Saturday, December 25, 2010


(Bill and I in the front room of our house, 1965; I am in pajamas and robe, sick with asthma as usual, but have put on a dress-up sombrero; Bill and I are holding our chihuahua between us)

In July of 1964 my family moved to a small South Texas town where my father's boss had rented one of the few houses available on the white side of town. There was another house, a brick one built in the 50's, that he rented for his own family.

The house allocated to us had been built at a time before electricity was commonplace in structures. Each room had central fixtures originally meant to burn gas for light. They had been retrofitted, clumsily, to hold electric light bulbs, and as well an outlet had been run to one wall of each room stapled to the outside of the original drywall. The floors were ancient bare wood, the windows rattled in their casings with weights long since fallen away inside, and the pipes thundered when a tap was turned. There was a fireplace in each of the rooms which opened off the wraparound front porch, but the chimneys were not usable and instead gas heaters were jammed into the hearths. The interior walls had never been painted, there were no keys to any of the doors, and a single clawfoot tub had separate taps for hot and cold, the hot water having been added after the house was built.

Care which had not been expended on the interior had instead been lavished on the yard, which was vast and bounded on both sides by lots wild with vegetation of that region. The yard had a small orchard of red plum trees, a grape arbor, a palm tree, magnolias, two salt cedars, a long hedge of oleanders in two colors, a riot of poinsettia beside one chimney, a bearing orange tree, and an enormous fertile vegetable garden. The giant oak at one edge was overgrown with morning glories, and there were so many large climbing trees I could hide in branches for hours on end. There was a chicken coop, an old barn with a horse stall, several prickly pears, a saw palmetto, and thick stretches of St. Augustine in the front yard, wildflowers in the lots, and even a lightning-struck tree whose trunk housed a bee colony.

Despite being given a corner of the dining room as my space, I still felt like we at last had a real house, with high ceilings, original wood trim, and that glorious yard. Compared to the tiny renthouses or 10x50 trailer we had lived in for years, I felt like we had landed in a place where I could take pride. A decent house.

That summer I turned nine. Before the end of the year, I would write my first poem -- sitting in the top of one of those trees in the back lot -- and discover what being a lesbian meant, realizing that must be what I was. When my father's work once again left the area, my mother would decide to keep us in that town, allow my older brother to finish high school in one place, trying to push my father into seeking different employment which paid a living wage for a family. She grew steadily more hopeless and ill in that house, as did I, and my older brother ramped up his emotional and physical torture of me to eventual sexual assault.

Still, I loved that house, the structure itself, the old and solid feel of it, the decades of nurture evident in the yard. We stayed there four years, an eternity in my family, and only left when I betrayed my mother by siding with my father when he came home with yet another demand that we move, this time to Brazil. I betrayed her because I realized I would die at the hands of my older brother if I did not find a way to get away from him, and another continent while he was in college -- avoiding being drafted -- seemed enough distance to save my own life.

During that first year, however, I rode with Daddy as he went to talk with his boss, receiving the news that his job was being relocated again. I was in the front seat of the car, watching Daddy's jaw work as this boss spoke to my father with condescending apology, adding "At least now y'all can get out of that dump you're in."

That's all I remember, that line. On the drive home, my father silently daring me to say a word so he could take out his anger on me, I risked remarking "He called our house a dump."

"It's a shithole" my father said viciously. I shut up.

There were a couple of girls who tried to be my friend while I lived there, and I accepted their advances cautiously. One of them, Lisa Dillard, called me her best friend. But I never once let her inside my house, and that affected our closeness. At least, my sense of shame did.

Years later, I listened to my Great-Aunt Lee talked about growing up in the rural community where my mother's line spent five generations, she said "We were all poor, but we didn't know it. We knew we didn't have money, but not that we were poor. I didn't find out until I went to college on a scholarship, and that's when I learned shame. I've always been grateful I didn't learn it earlier."

I knew exactly what she meant. Shame is something others teach you, and it's much easier to resist when you are older at its first lesson.

1 comment:

Margot said...

I keep thinking about this post. Houses have such different meanings for kids, and this one sounds wonderful. When my parents moved us to this house, they were thrilled with its 1960s conveniences (mixer taps! two baths!) but I always missed the early C20 place in the old suburb, nearer the city.

Once when I was small we were in Spain, and some gypsy children were staring at us. Mother said they were envious of my new poncho. I never wore it again.