My House: An Incomplete Search For Home

I grew up in a rural town in west central Illinois called Monmouth. Monmouth was rough. My dad taught at Monmouth College, which made my brother, sister and me nerds or snobs depending on the day and the hater. Our schools were among the lowest performing in the state: for the most part our teachers hated children and I’m fairly certain our text books were printed in 1973, 12 years before I was born. The pork processing plant on the outskirts of town never let us forget what the inside of a pig smelled like. And when I was 5, I witnessed a teenager who had thrown kittens into a fire the summer before, molest two of my friends. But on the bright side, our KFC had a lunch buffet and I really liked my house.

The big yellow house – later the big gray house – on 2nd street and her surrounding gardens cultivated by my mother, were refuge from the ugliness of my hometown.

Built during the civil war, my house had crawl spaces and hidden closets which I told everyone were used in the Underground Railroad – a story that was surprisingly impressive in a town of tiny white racists. I was usually too afraid to go inside of them because of ghosts and spiders, but I appreciated their presence. They made me feel safe. I knew if that if Nazis, raptors or the fauns from Narnia ever invaded, I’d have myriad hiding places to choose from. Those were my 3 biggest fears: Nazis, Raptors (my brother told me Jurrasic Park was a true story), and Mr. Tumnus. Maybe it was my premature exposure to sexual predation, but I always knew Mr. Tumnus wanted to fuck Lucy.

My house always smelled like old wood and exotic spices. And in the summer aromas of lilac, peony, rose, mint and lemon balm would blow through the east facing windows. We kept the western windows closed, to keep the odor of pig innard at bay.

The ceilings were high in my house and because they were time-worn, they had cracks and patterns which I would trace with my eyes when I couldn’t sleep. I’d look for words in them. I’d also look for words in the branches of the maple trees outside our windows. And I would look for words in my alphabet soup because advertisers inexplicably made children in the 90s believe they’d “WIN” if they found one. I didn’t realize it was bullshit til I did get a goddamn word in my spoon and tried to figure out how to claim my prize. But there were no prizes. There never were.

I liked eating dinner in my house. When it was cold, we ate in the kitchen by the heat of the stove. When the McLaughlin Group was on we ate in the TV room and didn’t speak. When it was warm, we ate in the sun room, which was once taken over by a family of raccoons. I watched them through the glass door, and hoped I could tame them and make them my friends. Crafty, resourceful and shorter than me, raccoons seemed like candidates for friendship. I didn’t have many friends.
Every room in my house was huge and lovely and separated by an archway or a heavy door. In the living room there was a fireplace with green bricks. My mom hated the green bricks. “Why would someone paint a goddamn brick green?” she would lament. I liked the green bricks. I liked the built in bookshelves, too, and the long window seat, and the weird window by the stairs. I liked the echo in the vestibule and the sound the mail slot made.

Barefoot and filthy, I caught fireflies in the garden behind my house. I made them houses of their own out of jelly jars which I filled with leaves, dandelions and clover. But they didn’t like their houses as much as I liked mine. And they either died or were lovingly evicted by my mother.

My parents filled my house with lively conversation. Their brains are encyclopedias and thesauruses and IMDB pages all at once. They talked about politics and the college and their parents and literature and old movies. They’d let us try to engage. I learned more from hearing them speak than I did at school.

I loved my house.

And when we moved -because our town was a nightmare that smelled like dead swine and poor standardized test scores- I dreamed of finding a way to bring my house with us, to transplant my mom’s garden. I vowed to move back to Monmouth someday and buy that house. All that “home is where the heart is” garbage didn’t sit right with me.

Our new house had carpet and a microwave, things foreign and unnerving to me. My mom had to coax a new garden out of the ground. And they stopped making hiding places long before the 60s, when my new house was built, so we were dead if Nazis, raptors or Narnian pervert fauns descended upon us. And the smell of standing water that would drift over from the woods at the end of our new block had nothing on the smell of bacon between being alive and being for dinner.

I missed my house. Because at least there was refuge there.

I see Monmouth for what it is now, an economically depressed, foul smelling farm town with more sex offenders than a thousand Floridas, but I haven’t had a “my house” since we left. And I sincerely hope that someday I find one.