NAMPA’S NEW NEIGHBORSPosted: May 3, 2014
If you read my recent blog, “A Closet Case” you know I have lived in quite a few houses in my lifetime. But more than any other, the place where I spent most of my childhood will always hold indelible memories. Located in what was once the simple little railroad town of Nampa, Idaho, the dwelling is a large, grey, wood-shingled structure posed on a grassy corner lot. Way back then, majestic Elms lovingly sheltered me and my family. Today, some sort of grotesque, gnarly, leafless monsters have replaced the old trees, as if about to strangle what I once called home.
After my mother passed away last September, I was compelled to motor by the old homestead. Admittedly I was hesitant, as several years earlier I’d driven by and found the place had become rundown and shabby, the downtown neighborhood shriveling as sterile, new housing developments erupted on the outskirts. The booming, capital city of Boise was overflowing into adjacent towns like mine.
It was a typical warm, Indian summer afternoon when I found my rental car headed toward the old hacienda, there on the corner just blocks from downtown. My spirits lifted when I noticed spotty renovations in progress on some of the once impressive older houses I’d often studied as I explored our neighborhood. Pulling up to the old Kilmer place I noticed several trucks parked out front and my heart skipped. Maybe, I fantasized, these belonged to workmen and my old house was being restored as well—to its former “grandeur”, I liked to imagine.
Hopping out of the car and heading toward the house, the situation became almost surreal. Was I dreaming there were five or six Eskimos, (were they?) sitting on the patio alongside the house? And weren’t they cooking something in the outdoor fire pit where we used to roast marshmallows and hotdogs? And weren’t these men too warm in their wool, fur-trimmed jackets and caps?
I could not turn back. Entering the yard all five or six heads turned to look at the strange woman cutting across, my, I mean, their lawn. As I grew closer I whiffed the distinct aroma of grilled fish and realized I was intruding upon an afternoon cookout, where I had once sprawled on a chaise lounge, devouring the adventures of Nancy Drew and Beany Malone.
Overcome with a combination of nostalgia and disbelief, I could barely manage to whimper to the swarthy man who stepped toward me, apparently the youngest of the group.
“Excuse me sir”, sorry for interrupting.”
“Yes Mam?” He responded while the others stared at me as if I had two heads.
“You see, I grew up in this house over forty years ago, and I just wanted to see who lives here now.”
The older men looked to the younger one and it became apparent they did not understand English.
I am not sure what I said next but recall suddenly blurting out–
“Would you mind if I took a quick look inside?”
Smiling through his bewilderment, the poor kid, probably around twenty or so, motioned me through the door off the patio, his cohorts watching with suspicion. We entered the spacious, wood- paneled family room, where heavy, unfinished burlap served as drapes, covering the large picture windows overlooking the patio and yard. My eyes clouded as I pictured Dad sitting in his easy chair watching the nightly news, smiling over at me as I bopped through the door. I heard Mom in the kitchen banging pots and pans, and then headed toward my bedroom at the top of the stairs. Meanwhile, the kind young man kept apologizing for the lack of furniture, ongoing restoration, and dusty mess. In a box outside the kitchen, familiar white tiles, now mostly stained and crumbled, sat in piles waiting for the dumpster.
We wandered from room to room as my childhood played out around me. Amazingly, the walls in the living and dining rooms were still covered in the same elegant grass paper my mother and her zany, artsy friend Jeanne had hung over four decades earlier. My room, once lavender and lacey, was now a teenage boy’s haven, painted blackish green with mattresses on the floor, soccer balls and junk everywhere, and some sort of beaded, feathered headdress on one wall. On another hung a large red and white flag, with a red cross where ours would have stars. Gone was the statuesque cherry tree outside my window, where my older brother and his cronies liked to perch high up in their treehouse. I’d spy from my room as they smoked cigarettes and hurled cherry pits at each other or the ground.
A grin crossed my face when I caught sight of the small, mysterious door near the floor where my bed once stood, giving access to the pipes for the tub on the opposite side of the wall. More than once I threatened my little brother that this was where we’d stowed other young boys we’d had before him, when they were naughty. Shame on me, but he bought the story and it worked, for a while anyway.
Chatting with my young guide I learned that he and his family were not Eskimos, but Tongans, from the South Pacific. This explained their clothing; 75 degrees is cold for a Polynesian. He revealed that his entire extended family was living in my old house, and that his mother was not feeling well so was napping in the “big bedroom”–which had once been my parent’s. It delighted me that these foreigners were slowly bringing the place back to life, perhaps not as I knew it, but still…
Profusely thanking the young man from Tonga and smiling my appreciation to his relatives, I hurried back to my rental car, crawled behind the wheel, and sobbed. Mine were tears of grief, nostalgia and joy…all laced with relief. This neglected, dilapidated, precious old structure would eventually be a nice home again, for strangers from a far-off land much different from mine, yet somehow the same.