I grew up in a little pink house in a quaint little town–though it wasn’t quite the kind of house and town John Mellencamp immortalized in this (now rather quaint itself) 1983 video.
My house wasn’t in middle America and it wasn’t bubblegum pink. It was in a south Seattle suburb and it was more of a salmon pink–but it was the kind of house that Pam Kueber at Retro Renovation has dubbed mid-century modest, and it’s the kind of house that embodied the post WWII American Dream for a generation of working-class Americans.
Last weekend, I went to this home again for the first time in more than 10 years. The occasion was my 30th high school class reunion, where I saw many for the first time since graduation. It was a bit of a charged weekend for me, to say the least.
As much as it was a chance to reflect on high school (and growing up and growing older and identity and friendship), it was also a chance for me to think (and feel–oh, so many feelings!) about home. I lived in Burien, now a city in its own right but then an unincorporated community tucked into the shore of Puget Sound, from 1969 to 1983. When I graduated from high school, I high-tailed it out of there and never looked back.
In terms of geography, I didn’t go far initially–about 20 minutes north to the University of Washington. In terms of culture, it felt like a different world, which was just what I wanted.
As far as I could see back then, Burien didn’t have any culture. It was just one, long, boring stretch of strip mall, chain-store wasteland, where everyone looked the same, talked the same, thought the same. There was nothing special or interesting or exciting to be found there.
That assessment wasn’t entirely unfair. It was a pretty homogenous place back then, full of middle- and working-class white folks who bought most of their goods along a wide stretch of road lined with fast-food restaurants, car dealers, and ugly storefronts.
So it surprised me, when I turned onto the main drag last Friday evening–that same ugly road–to feel my throat closing and tears welling and only one word on repeat in my head:
In terms of time, the years I spent there were a quick blip. 14 years.
I’ve still got boots I wore 14 years ago.
But when I left Burien, that 14 years had been almost my whole life, and I realized last weekend that it will always be home to me in ways that the community I lived in for nearly 20 years of my adult life will never be.
At the reunion (an event that I am still processing) someone told me that they still think of my old house as mine. “I go walking by there all the time, and every time I do I think, There’s Rita Ott’s house.” She added: “It doesn’t look as nice as it did when your parents lived there, though.”
The next morning, when I drove by the house I grew up in, I was glad I’d had the warning.
It was hard to see my old house the way it looks now. My mom used to keep a nice rock garden where those two ugly boxes are, and my dad kept a pretty meticulous lawn. (Oh, how I hated raking the leaves that fell from the next-door neighbor’s trees!)
Of course, it all feels so much smaller than it did when I was growing up. I found myself wondering how much of that is just the difference in adult perspective (everything seems big when you are little) and how much of that is due to our changed ideas about how much house we need.
All of the houses surrounding my childhood home are modest. All of them were shelters to families raising children (many of them with more than two kids). None of us had family rooms or great rooms and a lot of those kids shared a bedroom with others.
There were some slightly larger homes a few blocks down, closer to the water, but even those look modest in comparison to today’s McMansions (the only kind of new construction that seems to get built on this kind of real estate).
My first grade teacher lived in this house (right across the street from the home pictured directly above):
My friend Sandi and I used to stop and visit Mrs. Anderson occasionally. It was sort of like having a celebrity in our neighborhood. Our teacher (who used to play hopscotch with us at recess, despite having a paralyzed foot) was always kind to us and usually gave us a cookie as she sent us on our way.
Speaking of school, I know now how fortunate I was to live only two blocks from my elementary school. All of us neighborhood kids walked there every day. Our moms accompanied us on the first day, but we were on our own after that. And we were all just fine.
That school is gone now, closed in 1976–right before what would have been my last year there–as post-Baby Boom enrollments dropped. I loved that old building, with its buckled hardwood hallways and clanking radiators and tall windows. I loved the big stairway leading to the second floor, where Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom was right across the hallway from the library. After it closed, I sometimes fantasized about turning it into some sort of cool house and living in it. (I think I’ve always been a house geek.)
The building remained empty for quite a few years, and it was finally torn down in the 90s. All that remains is the arch over the front door, which is at the entrance to the park that was created on the old grounds.
When they were building the park, residents were able to make contributions to buy a brick for the walkway. My parents bought one in my name:
(For more on Mrs. Smallwood and elementary school in the 70s, you can click here.)
As I drove and walked around my old neighborhood, feeling nostalgic for home and intoxicated from only a few hours sleep and the rush of seeing so many old friends, I was a bit of an emotional mess. Finding that brick that sent me over some edge. Actually, it wasn’t my brick. It was the bricks around it. Right above mine were these:
It was when I realized that I knew every person named in that line of bricks that I lost it.
See, one of the things that stuck me most when I got back into town was how much my old hometown is like the town I live in now. I saw the similarities between Burien and Gresham, where I got my first teaching job, almost immediately. It’s partly why I resisted living there for more than 20 years.
Both places were largely white, middle class communities 25 years ago, and both have changed and become more diverse. Both are suburbs of larger, more liberal cities. When I began working in Gresham and realized how much it was like the place I’d wanted so badly to get away from, it felt like some kind of cruel irony.
