Not My House

When I was five, my family moved from Colorado to Gresham, Oregon. Both of my parents are pastors. We were originally from the Portland area, but a youth pastor job sent us to Colorado. Now, a job in Gresham brought us back. We made the long drive with the family, our U-Haul to follow in the coming weeks. I don’t know where we were planning to stay. Down the street from the church, across from my parents’ old high school, we found a house for sale. We checked it out. An older couple lived there – empty nesters. They were going to Kentucky to be closer to family. When they heard we were the new pastors, they decided it was meant to be, and we moved in with them right then and there. For two months we shared the house as they prepared to move and we finalized the sale. That was how we found the first of our houses in Gresham.

My family never stayed in a house for long. There would be five houses during the nine years we were there. The story is complicated. Over the years, we’ve had to refer to each of the houses so much that they all have names – the Alpha House (or, the blue house, the red house, the big house, the girls’ house), the Beta House (or, the house across the street, the green house, the guys’ house), the Cottáge (or, the little house, which was neither a cottage nor a garage), the Country House (or, the house on 182nd), and the Town Home. The circumstances behind us moving to these houses can be summarized in one word – ministry. Sometimes being faithful meant taking leaps of faith.­ The numbers didn’t pencil out – neither the square footage, nor paying up to three mortgages at once, but it worked out somehow.

Still, for all that, my life in Gresham was remarkably stable. I quickly found that home was not a place. We had many houses – places to hold our stuff, to sleep in – but home was really about the people with you. Our church stayed the same. We were in the same school district. We were with family – related or otherwise. Our home never really changed.

If there is a house that I can describe as a childhood home, it wouldn’t be one of those five. Yes, I have plenty of childhood memories in each of them, but I have more in my best friend’s house. During those nine years, hardly a few days went by without me and my sisters staying an afternoon there. To get there, go back ten years and take a left at Liberty Avenue. You’ll find a small-ish blue house with a basketball hoop out front. If the garage door is open, you might see the collection of bikes and scooters we used to ride around the neighborhood. Of course, our territory was small. To your left there is a bend in the road. Our radius in that direction only lasts as long as we are in sight. To the right, if you look down the road a ways, you’ll see an off-yellow van that hasn’t moved in years. That was the other end of our territory. Well, you could go a little bit past it, my friend said, but not too far. Occasionally, we would get permission to go beyond these borders with our bikes. It was always an event. When I arrived at my friend’s house, he would already be planning. We were going for a bike ride at three, he might say, and it wasn’t even lunch time yet. He would pack up as if for a long journey – in a pouch he would usually have a water bottle, and always his mom’s cellphone, in case of emergency. No emergencies ever came up, but I once caught my pants in the bike chain. It stopped me instantly, and devoid of momentum to keep me up, I fell off to the side of the road, stuck to the motionless bike as if I were still riding it. A passerby strong enough to lift the bike and roll it backward saved me, and we retreated back home. While my friend was always careful to plan and prepare before acting, I flew by the seat of my pants. The pants, in this case, were far too baggy for a bike ride.

My friend taught me to ride, kind of. When I was about seven or eight, I still rode with training wheels, too afraid to take them off. My uncle had bent them upwards, so I could ride long stretches without the extra wheels touching the ground. But, every time they did, I was convinced they had saved me from falling. One day, I was with my friend and a neighbor. They had a bike – no training wheels, and somehow convinced me to try it. I read in a book somewhere that all you have to do it pedal, and the spinning wheels keep you up. So I got on it and found that I could ride just fine. We went to the shed, grabbed a wrench, and took my training wheels off. I never needed them again.

I always took the chance to ride around the neighborhood. In 4th grade I attended school in a church nearby. It was a small K-8 private school with few amenities. PE was held out in the parking lot or in the sanctuary with the pews stacked to one side. Our playground was a small field, a sandbox, and endless pavement, until the broken glass bottle scare limited us to the pavement. Unable to build sand castles anymore, freeze tag became my favorite game. During short recess, someone would immediately hold up a hand and call for a game, the first and the loudest getting the job of tagger. I liked to run around, regardless of if I was being chased. The school moved soon, mercifully for the remaining students after I left, but that parking lot was a frequent destination of our bike rides. The empty lot gave us plenty of space to ride around and practice tricks.

