The House on Larson Drive

For months I dreamt about the mottled orange brick ranch perched high atop a hill in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though modest in size and humble in architecture, it had a spectacular view of the world around it. I wanted to regain that perspective. Mired in disaster, divorce and despair for too many years, I wanted to be able to see for miles, unhampered by barriers and brokenness. Struggling with the rigors of a demanding job and single parenting, depression and divorce, I returned to Larson Drive in my dreams.

My parents bought the house in a new subdivision of Scott Township in 1959. Old photos show rounded hills and lots of brown earth, with a few ribbons of gray asphalt meandering through–dividing Larson from Doris and Moynelle from Artvue Drives and the steep sledding hill at the end of Bertram. As unpretentious as our home was, I had the world at my feet; and it was handsome.

From our front yard you could see Rennerdale Hill, parts of Upper St. Clair and Bridgeville, and Portman’s farm in the distance, looking like a golden green oil painting as the sun set in summertime. In the winter, bluish light glinted from snow-covered fields; in the fall, brown fields were surrounded by splotches of red, gold and rust in the leaves of bordering trees. Sometimes, at twilight, the sun would hit particles of matter descending from clouds, illuminating shafts of light–people’s souls, I was sure, climbing to heaven from Portman’s farm on evanescent sky stairways.

Although the front yard had the finest view, the view from the back of the house also revealed marvels. From the dining room window, you could see part of Kaufmann’s department store in Mt. Lebanon, two miles away. This upper-class department store was fancy, clean and white–and they had great midnight madness sales. I have fond memories of my parents and sisters returning late at night with our bags of booty and my father shaking his head at all the money that we “saved.” Mostly, the back view consisted of our neighborhood: stacks of roofs climbing up and down western Pennsylvania hills in hues of black, green, brown and gray.

Only upon rare occasions have I ever recalled my dreams. Sure, I have a couple of doozies in the archives: the childhood nightmare about gorillas on bicycles chasing me through the neighborhood or the one in college in which I saw the Second Coming through a plate glass window. What would Jung say? But day-to-day dreams usually evaporated the moment I awoke. During these past few years, however, scores of dreams and nightmares have cascaded over each other night after night, and many of their vibrant images are still lodged in my consciousness. Sometimes, unable to sleep, in the early hours before dawn, I lay in bed listening to the raspy breath of my ancient companion cat, Matilda, recalling–no doubt through distorted rosy lenses–my life on Larson Drive.

To get to 1717 Larson Drive you turned off of Bower Hill Road onto Somerville and wound your way past the streets of school friends, up and down undulations of street and old bus stops and, of course, through the Mario Andretti curve as fast as you could without squealing the tires. You had to time it just right past Pembroke, gently curve the car around to the left then right then left again to go up the hill past Patty Blue’s house and turn right onto Moynelle as if nothing remarkable had just happened.

I couldn’t give anyone the same directions to Larson today; who would know to turn left at Skippy Leonard’s house, past Scott Cupp’s house on the left and then turn right before Adrienne Kennedy’s, and if you passed Dana Lemmon’s house, you had gone too far?

How many would still remember that at the end of our street the woods began, and that houses hadn’t filled it yet below and beyond, and that you could dig up wild violets in the woods and plant them in your yard for your mother? Or that wild violets didn’t like being dragged out of their nestling spot under your favorite tree and didn’t like the hot sun at the top of the hill on Larson drive? They didn’t survive, and I mourned them. Neither did the woods. Houses, play sets, outdoor sheds, and manicured lawns tamed the woods into middle-income prosperity by the time my parents sold the house in the late eighties.

During the months of wrangling and ill-will between my ex and myself, I slept badly. Straddling the waking world and the half life of impending sleep, I wondered who I had become, what I wanted. I railed against life being unfair, too hard or too gray. I wondered if I was a good mother, and why my child never wanted to sleep. I wished any portion of my family lived nearby. I prayed to God to let me live long enough to raise my child. I condemned my ex for his hostility, self-absorption and acquisitiveness. I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered if I’d ever be truly happy again.

I retreated. I cocooned. I hid. Going to church became a chore. I was too visible–too many students, too many colleagues to be pious in front of. I didn’t always want to sing hymns or praise God; I was too miserable. Wonderful sermons extolling the virtues of marriage and relationship longevity plunged me into despair. I thought about my marriage and the roller coaster years of hope and disillusion. I just wanted the love of Christ to wash over me and cleanse me and make me whole and happy again. I felt a failure. I wallowed in sadness that corporate praise couldn’t lift. I often left before communion.

Many Sundays, when my daughter went to her father’s for the weekend, I slept through the church hour. I rose from my bed, grabbed the Sunday paper, shuffled from the kitchen and prepared my morning tea, then shambled back to the living room for a day on the sofa. Reading. TV. Morning nap. Afternoon nap. More dreams. More waking reveries of a simpler time.

