When I was born my parents lived in an apartment building, not a big, towering apartment but a smaller building with around 20 units in it. We lived there until I was about 6 months old. We had to move when the building burned down. I can’t remember the exact story I was told about it, something about a foster child my parents had and them going out, leaving someone to babysit the four of us. Then they came home to find the apartment building half-burned to the ground, our neighbor outside in the cold with us. They never found out what happened exactly, how the fire started. My mother told me once though that the foster child they had liked fire, that she always kind of thought that he started it.
From there my parents, with their growing family moved into a house that they were able to rent. It was a BIG house, bigger than anything I’ve ever lived in since then. It was also over 100 years old, which is how they were able to afford it, well, that and the fact that it was about 20 feet away from the train tracks on one side and a busy road on the other. It was a wonderful house though, to me anyway. The bedrooms were huge, even the small bedrooms were the size of most master bedrooms that you see now. Everyone got their own room, even the cats. We always seemed to have about 4 cats, and then of course the kittens that came with having cats. We forever seemed to have a sign on the lawn out front that read “Free Kittens”, which at the time was a fairly normal thing, although nowadays it’s not something I see anymore. Times change I guess, sometimes for the better but, sometimes they just change.
So we had cats, if there are two things I remember about my childhood it’s that great old house we lived in and that we always had cats. I loved living at that house, I loved what living there meant, what it gave us. We had a pool in the backyard, not an in-ground pool mind you but one of those 4 feet deep above ground ones. In the summers I remember we, me and my brother, would climb the antenna tower onto the roof of our house which was about one and a half stories up and jump into the pool. Can you imagine, being 4 feet tall and jumping from about 15 feet up into a 4 foot deep pool? I can’t believe we would do something so stupid, and yet we did it all the time without a second thought. Funny what you’ll do when you don’t know any better.
I mentioned that we lived right next to the train tracks, and we lived right next to them. I don’t think they would let you build a house so close to the tracks now a days. You would think it would be loud and annoying but it never bothered me, I never noticed or if I did I guess I just got used to it. You can get used to anything I think, given enough time to adjust.
Now one of the things that I remember most fondly about living there was what lived in our backyard. We had a ditch, the kind you see between peoples front lawns and the road, except ours was between our backyard and the train tracks. At one end of this ditch was a drain pipe that disappeared into the ground, traveling horizontally beneath our yard. Living inside of that drain pipe was the cutest, most friendly groundhogs you could ever meet. And meet them we did. They would come out in the summer and just lay beside the ditch, sunning themselves on the grass. An entire family, including adorable little baby groundhogs. Ohhhhhhhhh they were so cute. We would lie on the grass in the backyard just watching them, or peek out at them from the kitchen window, trying to catch a glimpse of them. I could spend hours doing nothing but watching those groundhogs.
We also had a dog, which I don’t remember at all. I’ve seen pictures but, even looking at the pictures doesn’t bring back any sort of memory of him. I do remember my brother having a hamster, which was kept in a cage on a bookshelf in our living room. Unfortunately, he fell off that bookshelf at some point and that was the end for him. Looking back it wasn’t the best place to keep a hamster, but as I said when you are a kid you don’t think about what could happen, you just think about what is happening now.
I think this is where my love of animals came from. I would consider myself a dog person as opposed to a cat person now, but I know that it began with cats and so I hold a special place for them. The groundhogs helped me gain an understanding of how wonderful wild animals could be, how free they were and yet, how difficult life could be at the same time. Until recently no one close to me has ever died. And yet, I lost more animals than most people will have in 10 lifetimes. The busy street out front of our house caused many of our cats to die early. It was always hard and yet, I suppose it taught a lesson at the same time. To this day I know that these experiences have had a big influence on who I’ve become and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Back to the house we lived in. The basement of this house was one place where you didn’t go, at least I know I didn’t. It was like a scene out of a horror movie or something, rickety wooden stairs leading down into a cold and dark concrete room. The only light was one of those bulbs with the string hanging down from it, so you had to actually go into the basement in order to turn on the light. The entire basement was concrete, the walls, the floor, there was no drywall, no carpeting or tile, it was bare. In the corner was a hole in the wall about half the size of a door. Picture a concrete wall that someone has taken a sledgehammer to, knocking out sections of it leaving a jagged and scary empty space. There was no light on the other side, no way to see where it went or what was in there, and I don’t remember ever going in there, ever having the nerve to investigate. It was just one of those things that you know to stay away from as a kid.
I remember we had a tree fort in the backyard, one that my dad had built for us. There’s another thing that you don’t see enough of these days…..then again you don’t see as many trees these days either, at least not near the sardine tin like homes they seem to build. Trees aren’t something that is important to developers, they don’t make builders more money…more houses packed into less space on the other hand, now that makes builders all giddy. Puts a smile on their face and money signs in their eyes.
I’m not that old, I didn’t grow up that long ago and yet, things have changed so much in that short time. We were eventually forced to move when the owners of the house, I think I mentioned that we rented, decided that they wanted to tear the house down and sell the land. That beautiful old house, a piece of my childhood that I will never forget. Gone. I still drive by there all the time and they’ve built some refueling station or something there now, something that has no character, no charm. Something that will never mean as much to anyone as that house meant to me. Sometimes I wish things would go back to being the way they were, they could be hard, sure, but they were simpler then. I loved that house……even more than that though, I loved the times that we spent there.