Just northwest of Chicago, in Deerfield, Illinois, King’s Cove was 1960s, middle-class suburbia, where Good Humor trucks jingled past weedless, well-mown lawns and small, tree-filled lots; where neighbors were friends, your best friends were neighbors and school was the next block over.
Our house in King’s Cove was an unmistakable yellow, like hard-boiled egg yolk, as was the wood grain panelling on the side of the Grand Safari station wagon after Mark, a paint can and a brush were left unattended. And even though it was small for seven, it never felt crowded – except in the one, tiny bathroom we kids shared, where on school days and Sunday mornings it became a wallpapered box stuffed with limbs.
All tangles and toothpaste.
The basement of the house was the biggest indoor space we had to spread out in, but it came at a price. My bare feet were regular magnets for misplaced thumb tacks; just as misplaced gerbils and local field mice, who disappeared beneath laundry appliances and behind walls, regularly added “tiny, rotting corpse” to the already odd, underground bouquet of funky-smelling fabric softener that invaded the nostrils the moment my feet hit the cool, cement floor.
The basement was the first place we headed each summer when tornado season arrived and the local siren sounded, sending kids scattered across the neighborhood scurrying to their homes. Mom would shuffle everyone down the wooden stairs where we waited for incoming reports. With the tv and radio competing to be heard, I’d stare out the small, grimy, ground-level window, fearing the changing shapes in the clouds, the silence and the still.
Comforted by the sight of Mom doing something as ordinary as ironing.
I’d watch through the murky, grey glass for the dark sky to lighten, for patches of blue; impatient for the all-clear to sound so we could return outside to play in the warm puddles and wet grass and the neighborhood could return to its routine.
When the basement flooded one spring, I sat in the center of the well-worn staircase looking down at Jim and Dad, who were calves-deep in water, surveying the damage. I could see Dad was mad. I could also see my Barbie’s Friendship Airplane bobbing in the water behind him.
All I wanted was to soar above the flood, on starched, white wings, like the Flying Nun. I loved Sister Bertrille, her wanting to make things better, put things right… every week.
I wanted to be like her, especially the flying part. I wanted to fly over the watery mess at the bottom of the steps and make things better. Then I wanted to soar above my house and neighborhood, over the trees and the schoolyard.
Happy to be free. Happy to be a winged me.
Until a “Damn It!” landed me back on the basement steps, watching Dad hover angrily over the sputtering sump pump.
Smelly or sumberged, our little, yellow house on Fox Hunt Trail had all that I knew and all that I needed.
It had a treehouse in the backyard where my best friends with the rhyming names, Cherie Dusare and Lynn Bubear, and I hoisted the ladder, shut the trap door and began first true friendships, formed by first experiences.
No longer contented by blanket and thumb, or going quietly unnoticed there in the middle.
Mrs. Paschua, my first grade teacher noticed me and arranged a meeting. We walked through the woods to Sherwood Elementary together, hand in hand, just Mom and me. I stayed in the playground, hanging by my knees against the cool, metal, dome, looking upside down at the sullen, September sky, wondering what I’d done.
Mom returned a short time later and we turned home. I had troubles with certain sounds. My teacher thought Mom might be the reason; a foreigner, perhaps. But Mom was as alien as apple pie and I just talked funny.
I secretly loved the thought of someone thinking I was different… foreign.
It made me feel special.
Hard to do as one of five.
Sherwood Elementary thought I was so special that I was taken out of class each week and sent to speech therapy where they worked to make me sound the same as all the other children in my small, familiar world of well-worn paths to homes of friends and monkey bars, past quiet schoolyards and cracked sidewalks with faded hopscotch squares.
But that was okay because this was my neighborhood, where the Jaynes’ sloping lawn turned to a sledding hill and the Beak’s patio and mossy garden pond came alive in the shade of the summer trees. I liked to sit on the small, stone, vine-covered wall and watch big-eyed frogs, chipmunks and bright orange koi go about their business of being beside the small, trickling waterfall, in the dark, green garden of this house just one street over.
I’d disappear in the shade and quiet stirring, until Mom took my hand and we walked home, past the house of Amy and Abbey, the dark-haired twins at the end of the block who dressed the same and made me wonder what it would be like to see another me… be another me?
First thoughts everywhere.
Cherie Dusare and Lynn Bubear and I once snuck into the Dusare’s paneled living room a few houses down from my own, tip-toeing and giggling all the way across the shag carpeting. Socks and static electricity sparking already heightened senses. There, next to the hi-fi stereo, among the Dusare’s vinyl collection, sat a Three Dog Night album, the cover of which was to give us our first glimpse of a naked man.
Several, in fact.
Cherie knew exactly where the album was in the long, low cabinet with the accordion door. She grabbed it, held it close and scanned the room. My heart was beating through my crocheted vest.
This was my apple.
I took my first bite.
Thanks to dim, red lighting and well-placed fog machines it was little more than a nibble.
My guilty conscience, however, flourished, as we crept out of the Dusare’s home that day and returned to the sanctity of the treehouse with our shared secret and peaked curiosities.
Years later, I learned that the band had been wearing nude body stockings. My seven-year old imagination, however, will never know the difference – about the album cover, our house, or my neighborhood, where musical trucks and men in white hats will always sell Chocolate Eclair bars with solid, milk chocolate centers; where I will always be keeping up with Jim hurrying to school on that small, treed path, or up in the treehouse of my yolk-colored home, singing favorite songs with first, best friends. Happily taunted by the neighbor boys below.