Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House
By Meghan Daum
Hardcover, 256 pages
List price: $24.95
The first house I ever had fantasies about was a wood-and-glass octagon occupied by an imaginary person whose name I'd decided was Malcolm Apricot Dingo. The way I remember it, the house (which was real) looked more like a giant lemonade pitcher than a place where people might actually live. It sat on a weedy plot of land on a winding street, a tall, barrel-like structure that at certain times of day and given a certain arrangement of the window shades provided a view all the way through to the backyard. I was six years old, and this was a source of unending delight; the house made me feel as if I had X-ray vision, as if I were bionic.
Twice a day, my mother drove me past this house on our twenty-minute drive to and from my school. The commute had been made necessary by our recent move to a new neighborhood and my mother's last-minute decision, amid my begging and tears, to allow me to attend first grade at the same school where I'd attended kindergarten. The summer before, my parents had bought their first house, a yellow brick bungalow in a state of nearly unfathomable decay, and for all of my mother's enthusiasm about the new neighborhood she hadn't taken the final step of forcing me to attend school in the proper district. In retrospect, this deferment of the inevitable seems by turns tender and useless. I'd transfer to my zone-appropriate school the following year. The year after that, we'd pack our belongings in a rented Ryder truck and move seventeen hundred miles to yet another town and another school, where I'd stay for three years before another local move necessitated another clumsy navigation through a brine of strangers.
But in the year of the octagonal house, in those ten months when I passed it twice daily, each time announcing to my mother (I have an explicit memory of this, though she only vaguely recalls it) that Malcolm Apricot Dingo was watching us from behind the glass of what I was sure was his second-floor study, that having glanced up momentarily from his very important work he was waving to us, and that it was only polite that we wave back, I knew nothing of the gut-rattling chaos of being the new kid in school. I knew nothing of eating lunch alone while gamely pretending to read a book, of the indelibly bad impression that can be made from wearing the wrong clothes on the first day of school, of trying to forge friendships with people who've had the same best friend since before even the last time you were the new kid.
I also had little territorial frame of reference other than the lush, heat-stroked hill country of Austin, Texas, where we'd moved when I was three and where we'd stay until I was nearly nine. Though I was born in Palo Alto, California, and had trace memories of suburban Chicago, where my family had done a six-month stint when I was a toddler, the bulk of my early childhood was pure Texan. I had a drawl; I said "y'all" and "ahs cream" and assumed that everyone else in the world did, too. I also assumed that every summer day everywhere topped out at 108 degrees and that all cockroaches were the size of turtles and that armadillos were a common form of roadkill. My brother, who was four years younger than I, had been born in Austin in 1974, making him a native Texan. The retired couple who lived next door and whose college-aged children I worshipped were like surrogate grandparents. The city was also home to my friends, my babysitters, my school, my cat — in other words, everything that mattered. I was blond and perpetually tanned and pocked with bites from Texas mosquitoes.
I also happened to have an almost alarming fixation on Little House on the Prairie (first the TV show and, as soon as I could read, the books). I wore a sunbonnet passed down from my maternal great-grandmother, kept my hair in braids like Laura Ingalls, and occasionally called my parents Ma and Pa. When the bonnet wore down to a rag, my mother got out her sewing machine, which she often used to make our clothes, and whipped up a new one. At my request, she also helped me put my mattress on top of two box springs and leaned a stepladder against it, thereby mimicking the loft-bed setup of the Ingalls girls. In the yellow brick bungalow, where my mother built an elevated wooden play structure among the pecan trees in the backyard, I wore my bonnet along with an odd, scratchy calico skirt (a garment that could only have existed in the mid-1970s) and reenacted all manner of scenes from the books and TV episodes: the barn burning down, the dog getting lost, the whole family nearly dying from scarlet fever.
One day, my mother came to me and said that we would be moving away to New Jersey. I remember sobbing in her arms but also taking comfort in her promise that there would be snow in the new place. Since there was snow in the Little House on the Prairie books, I figured we were moving closer to the frontier. When she told me there'd be a real wood-burning fireplace in the new house, I imagined us using it for cooking corn bread.
Ridgewood, New Jersey, was no frontier, just a leafy village of perfectly clipped lawns abutting perfectly maintained houses. Mothers there did not sew clothes, much less build backyard play structures. In fact, they appeared not to do much of anything except play tennis, a discovery that seemed to turn my mother, who'd spent her Austin days attending Equal Rights Amendment rallies in peasant skirts, into an unhappy person almost overnight. Ironically, it was she who'd spearheaded the plan to move to Ridgewood. When my father, who'd been teaching music at the University of Texas, decided he wanted to live the life not of an academic but, rather, of a freelance composer (for commercial jingles, then hopefully for film and television) in New York, my mother had repeated the thing she'd apparently said shortly before they wed: "This marriage is about your career." She then sought relocation advice from our neighbors/surrogate grandparents, who, as it happened, had lived much of their lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
"It's a little pricier," they'd said. "But it's the best."
