ONCE UPON A TIME
Once upon a time I walked up the driveway in this photograph to a house that could barely be seen from the road. Depending on how tall the shrubs were, you might be able to glimpse the deck. The roofline was always somewhat visible; in December it blinked with the Christmas lights my father had strung up. There was a large tree in the center of the deck, and on some afternoons I would look up from the foot of the driveway as I returned from walking the dog, and see my father on a ladder trimming the branches.
Once upon a time the sound of kids splashing in the pool echoed up the street. If the wind was blowing just right you could catch the scent of Coppertone. Punctuating the chorus of children’s voices was the happy barking of a dog who wanted water splashed into the air so she could jump up and catch the droplets. As I got older, I carried my skateboard down the driveway and up the street to a boy’s house who was older than me, and who I had a crush on. Older still, I drove the family station wagon up the drive, hoping I wouldn’t veer too close to the rose bushes and scratch the paint. On cold days the smell of woodsmoke drifted from the chimney down the driveway to the street below like a gentle invitation.
Our house was a one-story mid-century home. Now an enormous house sits on the land — shiny and white, and so far unlived in. You can buy it for a king’s ransom, and someone ultimately will. As I walk past the driveway now, newly a orphan, I’m aware of the silence inside me, and the silence that surrounds the house. I read once that none of the molecules of air we breathe are new — they are the same molecules that our ancestors breathed, the same that we once inhaled in younger years. Both my parents are gone now, but I might be breathing in the same air they once did in those long summer days when we splashed in the pool and practiced diving off the board.
We don’t think about time when we’re younger, except for wishing it would speed up sometimes, or slow down if we’re having fun. But we don’t reflect on it — how it moves steadily on like a river whose currents will claim us whether we like it or not. It’s only when we’re older that we look back and try to touch again the days that are gone. Those days hold the stories of who we once were and who we grew into; it takes age to realize how intertwined those two things are.
In my new novel The Earth Breaks in Colors, one of the characters — Ben Mellers — reflects on how he had hidden his own past from his wife, and how he also didn’t want to know about hers: ‘I thought God had smiled down on me, sending me a kindred spirit — someone who, just like me, wanted to live inside a carefully drawn circle of not remembering. But I guess that’s what they call a fool’s paradise. Maybe who we are is always bits and pieces of who we were in the past.’
I walk past the driveway I used to walk up when I was young to brush past who I used to be — who my family used to be. To hear again the laughter and the splashing of pool water, to feel again what it was like to go home. To breathe in the air we once breathed as the seasons turned…predictably, and faster than we thought possible.