In the summer of 1984, mom moved us in with her second husband, Neal, after her very quick, very spiteful wedding earlier in March. I watched her father, my Papaw, walk her down the Weyerhaeuser wooden steps off the back deck of her sister’s house to give her away to this seemingly nice man we hardly knew. My uncle, a judge, married mom and Neal under a big tree, and I stood in as her one and only 10-year-old bridesmaid. The marriage ended a few months after we moved into his house, the fourth move since mom and dad divorced the year before.
But “kids are resilient,” they say. And my younger brother Jason and I rolled with it. After all, Neal’s backyard did have a bona fide Johnny Burnett swimming pool built into the ground. Summer slipped away quickly, and even after summer camp, living at Neal’s house felt alienating and I missed my friends.
“You’ll have your fun one day,” mom told me.
“Yeah, in eleven years!” I said back to her. She laughed nervously, probably wondering why I was so fixated on becoming 21.
Daddy still lived on the other side of town in the U-shaped, one-story ranch home I’d known for most of my life. I can close my eyes now and remember laying in my twin bed and studying the psychedelic hexagonal-patterned pink wallpaper, original to the 1971 home. My parents’ best friends all had kids my age, and we all ran down the long hallways, played in pillow forts, and counted our Halloween loot in piles on the white shag carpet (which my mother raked after vacuuming). The happiest memories from my formative years took place on the corner of Bunker Hill Drive. I think of that home as my happy place, but some shit went down there. And after it did, we moved away a few times.
A year earlier in 1983, we were all living in that house when daddy dropped to both of his knees on the white shag carpet at the end of one of the long hallways that established an interior walkway passing by the sunroom and bedrooms. Standing at the kitchen-end of the hallway, Jason and I saw him down the hall. We approached him and dropped our little bodies into his arms. We embraced in a tight, unrelenting hug, attempting to contain the tears as if they were about to spew from a bottle of beer. It was the day he told us we would be living apart. He said he thought we should live with our mother.
“I miss you already,” he said, hugging tighter. Huh? I did not understand. I tried to pull away, resisting in denial.
“We are right in front of you,” I said. This didn’t make any sense. What the fuck ever makes sense when you’re nine years old and your parents are in charge? Why did it have to be this way? If he was missing us, then don’t miss us, I thought. It was that simple to me.
For the time being, mom, Jason and I lived in Neal’s house, making the best of it. I was thrilled when visitors from my “old life” came to visit. Since I lived so far away from them and thought they’d forgotten me, I decided to level set everyone’s memory of my life with an autobiography written in pencil on front and back of a piece of loose-leaf paper. (I wish I still had it!) Once the welcomed guest walked through the front door, I whisked them away for an experiential tour of the house, reading from my script about the first ten years of my life.
I had it all planned out: at the front door, I’d lead them down the hallway into the living room. There was no stopping to linger because we were on a counterclockwise journey of my life as told through stories in each room. First bedroom on the right was Jason’s, which I’d explain that he was born when I was four, in case you were wondering. He plays with his own friends, so we won’t be interacting with him too much. The next bedroom was mine, where I’d explain how I got to use all of my mom’s old furniture. Then there was mom’s room, which led to a sunroom and the backyard. As the docent of this tract home, I’d tell them my dad’s company built that pool and my mom married some guy who worked for my dad, but they are getting divorced now. As my guests and I re-entered through the back door into the living room, we strolled past the dining room and the kitchen where I learned how to make French toast and scrambled eggs, in case you wanted breakfast. Beyond the little laundry room off the kitchen took us to the converted garage, which was now the kids’ playroom. Annnd…that’s ten minutes of their lives they’ll never get back.
Strategically on my part, they ended up positioned in front of my floor art, something I only let few people play with. Only people who “got it” could play. Jason got it. Mom didn’t get it. I could tell right away if someone got it. If they did, they immediately understood my vision and wanted to know how they could contribute. If they didn’t get it, they didn’t ask any questions or simply walked away. There was no being “on the fence” about my art. But we ended up here on purpose because this is what I wanted to play all the time.
Ten years old, budding with creativity and strong undertones of organizational skills, my imagination dominated my reality. My brother had all the Dr. Seuss books. The cover designs, lines and colors gave me an idea. I placed them on the playroom’s parquet floor, creating a square, U or L shape with the combinations. And on the covers, the book designs began to reveal to me something like a floorplan of a home. I loved playing with my dollhouse and decorating my room, so I began to decorate the flat book covers with three-dimensional dollhouse furniture. This was my floor art. I missed my home, and this helped me cope. After all, I’d just been through the worst thing of my life.
When daddy sold my beloved happy place in 1991, I had no recourse. I felt gutted again for having to move out of the house I’d just moved back into (after mom moved us to live in the UK with her third and longest-lasting husband, Richard – we all love him). However, I understood. He’d worked hard and wanted to build his dream house, the one he’d been planning to build ever since he and his former girlfriend Diane found the floorplan on vacation in Florida.
I couldn’t believe we were actually leaving this house and someone else was moving in and making it their own with their own memories. When the movers cleaning out Bunker Hill found his stash of weed hidden in the back top shelf of a kitchen cabinet, instead of outing my dad, I sold it for $30. I’ll never know if he had any idea that happened. Maybe it’s just another reason he didn’t give me a key to his house.
Then a couple of weeks after he died, I dreamt about him. I call it a dream gift. We were each standing at either end of that same long hallway with the white shag carpet. As if in slow motion, we ran toward each other, meeting in the middle and hugged for a long time.
“I miss you, daddy,” I said.
“I miss you, too, Baby Doll,” he said, calling me by the nickname he gave me. “You’re going to be OK.” We hugged again, and then the dream was over.