Return to the house. Once, I remember, I sat on this front porch, cooling down from an argument with my friend’s mother. My friend had been grounded for something – I didn’t even know why. Still, I made it my case to argue on his behalf. I liked playing devil’s advocate. Of course, my pleas had no effect, and I had been sent out here for a few minutes. Now, I suddenly discovered all of the good lines that I should have used in the heat of the moment and stewed until I felt like getting cookies inside. My friend’s mom always told me to become a lawyer.

On this day, I won’t be in a timeout. I’ll be walking in the front door, un-velcro-ing my shoes before stepping onto the carpet of the living room, the bikes from our bike ride already safely returned to the hooks in the garage. You’ll see a pile with six pairs of shoes, all different sizes – me and my three sisters, plus my friend and his sister. The TV in the front room only has the local stations – for satellite, I would have to visit my grandparents’ – but it was a premium theater for us. On Saturday mornings after a sleepover, we would camp on the carpet and watch the Saturday morning cartoons. In the evenings, we would sometimes get permission to watch PG-13 movies that my parents wouldn’t have let us watch except that my friend had seen it already, and it was OK with his parents, and besides, it was only language, which we could ignore. (That much was true – in sixth grade I tried swearing, and discovered that I wasn’t any good at it). Their DVD collection was large enough that we could almost always find something to watch.

The next room is the dining room. The table has six chairs around it, enough for all of us kids. We decided early on that we should arrange ourselves in age order. That meant I was first, with my friend, 23 days younger, next. My friend’s mom was a baker, and the food at the house was exceptional. Except for the green vegetables and milk I had to force down with my dinner, I loved it all. At breakfast though, I was the one who smothered my cereal with milk, while my friend took it dry.

On some afternoons she would bake the best fresh cookies. Her secret was that the recipes were printed on the bag of chocolate chips, but it didn’t matter. They always turned out perfect. My personal favorites were chocolate cookies with peanut butter chips. When the zucchinis in the backyard were grown, we had zucchini bread, fresh and warm with a touch of butter. On summer afternoons, we would have hotdogs and macaroni and cheese – a simple meal, but one firmly associated in my mind to those warm summer days. They always bought extra sharp cheddar cheese, and I would fold a slice into my hot dog bun with the ketchup. At home, we only had medium cheddar.

On those days, we weren’t allowed inside until 5, so we spent most of the day out in the backyard. They had built a simple wooden house – more like a box really – that we would play in. Once, we decided to make acorn soup. We filled a wheelbarrow with water and a bunch of plants to make something that smelled good. It did – a nice mix of flowers, acorns, and other fragrant ingredients. A few weeks later, though, the soup turned bad. It had started to ferment. We avoided it for a while, but eventually we dumped it out. The little house smelled like the rotting soup for years afterward.

When we were a little older, and the little house had had some time to air out, we installed a skateboard swing in their tree. We took a skateboard deck, drilled a hole through the center, and hung it from a rope in the tree. We were too big to fit in the little house, but it made a perfect launch point for that swing. We would stand on the edge with the skateboard as if entering a half-pipe. While swinging, we would spin the skateboard and do other tricks. We would hold competitions, each of us shouting at the others to watch our ever-escalating stunts.

At one point, they bought a big, circular, above-ground pool. There wasn’t enough room to do much swimming, but we made the best of it. We would all walk in the circle, and soon the water would be moving in a current. Then, we could float around in circles as we talked. Later, one of the girls would get on my shoulders, and another on my friend’s. We would have sumo matches as these four-armed monsters. Then we would see who had the best synchronized swimming moves. I was always at a disadvantage, because I had to plug my nose before going underwater.