Now, however, I don’t need to get away from this kind of place. Hell, I’ve embraced it–but Burien has one huge thing that Gresham doesn’t: It holds my history. The earliest and tenderest of my roots. And, still, many of the people who shared it with me.
If I were going to end up in the exact same kind of place, I wondered, why not have stayed where I was, with all the benefits of being surrounded by those who’ve always known and cared for me–many of the people I’d been so happy to reunite with the night before?
What would my life look like today if I’d done that?
Those are the questions my mind was chewing on as I drove back through the “downtown” area looking for something to eat before hitting the southbound freeway. That’s when I saw this:
Grand Central bakery in the Mississippi neighborhood of Portland is one of our favorite breakfast spots. In fact, Cane and I were there just a few weeks ago.
To me, Grand Central is completely and utterly Portland (even though that link will show you in started in Seattle). I had no idea there were any outside of Portland. Certainly not in Burien.
As I stood at the counter waiting to buy the same bread pudding I love to eat in Portland, wallowing in homesickness for my old hometown, I felt a completely different–but equally compelling–homesickness for the place I live now. I missed Cane and the kids and wished I was already back in Portland, at the real Grand Central.
As I drove through town, aching more than a bit for what I might have lost by moving away, wondering why, if I was going to end up in a place so much like Burien, I didn’t just stay there, I understood that home and where we choose to make it is often about much more than geography or even culture.
If I’d grown up in Gresham, I’d probably have needed to leave there, too. I think that’s just the person I was back in 1983–the kind of person who needed to break away in order to figure out who she is and where she wanted to be.
It could all have gone another way. Right after I earned my teaching license, I had an opportunity to return to my old high school and work there. It was a tempting offer, a guaranteed job in what was then a tight market.
I somehow knew I couldn’t take it.
Instead, I took a job in Oregon, moving away not only from my hometown, but from my home state, and all the family and friends who lived there.
I really had no idea of what I was doing. I understood so little then of the word’s to Frost’s most famous poem, and I told myself that I could always come back.
I didn’t know how way leads on to way and it’s never simply a matter of retracing your steps.
My last stop before leaving town was that high school. It, like the elementary school was, is a grand old building–but it is not quite the same building my friends and I made our passage through.The facade is the same, but the interior was renovated in the 90s. I went inside soon after the remodel, and it wasn’t the same place. The long hallways that ran down the length of the first and second floor had been chopped into short passages that felt like a maze.
I knew then I would likely never return.
I didn’t want to go back to the place that both was and wasn’t what I had known and loved, the stage to such an important story in my life. It’s that way for me with the school, and I realized this weekend that it’s that way for me with the town itself.
As much as Burien is the same place it’s always been, it has also changed, as much as my parents’ old house is changed.
Since my marriage ended, I have envied those who have deep history at the foundation of their lives. Long friendships and marriages, long years lived in one place. There is a kind of richness we can find in relationships that can only come with time. There’s nothing like a 30th reunion to help you see that time has run out for some kinds of things. That kind of relationship to home is one of them for me.
As I drove around my old hometown after a night spent with old friends, part of me longed to return to Burien. I have feelings for that place that I doubt I will ever have for Gresham. I loved the idea of once again living in the place where I might renew friendships with those I’ve known since the beginning of my life.
But my history is now inextricably entwined with that of these people:
For them, Gresham and Mt. Hood and Oregon and our funky old split-level are what Burien and Washington and my parents’ little pink house are to me. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to take our children away from the place that’s been home to them.
And, honestly, if I left Gresham I think I’d feel some of the same loss and longing. This is the place where Cane and I and our kids have become family. It’s the place where I’ve spent my entire career, and it’s been landscape to my life more than twice as long as Burien was.
Driving south that day toward people I love like no others, I did feel sad that I’m never going to know the richness of a life lived in one place, but I also realized that mine is one with a different kind of richness, the kind that comes from a multitude of experiences and relationships.
I’m pretty sure the grass is green on both sides of this particular fence–it just grows in different shades. And since I can’t go back and do any of it any other way, I’m going to appreciate and admire the grass I’ve got. It’s got its own kind of beauty, you know?
In other news…
This week Cane was able to move his right eyebrow just a little bit–the first time since Bell’s palsy struck in July! I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to finally have a sign that recovery is happening. I’ve really missed this smile and can’t wait to see it again:
(Took this photo right before he became ill, when we took our little field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright house.)
I return back to school next week (and everyone else does the week after that), so the pace of life is going to be changing around here. I’ll be starting a new job, and one kid is starting a new school, and Cane is still recovering–which means the usual September stress will be a bit heightened this year. I’m not sure how often we’ll be able to post until things settle down.
You may have noticed that we’ve been off our usual pace here. The last month has been challenging. Between Cane’s illness, the death of my old friend, the decision to release our contract with Purple Clover, and my reunion, I’ve been pre-occupied with all kinds of thoughts that have little to do with home.
I’m sure we’ll get back in the swing of things again soon. In the meantime, we’d love to hear how the end of summer is going for you. Feel free to let us know in the comments.