We settled into our lives in the new house, which was really old and cold and damp, which had rock walls two or three feet deep, and bedroom windows opening to the sound of the river. We had four acres, and next door, across our orchard and a ditch and a hay field, was the house my grandfather (Dad’s father) had grown up in. It wasn’t till years later that I understood the sense of history associated with the house next door, with the way Dad must have felt, walking into it to visit the neighbors, knowing that his father had spent his childhood there.
I would wrap my memories of our old house around me like a blanket. And now I wonder at the nostalgia that arises, when I think of it. I hated my childhood. I didn’t get on with Dad. Mum was sick for years back then, before she discovered that she was allergic to soy and anything associated with it, and we had to suffer her dark moods and her days in bed, the time she had small strokes and talked with a slur and ran into walls, as though she were drunk. By then she had given up hope on doctors, who told her her problems were all in her head, so when she stood up one day and canted sideways, then thrust out her arm and righted herself, but couldn’t quite dredge up words and shape them as she had always done, she didn’t go running to the hospital. She stayed home, and fought back alone. We children were witnesses, but children don’t know what they see — or at least I didn’t. We went to school in the morning, and came home in the evening. She made us our breakfasts, always the same thing: a glass of orange juice; two slices of brown soda bread, toasted on the Aga and spread with marmalade but no butter; a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup; a mug of Lyons tea with milk and no sugar. We carried the lunches she had made, sandwiches on brown bread, and some kind of fruit, and sometimes a yoghurt or a homemade flapjack. When we got home, the kettle was always on, and she’d make tea for us, which we drank with two McVities Digestives (chocolate covered on a good day), and then we’d do homework or go outside and play, or whatever seemed right, till supper at 8:00 or so.
She did our laundry, and hung it outside to dry under the corrugated roof that jutted out in front of the garage. My ponies and later my thoroughbred mare, who had to pass by the garage to get to the stables, never had a problem with flapping laundry. They were too used to walking through lines of sheets and towels and jeans, of feeling the clothes run across their backs, and being blinded for a minute if they had to thrust through a particularly big sheet. Flapping things of any sort never phased them.
We lived routine-driven and yet gloriously free lives, and I remember the bliss of playing outside on spring and summer and fall evenings, inventing games, making “houses” out of grass clippings on the expansive lawns. I remember paddling in the river, and swimming in the deeper pools upstream, crossing to the big hill opposite and wandering around in the acres of woods there, finding pools filled with frogs that we brought home. We liked to collect their eggs, too, floating in that translucent jelly, and we filled Ruth May’s aquarium and watched them hatch and transform from tadpoles to frogs before freeing them outside again.
Yet all these blissful memories compete with the memories of my mother in bed, or covered in bruises not because Dad beat her, but because her health was so poor that any touch raised dark blotches on her pale skin. When I reach back into the past, I feel schizophrenic, because I remember days of joy and sunshine and freedom, and I remember the darkness too. Neither memory is right; neither wrong. They simply mark the tenuous beauty and despair of childhood.