I have been thinking about the past a lot lately. That’s an old man’s exercise. I don’t consider myself “old” but maybe old is as old does. In any event, I find myself doing it.
Leah and I ate lunch Saturday at one of those fast-food chicken places. It was on Martha Berry Boulevard, known in the old days as Avenue C, five streets or about two real blocks from where my father grew up. Our table was at a window facing that direction. I saw a few large trees that might have been around back in the day when my father called it “the old home place.” But probably not.
My grandmother died years ago, and the old home place was sold and torn down for doctors’ offices. It was so long ago that now even the doctors’ offices are gone, burned to the ground. A couple of magnolia trees survive in what used to be the front yard, but the huge pecans that were behind the house are gone.
Almost everything else is gone, too. One house separated my grandmother’s from the old Fourth Ward School, where my father and I both attended elementary school. The school, a three-story red brick block with tender-dry wood floors, is long gone – doctors’ offices, you know. John’s general store, where we bought goodies before school (Luden’s cough drops or those wax, bottle-shaped containers that held about two sips of colored sugar water) was beside the school. It’s gone. The BPOE that was on a hill a block from my grandmother’s house is a Japanese restaurant.
All of those things continue to exist as a ghost-like overlay when I look at where they used to be. But they’re not real, not even real ghosts.
About a mile north from my grandmother’s house, out along Martha Berry Boulevard, a turn to the west leads to where I grew up, 19 Redmond Road. Our parents drove us to Fourth Ward School from that house, and a bus took us home. Every once in a great while I walked that long mile home. It seemed like an epic trek in those days, that little mile. I walk the dogs down the mountain further than that every day now.
Our old house is also gone, along with the two others to the immediate east. Where our house was there is now a nephrology center. Where the other two houses were there is a parking lot, and a little further towards Martha Berry there are doctors’ offices.
Our yard was not huge, but in our little boy world, my brother and I divided it into at least three separate zones. We played mostly in the zone nearest the house. We could throw a rock across that space. Sometimes we went a little further away towards the brick grill my father built, but for some reason, the wooded far end of the yard seemed like a distant place we only passed through on the way to some other place.
Off to the east “the woods” separated the first three houses on Redmond Road from Martha Berry Boulevard. The woods were not large, probably less than an acre, but they, too, had zones. Just inside the woods we knew the paths and built our forts. Deeper into the woods the paths were less familiar, and by the time we explored as far as Martha Berry Boulevard, something we almost never did, the paths evoked a slight tinge of discomfort because of their unfamiliarity. There was a large, abandoned house out of a Stephen King novel at the edge of the woods. I don’t remember any sense of foreboding, but we never went close to it. It’s gone, now, replaced by parking spaces for the doctors’ offices.
About four diagonal blocks from our house, the steep hill we all dreaded when we rode our bikes to the city playground has subsided to a gentle slope. I don’t know what kind of tectonic process does that.
A few hundred yards further out Redmond Road, most of the giant pine trees the road passed through have been replaced by a hospital and doctors’ offices. I think I see a trend. Behind the doctors’ offices there is an assisted living facility where my mother spent a few months before going home to die. Just on the other side there is a four-lane highway that separates my old neighborhood from Berry College, where we rode many a summer mile on our bikes. We drive that highway often to get to town. For a long time I used to look towards the end of the building where my mother had stayed, but I don’t do that so much any more. I guess that’s because I usually take another route now.
Our house on Redmond Road is the one my subconscious considered home, not the house my parents built around 1967 and where my mother died last year. The Redmond Road house appeared regularly in dreams of home for many years after I left it.
For some reason, the place where my old home stood doesn’t have any ghosts. And now even that house is foreign to my dreams.