Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Homemade Ghosts - An Essay

A few years ago, I took a course in non-fiction writing at the community college that I was at. I didn't really need it for any reason whatsoever, just simply took it for the experience, where I could freely craft my creative writing skills and get constructive feedback from fellow writers (turns out it was just me, three other students, and my teacher).

I realized while re-reading it, that I had to tweak a few things here and there, due to the fact that I wrote this several years ago while still living at home and before my "new" life started. Also, an essay or even a poem is always in a constant state of construction.

Homemade Ghosts - An Essay of Home

In a country where so many people have moved countless times over the course of their childhood, to ten different houses, or to ten different towns or even to ten different states, I called one small town home, which lays someplace in the cornfields of northern Illinois. It lies beyond the glow of Chicago’s mountainous skyscrapers. Beyond the ebb and flow of the Chicagoland traffic. Beyond all that noise. A quiet, forgetful little place that’s full of countless fleeting memories and time faded images that I have tucked away in my mind.

Before adulthood finally caught up with me and made myself a new home, I only moved once in my life. My very first move, was a major move for me, at least for a 5-year-old, at the time. It was only one street over and a few blocks yonder onto this old red brick street.

My Physical Home
My childhood home was this old, snug beige house that was built some 60 years ago by the hardworking hands of my great-grandfather and grandfather. It’s a marvel to think that whenever my dad and me had to fix a leaky pipe or patch a hole or paint a wall, they were right here before us, putting up these same walls that have protects us from the elements. If you listened, very carefully, the faint echo of a hammer could be heard, driving in a nail.

The house was my great-grandmother’s, GG we affectionately called her, whom I never really got to know, since she passed away while I was still a youngster. All I have are fading flashbulb memories of her, mostly these ghostly images. It was so dreamlike looking at her one last time. Those wrinkled folded hands, held firmly together on her chest. I looked at her closed eyelids, Wearing 1950’s era eyeglasses, with such soft snow white hair. As I looked at her, I remember her wanting one last hug before her coffin was closed. I hid behind my parents’ legs, wondering what it all meant. Unable to stop staring at her, she told me that she only wanted to comfort me from where she forever slept, simply wanting to let me know that…. “everything will be alright…..”

Obviously, only a childhood dream, or possible nightmare. The mind can play tricks on a overly imaginative kid, ya know.

When I was home alone late at night, I had a feeling that she was still there; I could feel her presence in the most smallest of ways. My breath always caught, I shuddered, and the back of my neck grew cold, every time I heard the floorboards creaking late in the night, when there wasn't anyone else walking around. The old polished wooden rocker in the living room tended to creak back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in the dead of night. She is with us, in some higher form; or so me and my family like to believe.

Whenever I walked around the house, I wondered what exactly was going on in the kitchen or bedroom, or what was lying in a certain spot before I was even thought up. I sometimes wonder if the previous owner ever stubbed a toe upon the table, late at night. Did they ever hear the same creaks of the floorboards?

In the basement, I sometimes liked to follow my fingers along the cracks of the cold white painted foundation walls. I liked to trace the thin cracks with my fingers. I would find myself wondering, who else has already traveled these cinderblock avenues?

These Ghosts That I Live With

Living in the same neighborhood during the entire course of my childhood, I have many memories regarding the small block of eight houses, as well as the rest of the neighborhood. My neighborhood is filled with the ghosts of the neighborhood kids I used to play with. They’re not dead; they’ve only moved away or simply grew up and moved on in their own way. The memory of them exists in every place I look at in our small neighborhood whenever I'm visiting home.

Jacob lived two doors down from me in an Italianate stucco house. He would run from his house to mine, stuttering away about something amazing as he endlessly tripped over the next door neighbor’s rock and pebble paved circle drive, all dirt-faced, due to playing war in his sandbox with his massive collection of GI Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. Frantically excited about any brand new toy his parents bought him. It would take me a few minutes to understand what in the world he was talking about at times. He mumblely blundered and jumbley jittered and stumbley stuttered at a rat-a-tat rate of hyper-charged speed. Sounding too much like cartoon machine gun fire. You couldn't help but be a bit puzzled and laugh a little at how he talked. Even if he was being super serious about the subject he was trying to discuss with you. He was almost always nearly out of breath, obviously.

My mom constantly reminded him, “Slooowwww down, Jacob!” as soon as he was within reasonable ear shot.

When that didn’t work, I usually translated for him, since I managed to magically know the language of Jacob’s stutter-speak, fairly well, for the most part.

There’s the two story tall white house across the street, now long disused and in foreclosure. Once the grand home of my longtime secret crush, as well as longtime classmate and distant friend. She was a golden chestnut haired, beautiful and uber-smart brainiac, named Rachel. I enjoyed stealing glances of her in her two-piece bathing suit, while we played in her backyard kiddie pool or even swung together from her swing set. It was unbearable to just sit there and not be breath-taken, especially because she was such a smart young woman. One of many reasons why I could never really talk to her. 

She would usually walk over to my house in the late afternoon and sit cross legged on my front porch in the summer with me and my family. When she was younger, she liked examining her bug collection in this mild gleeful excitement. She pressed her eyeglasses against the dull plastic box, watching the tiny ants and beetles interact. She would go on and on, explaining the scientific facts behind each insect she caught and I just sat there, very intent, just watching her smile.

I’m transported back to the time when I was playing basketball with her little brother named Matthew. I was resting on the hot summer blacktop driveway, my back to the closed garage door, white paint peeling away, and looked up at the little guy.

