Friday, February 10, 2012

Moving and Changing

We so often avoid change. Yet, it almost always does us good.

On my first day of kindergarten I avoided change I with a vengeance.

I was the youngest of four children, separated from the nearest sibling by three years, so I’d had my mother’s undivided attention a lot. The idea of going off to school like the big kids didn’t sound at all appealing.

To put it simply, I was not going.

Kindergarten was held in the basement of the Methodist Church four blocks from our house in the tiny Indiana town where we lived. On the appointed day my mother drug me out the door.

We progressed awkwardly down the sidewalk like a push-pull toy - her pushing, me trying to pull away. And finally I did. Halfway there I tore loose and ran home. Inside the living room, I slammed the front door and watched out the window. When my mother came onto the porch I turned the lock, then sat on the stairs listening to her angrily pound on the door and call my name.

I saw her shadow pass the side windows as she headed for the back door. I beat her there, locked it, then ran upstairs and sat on the top step, listening.

If you’ve ever done something impulsive, out of shear desire, or fear, knowing every step of the way that all hell would break loose, you know how I felt. I could hear my mother calling out, trying to reason with the five-year-old that I was. She laid out a simple case: Of course this couldn’t go on forever. My brother and sisters would come home from school, followed by my father from work. And he had a key. I imagined all five of them pounding on the door.

Reluctantly, I unlocked the door and was pulled, not doubt with tears and snot and dirt on my face all the way to the basement of the Methodist Church.

Once I got done crying and shrieking and pleading not to be left there, I had an absolutely wonderful time. It turns out I loved kindergarten. Who knew it was so much fun?

When my mother came for me at noon, I cried because I didn’t want to go home.

Three years later as I reached third grade my parents announced we were moving. A nicer, bigger house had been bought in the nearby nicer, bigger town without us children being told. There was work to do to get the new house ready, so we would live in our old house while work was being done on the new one. I don’t recall how I felt about it at first, but I clearly remember the first day of school.

On that first day my mother drove us to the new town. As we drove the streets of the only neighborhood I had ever known, our car passed my friends walking to school – my old school, without me. I was going off to the unknown.

Our new house was a block from the new elementary school. I arrived to a classroom full of strange children who studied me, the new kids, like I was an alien.

I had never felt so alone.

At lunch the principal, Mr. Tresch, a little banty-rooster of a man with a stern voice and a face like a clenched fist came to every table and made each child take a bite of each item on their plate. I was forced, in a horrific moment of terror to eat a brussel sprout.

If you’ve never eaten a steamed brussel sprout – and I hope to God you never have, don’t do it. It is as vile and repulsive as any vegetable that ever passed my lips. There was more red-faced gagging involved than I dare describe, lest I trigger the involuntary vomiting reflex in the reader, as it was quite nearly triggered in me.

My mother had told me to walk the block to our new house when school was out and wait for her. When school let out, children gathered at the street in front of the old brick school building. Four older kids with orange sashes laid across their chests stood on either side of the street holding long polls with bright read flags hanging from the ends. I walked on down the sidewalk away from the group, figuring I would cross at the next corner alone.

But halfway down the block I noticed the principal, Mr. Tresch (the brussel sprout Nazi), coming after me, calling my name. He grabbed me tightly by the back of the neck with one hand and pushed me, unnecessarily hard I might add, back to the crossing point with the crossing guards, forcing me to cross with the other children.

Other kids laughed and pointed as Mr. Tresch explained the proper, safe way to cross the street. I did as I was told and walked the block to the new house, my face hot with shame and wet with tears.

Once at the big brick house I climbed the porch steps of that strange place and let myself in through the big oak door. The massive, gloomy living room felt like a cavern. There was a gaping brick fireplace at one end, an endless expanse of oak floors that squealed and moaned when you walked across them, and a staircase at the opposite end. Feeling lonely, I called out for my mother, but she wasn’t there yet. I sat on the stairway, put my face in my hands, and cried.

For such a terrible start, things went better than I had any right to expect. In that neighborhood I made wonderful friends. I played Army in Dwight’s yard and home run derby in the street with Tom and Bill. Third and then fourth grade faded into middle school, which, whether you want it to or not fades into high school. In that town I would kiss my first girl, flip burgers at McDonalds, sing the lead in the school musical, and be student body president my senior year. I learned to love that old house that had seemed so lonely on that first day of school – learned to love the oak woodwork, the French doors, the wide, long, front porch that looked out over parades that marched down the street each summer.

And in my teens, when I passed the newly retired Mr. Tresch wearing Burmuda shorts and pulling weeds in his front yard, he didn’t look so menacing anymore.

After I got married and had children of my own, my children came to love that place as well. They spent weekends and holidays sleeping in the beds where I slept as a child, being spoiled by their grandparents, the same parents that I once thought so hard on me by making me move to this new house.

As the years passed there would be other moves; dorms, apartments and houses. Most came with eager anticipation. They weren’t forced, but chosen.

Sixteen years ago, when our oldest son, Cal was 7, my wife and I decided to move a block down the street from the first little house we restored in Noblesville. Now I was the one forcing a move. Though just a block away, it was a hard move for Cal.

Our house at 1242 Cherry Street was the only house Cal had ever known and when we moved to the new house he never mentioned being bothered. But a few weeks later the people who had bought our old home told us they often saw Cal in the alley behind their house. One day they saw him sitting on his bicycle, looking up at his old bedroom window with tears in his eyes. Being dear people, they invited him in and let him play video games on a computer in his old bedroom.

My wife and I have been separated for almost a year now. And we recently began moving back and forth between our houses so that our teenage daughter could stay in her familiar place – the only home she’s ever known. Twice so far, my wife and I have each loaded clothes and a few random personal items in our cars and traded houses. Our daughter goes about her life in one place. It’s the parent’s that move back and forth.

This business of moving and changing can be hard when you’re not ready for it, or when it’s forced, or a surprise, or when you simply can’t stay anymore. But we have a way of adapting, and remaking our lives, and things somehow take care of themselves. And we become something else, something we could not have guessed at. And that is usually a good thing.

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