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Our House

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“Our house it has a crowd/There's always something happening/And it's usually quite loud/Our mum, she's so house-proud/Nothing ever slows her down/And a mess is not allowed/Our house, in the middle of our street/Our house, in the middle of our…”  Our House – Madness

So I’m going through this book all about writing and writing better. Good book so far; it’s called Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach. My friend and partner in crime at the newspaper, Cindi, and I saw Roorbach at a seminar at the local community college awhile ago and we were both intrigued by some of his ideas – intrigued enough to buy his book, anyway.

I was sitting on a plane to Dallas a few days ago. I’d packed Roorbach’s book, determined I was going to get through some of it, and I did. I didn’t know there were going to be exercises along the way, though in retrospect I probably should have – this is a book about writing better, after all.

I got to the first exercise: draw a map of the first place you remember growing up. As is often the case with me, I was unprepared, so I flagged down the airline attendant and asked for a couple of extra napkins (I had a few pens but inexplicably I’d put my notebook in my checked luggage) and began sketching out my family’s first home that I remembered in Fort Dix, NJ.

As the memories came flooding back, my pen set to whirling. Over here, some friends and I found the biggest, most dead sewer rat I’d ever seen (this being New Jersey, it didn’t occur to me then that the rat might have been my legislator). To this day I still remember the putrid smell emanating from that drain pipe where we found the rat and I still remember the bloated, blackened body.

“X” marks the spot where I got the worst haircut of my life – a six-hour ordeal that ultimately resulted in me looking like a bowl had been placed on my head which my mom then cut around, even though I swear every single person in the neighborhood had actually taken a whack at my head. It’s still unbelievable to me that so many people could have gone at my head with scissors and I still looked like some twisted midget version of the early Beatles.

Right here under this lamppost is where the Batman run ended – me in my pajamas, standing under the light, just positive that if I stood in the light I wouldn’t turn into a bat. With the darkness all around me, a circle of light my only protector, the snow was gently falling in the light and my bare feet were screaming for me to return home, to get out of the cold. But I wasn’t moving; that bat-thing with the unnerving scream I’d heard on the 45 record that started this whole ordeal wasn’t going to get me.

This row of concrete storage sheds – this is where all us kids used to play hide and seek for hours on end and where back here in the corner shed something terrible happened.

Tucked behind this fence lived Kong, the evil police German Shepherd that tried to eat me one really bad day, and over there was the big parking lot where my dad first took me for a ride on his scooter.

It wasn’t a parking lot, it was a scooter lot that dad would take Patrick and I around on, both of us trying desperately to manage both keeping the helmet on (it was at least four sizes too large) and holding on to dad. Mom had terrified us both with stories of what could happen if we fell off, and while we swallowed an ounce of fear when we climbed on the back of dad’s shiny metallic blue scooter, we were both determined to ride that thing with dad.

And right here, in my own little swath of backyard, was the place where everyone told me watermelons would never grow, and a few months after I planted the seed a shoot of green sprouted, much to my pride – don’t ever tell me I can’t do something. I never did get a watermelon off that thing, this being military housing and all – we moved on too quickly. And everyone was probably right – it would have died before any fruit could be born. But just the sight of the tiny green shoot protruding from the ground was enough in my little head to proclaim victory.

But as I sketched and sketched and the memories came back a stark realization occurred to me: while I could remember so much about the outside, I could remember hardly anything about the inside of my house. Vague, very vague images of a few things occurred to me: the bean-bag chair I was sitting on listening to the Batman 45 that started my run of terror; the screen door that looked outside my kingdom – framed in black all around the outside of the door, the glowing light of the outdoors filling the center. And that’s about it.

Memory is a fickle thing and I’m pretty sure I’m going to do this exercise again using other places, other times for my jumping off point, because I don’t want to forget. I see people all around me struggling to remember who they were and where they came from and I don’t want to forget.

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