“I’m all pooped out,” I manage to breathe through the humid air, the sweat dripping down my forehead.

Little Matthew looks over at me, about ready to take a shot at the basket, and his eyes grow wide, very startled.

“Whoa!” he said, staring at me in deep fascination. He slowly began to walk towards me, dropping the basketball, which dribbles away to hide in the cool shade of the bushes. Little Matthew sits next to me cross-legged, and examines my face.

 “You don’t have any more poop left in you?” Little Matthew asked me, awe-struck.

 “No….. no! I didn’t mean it like that!” I laughed at the very thought of what he was thinking. “What I mean to say is, that I’m tired, that’s what ‘pooped out’ means.”

I couldn’t help but laugh some more and gulp for air in the humid summer heat.

“When you get unpooped, can you play some more?” he asks me very casually as we just sit there in the summer shade, waiting for a nice breeze to cool us down.

Whenever I looked at the neighborhood and my childhood house, I knew that at some point, I would call some place far from here, home, and that daydream has finally came true. I used to be afraid of the thought of losing my childhood home, but I have discovered that it's more worthwhile making a new home.  Living far from that childhood home, I still have my memories, which is all I need and it's all now in the past. I can now look to the future and enjoy building my new home with my wife.

The first experience far from home, on my own, came like so many people, after graduating from high school. I found myself stuck in Des Moines, Iowa, right after a long summer of reflecting about my post-high school years and working in the cornfields south of town, pollinating and detassling corn.

I found myself unable to get back home, college courses keeping me busy. There were many miles of rolling seas of cornfields just outside the city to my childhood home, the interstate highway the only small connection linking me from home. Home was 300 miles away, a 5 hour drive, just past that great and mighty Mississippi River. I had to grasp onto something to not feel so homesick anymore. Just to have something from home put me more at ease. I found that buying the same products my mom always bought erased the feeling of homesickness. My college bedroom practically looked the same as the bedroom I had back at home and that helped me out as well. I even had the same style of bookshelf sitting in my room, with all the familiar titles of John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Bill Bryson and my oddball collection of travel guidebooks and narratives and books of random facts and information.

Over time though, this strange and different city grew on me and it was my escape from my childhood home. I was able to do my own thing, without my parents breathing down my neck. At least to an extent. They called me up every single Sunday morning. I always made sure I was up and ready and sitting next to the telephone when they called, right at noon, right on the dot. It was their way of letting me know that they were the one’s paying for me to be out there. They also reminded me of this when they came out to visit me, to clean my whole place, much to my soft objections.

While living and going to college in Des Moines, I was free from my childhood home and was able to figure out who I was. Free to get away from the constant chaos of parents, at least for a time. Free to simply be free. Free to grow up. At least, as long as there was money in my bank account and my grades were passing.

One thing I loved to do the most while in Des Moines, despite the normal college things, was to drive those city streets, full of city drivers. I flowed right along with them. I found myself behind the slow pokes who drove on either side and I didn’t care, too much. Although, I watched in horror at the speed demons who didn’t give a care if they are in the slow lane or weaved this way and that way through heavy traffic and always managed to cut in front of you, but still, I didn’t mind it too much. Even though I hate traffic, I felt at one with this great traffic flow of city life. I wanted to drive forever and be part of something that was so much more. This was where I felt more at home. My trusty 1998 Pepsi-colored blue Dodge Neon car was my piece of home. I felt comfortable behind the wheel, especially with my license plates proudly proclaiming, that I was in fact, from the humble place known simply as, the Land of Lincoln. Even though I had driven more miles in Iowa, the roads of metro Des Moines was my new and true home.

Home Calls, Once More

There I was, standing in my empty white walled living room, staring out the large bay window at the hilly little campus. The leaves on the small trees were already dying away in the late November chilled air. Winter slowly starting to march into the picture. The apartment dorm I had called my home for so long was now bare of any memory of me. Looking down at my key chain, I noticed I still had the room key still attached. I took it off the key ring and gently placed the room key marked 400 on the kitchen counter. I left it there, waiting for the next person to grab it and to call this little space, room number 400, home. Now, it was time for me to head back to what I’ve always known as home.

Moving On

Looking around at my empty childhood bedroom, I gaze around, making sure none of my physical memories of the past is being left behind. After finding a new place to call home, a new place to make it feel like home, I knew it was finally time to move on from this place and get to look forward to what's ahead. I look again around my old room and see that my parents have repainted the room back to the dull beige color that I had tried to hide with a different color some time back, baby blue. The reminders of my childhood already beginning to fade away as my parents move onwards themselves, happy to be empty nesters and heading ever closer to retirement. After one last look, I feel that it's time to head back home, my new home to make memories in.

I will admit, one reminder of my childhood tends to leave me homesick, no matter where I am. It's the sound of a train. There’s that low, far off humming rumble, far off. The gentle clanking and the banging of the train as it travels on the tracks, grows louder…. louder…. louder. I close my eyes, to listen and feel that beautiful thundering noise. It sounds like a heavy heartbeat. It makes me homesick, to hear that sound.

I hear a train coming. In the distance. The banshee wail of the whistle blowing. Soft at first. Growing ever so louder now. The windows rattle. The floorboards vibrate. Thunder booms, against the rails. At the crossing, boxcar, boxcar, boxcar, boxcar. The clickity clack, clickity clack, clickity clack of the passing train, wailing, carrying me back to my childhood home.

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