"I like it here," I said.
"Of course you do," my mother told me. "But if we stayed here, we wouldn't get to live in a new house!"
As I said, this book is about houses: ones I've lived in and ones I haven't, ones I've lusted for, ones I've reviled, ones I've left too soon, and ones where I've found myself stuck, chained to my own radiator by the tethers of my own stupid decisions. But if there's anything I've learned over the many years and many moves, it's this: a house is not the same as a home. Despite certain Muzak-sounding catchphrases of the real estate world — "home buyer," "home sales," "home loans" — the words "house" and "home" are not interchangeable. You buy a house, but you make a home. You do not shop for a "home" any more than you'd shop for a life. And by way of explaining how easy it can be to lose track of these distinctions, I need to lay out a few things about the home I grew up in and the homes my parents came from before that.
I need first of all to say that we weren't unhappy. Not acutely and not most of the time. Instead, what characterized our little unit — my parents, my brother, and me — was a chronic, lulling sensation of being aboard a train that was perpetually two stops away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves. And while I have to emphasize that the reasons for that aren't ultimately related to moving — or even to the fact that we tended to talk about moving in the same salivating, should-we-or-shouldn't-we tones in which some families talk about far-flung ski trips — I don't think it's a stretch to say that our lack of enthusiasm for ourselves had a lot to do with our perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination point of a moving van. We weren't much for card games or sports, but we knew how to escape from places.
And if you're looking for examples of people who escaped their humble beginnings, my parents qualify. My mother was born in 1942 in Carbondale, Illinois, a coal-mining town that also happened to be a university town. Carbondale is near the southern tip of the state, a hundred miles southeast of St. Louis and two hundred miles north of Memphis. And due to a constellation of factors, not least of all having a difficult, childlike mother who was threatened to the point of hysterics by anything that hinted of intellectual ambition (my grandmother forced my mother to twirl a baton and forbade her to attend the university lab high school because it was "uppity"), my mother loathed anything associated with her hometown and its environs. While I was growing up, she invoked Carbon- dale as though offering an excuse. It was both a form of self-flagellation and a rationale for any perceived shortcoming. "Well, when you're from southern Illinois, you _____ (can't use chopsticks/have never been to Europe/aren't sure what Passover is/can't really get behind psychotherapy)." In a family that specialized in judgment and criticism, that quickly grew bored with all that was innocuous or inoffensive or even pleasant but loved to chew on grievances as though they were slabs of meat on the bone, southern Illinois was the original sin. All that my mother saw of it — at least all I ever perceived her to have seen — appeared to be stewing in its own backwater. And whether or not these were the actual truths of the place, whether or not this was really all there was, she cringed at and reviled it all: the hillbilly intonations of the regional accent, the limited cultural offerings of the community (dinner theater, Elks' Club polka), the deep-fried cuisine, the ubiquitous polyester clothing, the knee-jerk political leanings, the xenophobia, the poverty, the heat, the humidity, the tangy efflux of the hickory and crab apple trees themselves.
As a result, her life became devoted almost exclusively to the cause of being the opposite of these things, to being educated, well-spoken, with-it, and, above all, sophisticated — or at least the version of sophistication she imagined when she surveyed her home life and conjured a view 180 degrees in the other direction. Lacking the financial or familial support to leave town, my mother enrolled in the local university and began assembling the tools necessary for her eventual escape. She became an accomplished pianist. She learned how to speak with clarity and confidence. Perhaps most important (she's explained this herself; it's not just my conjecture), she dated a guy whose parents seemingly knew a thing or two about the world. Sure, they were from Carbondale, but their house had books and records. It also had The New Yorker magazine. On visits to their house, my mother would flip through the mysterious pages as though she were glimpsing a distant, dazzling land. And even though she turned down her suitor's marriage proposal because he was "ultimately dull," she never forgot the portal those magazine pages provided into a befuddling but obviously superior world. It wasn't so much that she wanted to live in New York — that would come later and with a vengeance — as that she wanted to live in a place that resembled the kind of place that a person who read The New Yorker would live.
Excerpted from Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum. Copyright 2010 by Megan Daum. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.