At five o’clock, we would go back inside. PBS would show our favorite shows, and my friend’s mom would be busy in the kitchen. Dinner was a highlight in that house. For a long while, both of our families would go eat at their house at least one night a week. Eating is a deeply spiritual thing, my dad always says. Part of that is the importance of communion in church, but also, sharing a meal brings communities together. The core of church, for him, was HELP – hanging together, eating together, learning together, and praying together. In that way, I guess we had church at those dinners. At home, my family was usually far too busy to make time for family dinners, except for special occasions, but here we all gathered. We all still rave about those meals, and I call for a recipe whenever I need to cook.

Down the hall, to the left, is my friend’s room, and straight ahead, his sister’s. We spent hours in there playing with his Legos. They were all his Legos, but they were divided into four bins – his Legos, “my” Legos, “my sister’s” Legos, and the neutral Legos. We had a sophisticated economy. We all knew approximately which pieces he had, so we knew when had found a rare piece. Finding and trading rare pieces helped us support our building projects. My sister had most of the Lego people. If we needed someone to live in our houses or drive our vehicles, we hired them from her, picking a good head and outfit. She also had most of the rarest pieces – most of a full scuba suit with little flippers and a helmet, a few gold coins from a treasure chest, and a bunch of energy crystals she kept safely sealed inside her house. I had one of the flippers though, and the other had disappeared completely. We all had different styles of builds. I built many small vehicles, with lots of moving parts. My crowning achievement was a robot with a drill on one arm. My domain was the sea, so it could dive lower than any other machine. Inside it held a pilot. Of course, it could also fly and run. In emergencies, it could also drop a small car from its back for a quick getaway. In non-emergencies, the car often fell off anyway, as well as a leg or two. My friend’s structures were impossible to break. He kept a knife in the box to pry them apart, just in case.

Due to a shortage of heads, most of my people had plants on their shoulders rather than faces. My Plant People and agile robots, and his vehicles with wide, solid structures would cooperate to defeat some evil organization he must have read about in a book somewhere. But before the mission was over, I would switch sides and he would have to chase me down to recover the energy crystals we were delivering. It didn’t matter who won – there weren’t any rules anyway. He would face amphibious assaults on his base, as my men stretched their vines at him. But his mining laser would be adjusted at the last second to cut through plants. If you were creative enough, every move had a good counter-move.

While we played with the Legos, the girls in the next room would sing Disney karaoke or the songs of the newest stars. They followed American Idol, and through the wall, we did too. We also played our own music. My favorite genre was whatever was playing, so the music I listened to was his music. Somewhere on my computer I still have songs that I inherited from his library. Occasionally, the girls would run back and forth by our door, each time in a new outfit. The adults would be sat down in the living room, and the karaoke machine repurposed for catwalk music.

Some night we would sleep over. In the next room, my friend’s dad would tell fairy tales until the girls would go to bed. At their insistence, he always started with “Time upon a once,” and finished with, “End, the.” The stories were similarly mixed up, filled with talking animals, kings, and princesses, like a mash-up of all the fairy tales. Three dogs, the main characters, would get into some trouble, but always learned their lesson in the end. My friend and I would try to whisper to each other for a while after we were supposed to be asleep, but no matter how quiet we were, his mom would hear us and tell us to go to sleep from the living room down the hall. We were no match for her mom senses.

I was used to sleeping in lots of different places. At one house, I slept on the living room floor. In another, the slanted roof came over my bed, so that I couldn’t sit up. But his house was always the same and slightly uncomfortable. His hamster would run on his wheel at all hours, a sound he had grown used to. It was sad when Cinnamon died, but I did get better sleep. His fan would sweep across the room, grazing my face with each pass. My bed was a stack of several old blankets, and my blanket was loosely knit, so that it caught my fingers and toes as I slept. My only consolation was stealing his stretchy foam pillow, the most comfortable one in the house. Still, whenever possible, we all wanted to sleep over. It was a second home.

That house is the center of many of my childhood memories. But once we started started high school, both of our families moved to a new town. That house, like all the others, is just a place now. The house I grew up in only exists in our minds. Other people live there, and Gresham is no longer home.