Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Homes


By JOELLEN COLLINS

From her Blackberry, my daughter sent me several photos of a group of houses in San Francisco. One of them showed my early childhood home, in my memory a spacious and exciting place perched on a hill overlooking Golden Gate Park and the bridge. From the big bay window, I could see the lights of the city go out during wartime air-raid practices. Up the hill behind our home we could gather pussy willows; it was only a block or so from my elementary school.

This home was a source of love and comfort; my first bedroom was downstairs, like a little sanctuary tucked away under a slanted wood ceiling with one high window for my stargazing. I spent many hours there, early in the morning, reading fairy tales or listening to the radio while snacking on the animal crackers my parent left for their early riser.

I would have joyously spent the rest of my childhood there, but a series of unhappy events, including the fatal tuberculosis my elder sister contracted, forced our move to Southern California. This time was crucial and filled with trauma, the subject of a lengthy chapter in a memoir I have been writing. In a pattern typical of many Californians in a highly mobile society, this first moved engendered many others, and I spent a wholesome adolescence in Burbank, Calif.

Since graduating from UCLA, I have inhabited at least 11 residences and have learned the true value of a home: It is not how big or beautiful it is, but how it frames the loving people who live inside. Currently I live in a third-floor condominium very close to town and am perfectly happy with my small space. It is just right for my need at this stage of my life. Though alone, I treasure the proximity to town and to my friends, and of course I have my puppy, Cleo, to provide some other breathing sounds and affection around me.

I feel especially blessed when I compare my rooms full of light and comfort with the modest dwellings of so many people I have come to cherish in my travels. My Thai friends would be amazed at the size of the appliances in my kitchen. I do think most of us who live in the Wood River Valley are doubly rewarded by the accident or choice of our homes—we get to enjoy most of the cultural aspects of a big city with the freedom of mountains at hand.

When I decided to visit my mother's cousin, a sprightly woman of 95 who lives near Seattle, I went through several old photos of our house in San Francisco. She was married there, and there are many shots of her and her handsome young husband, my mother and father, and my cousin and me, who were flower girls. I plan to take them with me when I visit her in a couple of weeks. Many photos followed of me and my dog, me and my best friend, Donna, who lived just three houses away, me and my baby brother, adopted just a few months before we left San Francisco, and of course my loving mother and father. Also featured is our black Packard coupe, reminding me of the thrill I had sitting in the little flip-down seats in the back during Sunday trips.

So when I looked at the current photo of my house on Lawton Street, I was surprised. It is completely in disrepair, with peeling wood, weeds in the front yard and a warped garage door. I was sad to acknowledge this reflection of life's mutability. My daughter shared a similar reaction, thinking about how many young couples might have lived there, beginning their family lives as my parents did.

When I sent it to my cousin, who is accompanying me to Seattle, she sent me back a message noting that at one time of her life she wanted to write a memoir based on all the homes she had occupied, but when she looked for her first house, found that the Bay Area Rapid Transit railway was running over its former spot. It had vanished to the wrecking ball.

So the lesson of this? How wonderful that, even briefly, I lived in that home with that family! Life, however, is short, and we are not in any space for very long, so I might as well sit out on my tiny deck, sip a cup of coffee and be thankful for being where I am, today, right here, right now.






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