The clouds hung low, close to the ground, depressing and slate grey, as they dampened the world with an endless drizzle. It was mid-May and, after a cold damp spring, the trees were still not in leaf. Their skeletal branches were, only this week, showing the first signs of budding. I remember these big oaks. I used to run, hide and play among them all those many years ago. They seemed more majestic back then. Now, they just seem sad.
I have not seen these trees since I left home for college. As my father drove me to the bus depot, I remember watching them fade into the horizon as we got further and further away. I had not realised that I would not be seeing them again until today. In my first semester, as I toiled through basic accounting, micro economics, and an active sorority life, my mother declared that the house was too big for just the two of them. By the time I came home for Thanksgiving, they had moved across town to a much smaller, but more modern, two bedroom bungalow. My dad had converted the second bedroom into his own personal man-cave so I was forced to sleep on a folding couch in the den.
I was glad they had moved. I had hated that dirty, drafty, old house. It smelled of must and mildew because the basement was eternally damp and would fill with water whenever it rained. The outside paint had long since weathered and faded into a dull death-gray pallor. The interior wasn’t any better; the walls were a with a mixture peeling wallpaper, faded paint, and cracked plaster. The ceiling was stained, cracked, and sagging from years under a leaky roof. The floors creaked and the doors groaned when they were opened. The furnace was so old and tired that it could not even begin to ward off the nightly chill, and I remember living in a sweater from October until April. In the summer, the house became a stuffy oven; the windows were too old and rusted shut to even budge. I was afraid to try and open them after the incident on a stifling August night where I slashed open my arm when the window pane gave way as I tried to pry up the one in my bedroom.
The house was a homeowner’s nightmare, but it was all my parents could afford on a laid-off steelworker’s salary. It had been handed down from my grandfather who had died before I was even born. The house was filled with frustration and negativity from the years of living on unemployment, welfare and whatever money my parents could make doing odd and demeaning jobs. The house was the embodiment of everything that I hated about my childhood. I had been embarrassed to bring friends over, preferring to play at their homes instead. I hated the old cheap furniture my dad would drag home and try to repair. I hated the ancient and cheap ornaments and curios that my mother picked up from flea markets and rummage sales. I hated the constant fighting about money and the need to squirrel away every penny for a rainy day. I had longed for a trip to somewhere exotic, like the Paris or Tokyo instead of the annual trek to my grandmother’s house for the family vacation. While my classmates touted Disneyland souvenirs for show and tell, I created a story that my Goodyear Blimp ashtray was a souvenir from when I took a ride on it down in Akron. In truth, the ashtray was picked up at a garage sale by my mother as a gift for Father’s day that year. I still painfully remember my face burning with shame and embarrassment when my schoolmates snickered and laughed from the realisation that there was no way I had ever ridden in a blimp or even been to Akron. I made a promise to myself that day that I once I left this town and that awful house, I would never come back.
It’s been twenty-five years since I made good on that promise. After that Thanksgiving visit, I never came back. I graduated from college and landed a successful job making more money in my first year than my dad had made in his whole career. I traveled the globe and moved from one coast to the other while enjoying my fast paced lifestyle and race up the corporate ladder. Of course I still saw my parents each year, but I would fly them to see me, take them on a cruise to Alaska, or a grand tour of Paris. Mom was so proud of me that she boasted to all her friends of my accomplishments and success. Dad never said much but I could tell he was proud of my achievements, It was obvious that he was embarrassed by my generosity and didn’t know how to react to the monies I would slip into their bank account each month to keep them afloat. The only time I came back into town, was for mom’s funeral. She was laid to rest next to my grandparents in a small cemetery only a few blocks away from that dreaded old house.
The house is gone now. Where it stood is a concrete-lined hole that vaguely resembles the damp, unfinished basement. Deep rutted tracks, from an excavator, have torn the lawns and sidewalks into a muddy mess. Cracked and broken shards of brick are scattered everywhere. On the south side of the lot is a pile of old copper pipe, waiting for a recycler to come and pick it up. The excavator that tore down the walls is parked nearby. Other detritus, like chunks of shingle, gyp-rock, and wire, litter the ground. I am glad to see it gone.
I don’t know why I am here. I had no happy memories of growing up here. It was my prison for the first 18 years of my life. When an inmate is released, you never hear of them getting homesick and wanting to go back to their old cell. I don’t understand what compelled me to come here just to see the few scattered remnants of my childhood prison. Maybe something inside me just wanted to confirm it was finally gone. I don’t know.
Standing there, in the drizzle in my damp black LL Bean hoodie, I am surrounded by the wrecking debris. My hands are cold and jammed in my pockets. I kick through the rubble and flip over an old chunk of plaster wondering which room it was from. As it turns up to face the rain, I am surprised to see a piece of paper taped to it. I recognize the picture instantly, as my eyes flood with tears and a sob catches in my throat. It is a child’s rendition of a little girl handing flowers to her mother. I was 7 years old when I had drawn it. Of course there was no money for gifts such as flowers, so I had drawn a picture of the act, and given it to my mother on Mother’s day.
I bend down to peel the picture off of the plaster. My falling tears mix with the rain and begin to smear the colors on the artwork. I sit down amidst the debris and clutch my picture to my chest. I realise what a fool I am. Every day I devote all my energies to my job, working myself into the ground for the money my parents never had. I have surrounded myself with only the finest furniture. I wear only designer labels. I drink Perrier imported from France, and order expensive vintage wines from the exotic European vineyards. I live a life of opulent decadence. Despite all of my wealth, I can now see that I am still poor. Why is it that none of the gifts I have given my mother were treasured as much as this scrap of paper? Why does gift shopping at Saks not bring me the same joy that I felt creating this picture and the pride that filled me when my mom hung it beside her dresser as "her most treasured possession."
All my life I’ve been running from the poverty of my past, hating everything about my childhood and never appreciating that the real treasures in life are those that money can’t buy. Why hadn’t I remembered the good as well instead of dwelling on the negative? Unable to do little more than sob with regret, I open my Coach bag and slip my soggy treasure inside not caring if I ruin the other contents. I stand up and walk slowly back to my Lexus parked in the road. My 7 For All Mankind jeans now wet and muddy, my Manolo Blahnik heels forever scuffed by the debris. I have everything I could possibly buy, but I have nothing that means as much as the love that is shown when a 7 year-old spends her day making a mother’s day gift with her own hands.
It is dark and I am cold and hungry when I pull away from my childhood home. I look one last time at the trees in the rear view mirror as they fade into the horizon.