My earliest waking memory is a meltdown over a move. I’m in my parents’ bedroom of their house in Tenleytown, where we've just moved from an apartment building called the Cairo in anticipation of my brother’s arrival. It’s dark out, and I ask when we’re going home. My parents explain we’re not going back to the apartment because this is our home now, and I completely lose it. One of them hands me my special pillow, and I hurl it across the room, aware even through my tantrum that this is out of bounds, but I’m inconsolable. At some point I fall asleep and wake up as a new person in a new house, just as my 2-year-old self feared, although I wouldn’t have the language to express that until decades later, after reading Proust.
I’ve been thinking of this memory over the past month, as we just moved to a house in Amherst, and there are several overlaps with my parents’ move back in 1985. It’s also our first house, and we’re also planning to raise our kids here (although the thought of being here as long as my parents, who are still in Tenleytown, is unfathomable, but more on that later). It’s also a clear upgrade from any of our (20 combined) previous rentals, yet the transition has not been free of meltdowns. Eva frequently says she misses the apartment in Northampton, just like she says she misses San Francisco. I get nostalgic with her over SF, but when she says she misses the apartment, it’s hard to refrain from enumerating things not to miss, like parking, laundry, and fire alarm woes, the time and effort it took to get outside, anxiety about disturbing our neighbors, etc.
But all these things are beside the point. “San Francisco,” Eva once said wistfully: “It’s a place where I was when I was small,” and that about sums it up. She can’t name the things she misses beyond one beloved friend, since she was only 2.5 when we left, but I’m sure the place is embedded in her sensory memory. Maybe the smell of eucalyptus or wildfires or something more basic, like the way the light hit a particular wall. With any luck, light and shadow are some of the biggest dramas in a baby’s day, as I’m reminded nightly when Jojo tries to tell me intricate things about these phenomena. And my earliest memory is a dream involving light, or a light switch in the Cairo apartment, which in the dream controlled the shape of a shelf on the wall, changing it from a circle to a square and so on. When I woke up, I brought my father to this light switch and made him turn it on and off, becoming extremely disappointed when it did not change the shape of the shelf (in reality an oval). I don’t know how old I was but remember not having the words to explain the discrepancy between my dream and reality and the vast frustration this caused me.
When I can restrain myself from telling Eva to count her lucky stars, I show her pictures of the apartment on my phone. We lived there for a year and a half and have two small children, so I have at least a thousand. After swiping through a few, she stops on one featuring the circular window in her bedroom and says, “I miss my window.” The circular windows were pretty cool; there was one in the master bedroom, too. And being on the fifth floor gave us views of steeples, treetops, sky. From Eva’s room, you could see a strip of mountains. My parents also get nostalgic about their views from the Cairo, which I don’t remember because I was busy trying to figure out the light switches. Dupont Circle has always exerted a strange pull on me, though, and I suspect it’s because it’s where I had my first impressions of the world.
In truth, the only thing I really miss about our last apartment is being downtown, although that had drawbacks, too. I think Tenleytown ruined me for other places by providing a suburban existence (yards and trees) within walking distance to a major metropolitan transit system: a rare combination in this country. When I was a teenager/young adult, the Metro meant freedom, and I don’t think I ever really got over that. This could easily turn into a screed about car culture and our country’s dearth of public transportation options, but that’s not my point here. I’m bringing it up just to say our new house is more car dependent than is my ideal. It’s the most car dependent place I've lived outside of Sarasota, which didn’t really count because I could still walk to class and a Shell station that sold Yellow Tail.
Besides being car dependent, it’s pretty idyllic here. Or more accurately--in being idyllic yet car dependent, it's an American ideal. There are woods and trails and sidewalks. There are other families with small children, many also recent city transplants experiencing some whiplash. We socialize in the suburban fashion: at each other’s houses. I have a room of my own where I’m writing this, looking out onto other wistful houses and tall trees silhouetted by low mountains. There are supposedly bears here, although I haven’t seen one yet.
One morning, shortly after we moved, Eva asked me if we were going to be here for “all the mornings.” I didn’t get the question at first, thinking it evinced some misunderstanding about the move. Not just mornings, I explained, but afternoons and nights—
“Will we be here for all the springs?” she interrupted, and I realized what she was actually asking. We keep telling her we’re here to stay, but she’s moved three times in her four years, so I don’t think she really gets it, and honestly, neither do I. Still, it felt good to say yes, all the springs.
I can’t fathom all the springs but can tell you this one has been slow then jolting. Last week, there were still no buds on the trees, and now it’s 90 degrees. I’m waiting to see what flowers in our yard and am hoping the one daffodil and hyacinth that have emerged don’t get singed to death. I’m glad we are not the first people to live here, that there was a family before us who planted bulbs and broke things in, even if we might have made some different choices. But there's comfort in choices that have already been made, just as there’s freedom in form constraint, and what is a home if not a kind of form constraint? I once read Ann Patchett call home "the stable window that opens out into the imagination” and realized that’s what I was looking for, in both writing and in life.
So much of this resonates with me. I have a current Seattle friend who rents out her DC Cairo apartment - did you that building initiated the height restrictions for residential buildings (it is the tallest). What an amazing place to start your “mornings”. Brilliant you can remember your pre-verbal fascination with light. I, of course and SO glad your parents moved to Tenleytown! And yes, pretty spoiled by Suburban spacing, walking distance from the Metro!
I had similar heart tug when we moved from our first house to our current house when my daughter was 5. She repeatedly cried “I want to go HOME” at bedtime. Rationalizing about the new friend she made next door, the luscious yard to play in, etc etc did not quell the displacement and yearning for familiarity. And it would stab me at my center, wondering DID we make the right move? How do we make THIS home? Music and cooking good smells helps. And finding how and where the light dances in the new space. Xoxo
I totally feel this. We moved when I was going into 6th grade. It was during a time of so much transition and change, not for the good. It was tough. I felt like I’d lost my “old” life. Even going back, I remembered people but every time they didn’t remember me it felt as if I’d never been important to them.
As an adult, I’ve had really good job opportunities that would have required us to move. I just can’t make myself do it. B is almost 14 and I’m trying to spare him that turmoil. It’s interesting what we can’t fathom doing because it was done to us.
I love reading your writing. I’m glad that you’ve found a house to call home to raise your kiddos. Hugs