Tonight I think I want to go home again. Maybe the sherry deceives me. Maybe it’s the winter rain pounding the window, bringing a shiver, even though I’m safe and grown up. Maybe it’s wanting a home to house a fragile myth of childhood.
Tonight I’ll blame the sherry for the fanciful images playing in the back of my mind—an evening, a mellow light cast from the hearth into a room textured with polished wood and soft things, a sofa lumpy with pillows, a thick, nubbled carpet, its surface worn to silkiness. Wood crackles in a fire behind a screen, a friendly sound—a perky fire, with sparks darting up off the log and the occasional surprise of a flare popping into the chimney.
Yes, like a Christmas card—sentimental, I know, but that’s the way I want to see the room, making up truth for the 1930s. I conjure up the cozy fragrance of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg wafting from the kitchen, and now closer, in the dining room. Mother—I’ll call her Mama—in her faded floral apron, brings us a tray of steaming cider-filled mugs.
Tonight I want to linger in the ritual of these sensory events. Their pretend reality bolsters and deepens the picture, persuading me of their truth. I imagine Father—actually, I’ll call him Papa—deep in his floppy old brownish chair, the welting frayed enough to show how often he has sat there after dinner over the years. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to just below his elbows. His stocking feet rest on the hassock. He sniffs the air, and a patient, easy smile makes his eyes crinkle.
Against the leg of Papa’s chair nests our short-haired dog of no identifiable lineage, nose on his paws, unaffected by the fragrance of spicy cider. Our cat dozes upright, a silhouette in front of the fire. In the slightly smoky haze of the room we warm ourselves. Best of all, we feel no fear. In fact, we never feel fear in this homey setting.
This picture includes three children, tussling and giggling on the sofa, pulling and tumbling over the pillows. Being the eldest, I know that soon we’ll quiet down. Then we’ll hold our cups of cider, blow the steam away from the surface, sip, while Mama or Papa conjure up stories of suspense and mayhem that hang deliciously between once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after.
Why did I think every family but ours had the hominess of the sprightly fire and hot cider? Maybe I read it in a book or saw pictures. In my real memory, try as I might, I discover no fireplace to go back to, no crackling log, no stories for telling and comforting. What I remember is an architectural trick in the wall of a room, a gas heater trying to look like a fireplace in a small, walled-in space outlined by bricks.
My mother works hard to make a home for us out of nothing. I lie to my new school friends about where I live and don’t invite them to my house. There is no house. For us there is a dampish, high-ceilinged room behind their store, the same kind of room behind one store or another, always that space with a cement floor, where beds, cots, an oilcloth-topped table and chairs make a place for five. My parents hope for the best, expect the worst.
We occupy the scenery of some kind of American Dream during the Depression—the room behind the store with calcimined walls, the naked light bulb on a cord dangling from the ceiling, cold running water, somehow a place for an old stove. I know houses have hot water and a bathtub; we have lived in a house before. But now, living in this new setting behind the store, we go down the block to a neighbor’s house to pay for taking a bath, then file in and out as the family’s children stare at us. They are kids our age, in our grade. In silence they watch us walk out with our hair wet, a towel around our neck, bathrobes tied around the middle, holding in our shivering and embarrassment.
We’ll not be in this or any store too long before Father becomes impatient. He can do better—this is America. He’ll sell, move, get another store across town, make progress, change our schools. Again I’ll be a stranger with new friends, not inviting them home. Mother sighs and starts packing. We move but lie about the address so we can stay in the school district until the end of the semester. My mother refuses to interrupt the school year. She drives us back and forth to the old school from our new place behind yet another store. Every day fear claps my shoulder as harshly as the expected principal’s hand, should he discover our lie, but he never finds out. No one ever finds out.
Wait, maybe there is a house to go back to—the one in the photograph of me on my young father’s shoulders, his cap at a jaunty angle, a big, confident smile on his face. Maybe I can go back to that home I can’t remember, where I was still a baby, grinning down at my mother from the top of the world.
Or maybe the little white house that came before the stores, when I was in the third grade, the last time my father worked for anyone but himself. I liked that house where I planted nasturtium seeds under the fig tree in the backyard. But a shadow falls across that house, across the schoolroom, across me, across the teacher, who says I looked over a schoolmate’s shoulder during our arithmetic test. She says I should go home and tell my mother I cheated.
I ache to believe I can do that, and I try hard to imagine that Mother will listen and put a soft hand on my head, caress my hair, murmur something tender and thoughtful and not sound anything like the teacher. I want to believe that she understands everything—especially and most important, that the teacher is wrong.
But by now I know I can’t tell my mother such a thing. I picture her dismay. She will roll her eyes to the ceiling and close her eyelids. She will shake her head from side to side in disbelief. She will put her hands together and twist them with a despair that will frighten me, and she’ll reveal for me her fear for my future, the worry she has about what will become of me if I behave that way, if I ever do that again. And she must tell Father. Father never has doubts about how a matter should be handled. He knows the teacher is always right. Not that my mother always tells my father everything.
No, I better just go home, eat Mother’s good dinner, maybe meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, report to Father that school went well today—I got one hundred on my spelling test, show him the paper—drink my Ovaltine and go to bed. Better not to speak, even if I jolt up suddenly in the night, my forehead sweaty, my mouth dry, my nightgown twisted around my body. Perhaps the teacher will forget to bring up the matter at the next open house. Maybe she’ll even forget about it by tomorrow, and somehow the pain in my stomach will go away. But the shadow over that white house doesn’t disappear, even though I can’t remember what happened the next day.
The sherry swirls through my imagination, making me confuse the past, the remembering and forgetting, yearning, having, wanting. But everything did get better. Not that we ever had the hearth or the fragrant cider or the cat. Or maybe I really misremember, and it was better all the time or not as bad as I thought. Or maybe I misunderstood, and we were really having adventures, and I didn’t know how to make-believe at the right time. Or I read too many orphan-children books with cruel adults, though I knew they were not my parents.
But for all my remembering and forgetting, I see my parents move like dogged shadows through the Great Depression, through my childhood, worry prodding them, fear threatening them at turns they didn’t expect and couldn’t explain, their anxiety veiling everything.
And I followed them, myself a faithful, anxious shadow, myself later to summon fantasies in the sherry to solace a winter’s night.