Monday, December 15, 2008

304 Grape

The house I grew up in is still there: 304 Grape Street, Abilene Texas. I know this because I was just 'there' last week, via the magic of satellite technology and the amazing toy known as Google Earth.

To be sure, the photograph of the old two-story wooden frame structure at the corner of Grape and Third Streets is old. It was taken from space two or three years ago, but I have every reason to believe that the venerable former prairie homestead, like the gnarled old oak in the side yard, is still there.

I did actually see the house as an adult, during a visit to Abilene a few years back with Pierre, when he was about five or six. So, though I am not relying solely on the pictures, even those grainy high high contrast images can call quickly to mind a flood of memory. Each wave in that tide is kicked in motion by but a few pixels of an oft-changed, yet not-lost thing. After all, a place is also a time.

The time was a long ago in my life. We moved to Abilene when I was just nine months old, which means that it would have been May or June of 1956, just before the opressive heat of our first collective Texas summer enveloped us. This experience affected each member of the newly transplanted 'Yankee' family in radically different ways, of course, though my own is more subject to conjecture because I am only just now recalling how and why I felt growing up there.

For my parents, Lynda and Bill, the move to Abilene was an exciting new beginning. For Lynda in particular, buying a bookstore was something of a dream. I am sure that she did not specifically think of one day owning a bookstore when she was growing up, but knowing Lynda's love for books and reading, it must have been something she suggested and pursued rather than Bill. Over the years, Lynda and I talked about the bookstore some, but never in the sort of detail that I would now like to relate, so these memoirs are an assembly of speculations based on lots of general conversations.

One thing of which I am sure, the bookstore was at once both the greatest hope Lynda had up till then allowed herself, and it was destined to be her biggest failure, if that is, you don't count her relationship with Bill. The bookstore was her greatest hope because it was a genuine life change, filled with promise and expectation. It was more even than a business, for it was also a move, physical and spiritual, to unknown territories and a new climate.

In many ways, this new climate defined the territory more than they realized at the time. Consider, if you will, the background. My parents, along with Stephen and Anne, aged thirteen and ten, moved to Texas from upstate New York. In the only winter that I spent in Deansboro--the one just before we moved to Texas--the snow was at least four or five feet deep. This I know from one of the home movies my father made over the course of my childhood.

What I remember, of course, from those same images, was the snow. Whenever I saw these movies--which was rarely, when we could convince Bill to hang up a sheet and drag out the old projector--I was understandably transfixed by what seemed to me to be immense quantities of the white stuff. Yet my own memory yields no direct connection with snow.

I am, despite having been born in New York, a Texas boy through and through. I love, even thrive in the heat. But for Lynda, Bill, Stephen and Anne, it was like moving to the desert, physically as well as intellectually. It wasn't just the absence of snow that they found in Abilene, for that much was expected, even hoped for. No, it was the absence of culture and open-mindedness in this town that was such a cruel shock for them.

I was, fortunately, too young to be shocked. That house was, after all, my starting point. Free of the comparison with any former life, I simply created a good childhood for myself out of pecan shells, horny toads and a lot of digging in the dirt. Of these assets I had plenty, and it seemed natural to enjoy life. Why not?

Now, it seems incredible to me that the house at 304 Grape is still there. By all rights, in Abilene, it should be lost. In Abilene, you can lose things like a school. When I was in fifth grade, St. John's Episcopal built a brand new Day School across town. It was a modern low brick building and they planted an oak tree right in the front yard. When Pierre and I made our trip, I went looking for the 'new' school. After much searching, consulting the map and finally talking with a clerk at a nearby Seven-Eleven, I discovered that not only had the school been torn down to make way for a shopping center, but that the shopping center itself had long since failed.

It was no wonder that we couldn't find it. Where I'd hoped to find the brown brick school building and that oak tree--which I hoped by now would be tall and so big around that I couldn't reach round it with both arms--I found only a weed covered parking lot stretched out like a desolate sea before the crumbling abandoned ramparts of false fronts and boarded up windows.

In many ways, this image--an abandoned strip mall built over a 'new' school--is symbolic of Abilene, but I am only just realizing this. As a child, I completely missed the desolation and desperation that the intelligent inhabitants--especially my parents and older siblings--of the cruel little West Texas town were forced to endure. Their experiences were quite different from my own because I knew nothing else, and had no expectations for that time and that place. Why should I have? As a result, I had what I have always considered to be a 'good' childhood.

This opinion about the quality of my childhood was the subject of some debate between Lynda and I over the years. She was adamant that the time spent in Abilene had been a failure. Not only did the bookstore fail to thrive, they had to sell it as a loss, and separately from the house because they could never find a buyer who was interested in both. Selling the bookstore was a humiliating experience for Lynda, symbolizing as it did, their best aspirations, gone wanting for what could have been. It might have been successful, had they lived in another town, like Austin, but there has never been a time when Abilene was the kind of place to own a liberal bookstore.

