fast at 4 or 5 or 6 or older, depending on how big you were and how big the spinner was, so fast that you could hold on to the bars and with full extension spin endlessly. You’d fall and get up and try to swing so high that you’d be able to fully flip it. Never saw it, but I heard about it. We’d all heard about it.
When I got older the park became the basketball court for me. The parking lot for others. But during my prime people seemed to respect that the hoop on the Main Street side of the lot was mine and you parked on the far end. Or maybe it was just that way because for a good number of years I was out there, rain or shine, morning to night. When I was old enough I’d bring the car over and shoot in the lights with the radio on. It was my home court, always will be. I shoveled it to keep shooting. I would shoot in the middle of the night. Must have driven the neighbors crazy. All day every day. It was my first deep deep love. I always had basketball. Through ups and downs and joys and pains I always had that hoop.
When we wanted to test ourselves the park once again provided all we needed. At the back of the park, the horizon of that view from the small window at the kitchen sink, past the tennis courts was the pit. The pit was a giant hole dug at the back, between the park and the steep but small hill that led up to the towpath along the canal. It’s fair to say we grew up between the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario, but we could walk to the canal, which we could see from our porch, in perhaps as much as 3 minutes while the lake was some twenty miles behind our house, through at least two other municipalities. Still, they were parameters of sorts, at least in my mind. Nothing that pinned us in, just something that gave us our bearings.
The pit would grow green like all the other open area in the flatlands that is the Great Lakes area of the country. But to us boys it was dirt. One solid line of dirt maybe a foot wide that started at the patch of trees that signified the point where the canal slope, the park and the pit convened. You’d disappear behind on your BMX bike as you’d gathered all the speed your legs and the descent from the towpath would get you. When you emerged from that tiny patch of trees you’d make another, shallow descent into the pit where you’d churn your legs as hard as you could. Maybe not that first time, but even then you’d fake it. Then you’d hit the best playground BMX jump that suburbia ever created and you’d soar, sometimes as much as 20 feet when you got good at it. I swear. It was epic.
To this day my mother says she was at the window in the kitchen when we proved it was a bad idea to do this kind of thing on a motorcycle. I say we, but it was one guy. He made it, but he also crashed through a chainlink fence surrounding the tennis courts a good fifty feet from the lip of the jump. At least that’s how I remember it. That’s how we talk about it, which we do every couple of years now when it comes up.
At the end of the day you’d make your way home, walking up that long driveway and know how lucky you were. I can still sense it in every way just by closing my eyes. I can feel the gravel under my feet and smell the trees and the more subtle smell of long uncut grass. I can hear the birds making their nightly ascent from the woods we explored for thousand of hours. It’s going to be one of the places I sense most vividly on my death bed no matter how old I am or how much I’ve lost. I love that big blue house on the middle of our block in a town I’ll always love but I know I will see so rarely now that life is upon me and I’m busy trying to make a world half as magical for my kids to remember when they are out and finding what will be there home.
It may no longer be our house. It was our house and that’s enough. Now there are other people making other memories and living the good life in the best place a kid could ever grow up. But in my heart and in my mind it will always be my house. The house I grew up in, the home I loved before all others. What a lucky kid I was.