Twenty years ago today

It was the hottest I could remember being.

Not only was I roasting hot, but I was sitting in a car with my mom and my sisters, stuffed full to the gills of clothes and bags of assorted crap. We’d been driving carloads and truckloads to the house for several days, in our old Subaru station wagon that had no A/C. And it was sweltering.

The new house was in a new town, 9 miles north of the old town, which was 5 miles below our little cabin down a mountain dirt road. We’d been packing for weeks after hunting for years to find the house that was just right for us. The first time I saw the new house I was so excited, because I knew I would get a room to myself for the first time in my life, as tiny as it was. There was an aboveground pool, and a playhouse (though at ten I was far, far too old for the playhouse), and a couple of rope swings in the backyard. The house itself was set back from the highway that comprised the main street of town, at the end of a long dirt driveway that ran through the vineyards of the people who had once owned the entire piece of property on which our house and the little house next door stood.

It was yellow, the new house. No more driving for ages to get home after school. No more scheduled trips to the grocery store, since there was one (also, a drugstore) right across the street from the new house. But no more playing for hours in the neighbor’s fig tree, no more cows, no more tea parties with the nice neighbor who was sort of like a surrogate grandma. No more school with people that despised me. No more winters with plastic on the ceiling to catch the drips from the leaky roof. The new house was ours, the new town was ours. I poured over the newspaper my mom had picked up, the weekly Reville, that had photos of kids’ sports events and want ads and grinning toothy real estate agents. Which of these kids would I know come fall? Which ones might be my friends?

The day was miserable and sticky, the car dusty from the road we’d gone up and down several times, my two-year-old sister fussing and my six-nearly-seven-year-old sister annoyed. Yet somehow the misery of the heat, which doubled or tripled once the car overheated and my mom had to run the heater (YES, RUN THE HEATER on a 100+ F day), couldn’t touch the excitement I felt at finally having a house that was ours, a real house, where my friends could visit without needing four wheel drive vehicles, in a town where nobody knew me and something magical might happen. I still remember the feeling of starting a new life, in a new place, even though it was so close to the old place. The realization that my mom had chosen the paint and the wallpaper especially for the room that would be mine, because she’d always wanted to paint a girl’s room a dusty rose color.

As my dad continued the hauling of the larger furniture, my mom and my sisters and I settled in to start unpacking. We went to the grocery store across the street, and I was allowed to choose a bag of potato chips. Unfortunately, in my utter glee, I forgot to read the package and ended up with unsalted ones. I still remember the potato-grease-but-no-salt flavor of those chips, mixed with the smell of the grassy back yard and the slight tang of the pool chemicals, and the new paint and wallpaper paste and the smell of a house that didn’t yet belong to us, that still smelled like the previous family that had lived there.

Two neighbor kids came over that afternoon, stringy haired, faces stained from red dye #3 (popsicles?) They were both older than Laurel and younger than Lissa but wanted to meet the new kids, and see if we wanted to play. At a lofty ten, I felt far too old to be participating in those sorts of games, but my sisters were both up for it. They played in the space between our two driveways, the six and the five and the three and the two. I watched.

The afternoon sun beat down on us. My mom stayed inside puttering, and decided not to cook anything for dinner but rather prepare something cold. I think we had more saltless potato chips, in plastic lawn chairs pulled up to a table that had been in the attic of our old place (there’d been nowhere to set it up). The evening wore on, and I decided to commemorate the monumentous occasion of the first night in the first house that was ours by writing the date, July 1 1989, on a scrap of wood I found in the garage. I buried it under a loose flagstone in the backyard sidewalk.

For all I know, it’s still there.

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