Though I knew about these issues--they were the subject of loud and extended arguments between Bill and Lynda as the collapse occurred--they certainly didn't result in what I would call a 'bad' or even difficult childhood. Naturally, for what ten year old boy is really interested in how his parents actually make money, I had no clue that we were often on the brink of eviction, or that we came close to have our furniture and car repossessed on more than one occasion. These facts I learned later, as Lynda was attempting to convince me that it really had been a bad time and that I just didn't know it.

Sadly for Lynda, however, because I didn't know any better, I just went ahead and had a happy childhood. I did all the things that any boy would have loved to have done, in our backyard, at the Glenn's house in the 'country'--it all seems like 'country' to me now--at school and in our big old two-story house. I played with BB guns and rode my bike and played sandlot baseball and football. There is a popular book on the shelves today called The Dangerous Book for Boys, and it is a good recap, if you will, of the life that I, typical post-war boomer boy that I was, enjoyed until we moved to Austin in 1968.

So, while my memories may be shrouded in the mist of nostalgia, from a few pixels on my computer screen today I can return to something that resembles that place and time. Using the 'street view' function of Google maps, I have actually been able to re-create my walk to school. Of course, it's sheer nostalgic folly, for the school is no longer there. But the church in which the school was housed is a venerable old stone structure and has not given way to a shopping mall. So, silly though it may be, I am today able to 'walk' from our 'old' house at 304 Grape to my 'old' school, all right from my desk!

Now, many things have changed about Abilene, but one thing has not, and I can now prove it, thanks to Google maps. It is still ten miles and uphill each way. Plus it seems to have been snowing the day that they took these pictures. Just the way I remember it.

4 comments:

d2 said...

Such nostalgia for one place... Being so much younger than you, I remember little of Abilene other than snatches of memory: a renovation that involved a lot of loud sanding; Thomas killing that white kitten; the infamous "sticker in the BB gun" incident; the Yellow Submarine party; dumpster diving; the Hannukah bush.

But, like you, I had a happy childhood un-encuimbered by money or status or anything resembling worry. And Mom can certainly take credit for that.

Even moving to San Antonio (the Seven Stumps are still there, by the way!) to such a small apartment (how diminished it looks now!) I was spared any anguish of circumstances.

Austin, as you say, began the consciousness of "all of that", but I still feel like I grew up happy for the most part. I also feel that Mom's perceived "failures" were part and parcel of her unrealistically high and even contradictory, expectations of how her life should have been: good mother vs. working professional; art for art's sake vs. being recognized as a serious painter; being frugal vs. liberally giving. Etcetera - you can come up with your own.

She wanted so much for the bookstore to be the dream that she dreamed in secret nights in Biloxi, Shreveport, Wheatland, North Carolina, Deansboro. But it wasn't. It was an ordinary business that required more than either she or Bill, with their limited experience, could provide, and was further complicated by being in Abilene (what was it Len always said: "Why did you open a bookstore in Abilene? They already had a book!").

From my conversations over the years with her, I believe as a child growing up in a miserable household full of anger, in her mind she painted her way out of the dark bedroom, recrimination floating up from the rooms below. The abstract images took many forms, but most represented getting out and having an independent life, free from the burdens of family. Jack came along and made flesh of some of those dreams - but then he was gone. Bill, I think, attracted her because he represented an intellectual equal, interested in books, art, opera and music. But he was a disappointment in so many other ways. And there were us children...

Of course, none of it never worked out as her vivid imagination created it - she was continually trying to get to that ideal picture she had painted so long ago.

d2 said...

Oh, and don't forget that I was born in a driving snow storm in 1961 - or so legend has it...

Greyghost said...

Thanks for your perspective on this memoir; it is far too heavy on the nostalgia and too light on detail. It encourages me to write more about this time and place, however. I encourage you to do the same, because the experience was shared, and the combined picture is so much more interesting.

For example, the sticker in the bb-gun story is definitely worth telling--from my perspective--because it was one that really impacted me (so to speak:^), but your view would certainly be different than mine. The renovation I recall as clearly as the Yellow Submarine party and the Hunnukah bush, but it took me a minute to recall that Thomas was that big orange cat that I lured into our fold with a piece of eggplant (true!). I have only a dim recollection of the fight with the white cat and I didn't even realize that it died. I hope I didn't tell you that just to torture you.

And yes, the snow on your birthday! I really meant to tie that memory in somewhere and completely forgot about it before I hit 'publish'. it's no myth. I can certainly recall getting out of the car and seeing Stephen coming out of the back yard, through the gate on skis!

Anonymous said...

Phillip,
I was enjoying a fine bottle of Sutter Home Merlot 2008 when I came across your name on the net. I too, remember those days on Grape. Sadly, the bookstore was closed and barren rooms downstairs. I remember your brother and the tree, St. John's and the evil Mrs. Grey, Charlie Taylor and his dad's office across the street. Age has limited memories of much more

Phil Berg@bellsouth.net