In the early 1960s, our mothers’ mantra was “Go outside and play!” Summers were spent almost entirely out of doors. We played outside from the time we arose until Mrs. Bunting rang the cow bell to call Buddy and Todd home for lunch or supper, or until Mrs. Sneary yelled “Yoohoo” for Albert and Ruthann, or Mom called our full names–which meant we’d better get home pronto.

During daylight hours, we rode our bicycles on paths through an old apple orchard and got thorns in our tires from the ‘pricker’ bushes–to the despair of my dad, who disliked bicycle repair especially. We rode along on our bike paths, picked blemished apples from the old orchard, and thought ourselves grand.

In the evenings we played in the street in front of my house. The focal point of activity for the neighborhood, it had the longest flat spot on the street before the corner of Bertram and its steep descent. The day’s events came to a close with the signal of a streetlamp, mounted on a pole on the edge of the Mazerov’s driveway. The light went on at dusk; it was the universal rule of the neighborhood: when the streetlamp went on it was the time to go in. Kids rarely tried to violate it. If we did, Dad got out his American Legion bugle and played taps.

My life now consists of redefining parameters without benefit of a streetlamp timer. I am more limited. I tire more easily. I need more time alone. I find it ironic that the tomboy of elementary, middle and high school finds herself without the usual coterie of men around her. Not a romantic coterie, mind you, I was “one of the guys.” Now that I’m divorced, and no longer part of a couple, relationships have shifted. I have a tight circle of women friends and fewer close male friends.

As a child, I played army with the boys because the only girls on the street were Vicki’s age–a year younger and therefore beneath me unless I was desperate. I was the only girl allowed in the fort the older boys constructed in a huge maple tree in the woods. My sisters, Linda and Vicki and the younger kids got upset when the boys wouldn’t let them in their fort, so my dad built a fort in our backyard. He built an A-frame and covered the top peak with his old army tent and put cor
rugated plastic siding sheets beneath the tent to keep the elements out. It was hot in there when the sun was out; the fort didn’t ‘breathe’. But it stayed dry.

One mild, rainy day, the fort was all mine–a retreat, a haven from younger sisters and scolding parents. I burrowed in under the shelter and watched the raindrops fall. The grass tickled my face. I read Nancy Drew. I remember the smell of the wet grass and wet canvas and how free I felt to be on my own–I could do what I wanted! For those brief moments, life was perfection and I fantasized about living there.

When the grass started dying under the fort, Mom made Dad take it down. It was an eyesore, after all. I was really mad at her. Almost as frustrated as when I discovered she had given all my childhood record albums to my cousin Ann for her son while I was away at college. Another time, my children’s books went, Mom doesn’t remember to whom exactly. It’s odd what losses you remember after so many years, and how keenly you still feel them. These losses resurfaced during the separation.

In the days leading up to my decision to divorce, I told a friend I didn’t care if a bus hit me. At least it would all end. I had a beautiful child. A career I loved–once. But life was tasteless. I was numb to joy. I breathed wet gray felt air. Suffocating. It remained that way until long after the divorce was finalized.

Early on, I said the wrong things to family members and well-meaning friends, when I repeated back statements said to me: “You have to be vicious.” “Divorce ruins kid’s lives. Face it, you’re screwed.” When I repeated these statements at a family gathering, I thought I was teasing; or was I? I got yelled at, accused of being difficult and hard to talk to. But I couldn’t articulate my feelings. I was so tired of emotion. I didn’t want to believe that a divorce had to be so ugly, so I raged in denial.

I found it increasingly difficult to connect with most people. I felt out of place, unable to bridge the gaps in emotional distance. I had pajama days on weekends my daughter was gone. It was harder to care about trivial issues, and I found myself starting to lose enthusiasm for things I once loved. I forgot birthdays, anniversaries and other important occasions. Baby presents, wrapped and decorated, never got mailed. I felt foolish. I let people down. My stash of greeting cards stayed stashed. No one heard from me, unless, rarely, by phone.

I quickly learned that for some people there is an expiration date for grief and recovery. If your own recovery time is longer, well, you’re not doing something right in their eyes–get over it, get on with things, get more work done. Grief is awkward. Grief unsettles things. Fundamentally, grief should be private. I put on a brave face. For a long time, I lived two full lives: one tired and barely awake, the other as a restless sleeper, wakened frequently in the disquiet of her thoughts.

My dreams were too vivid–Technicolor, and epic enough for Cecil B. DeMille. I dreamt about the concerns of my daily life; the struggles with teaching, raising a spirited child, and dealing with a house with a flooding basement, sewer problems, electrical repairs, windows that let in the rain, ice dams, gutter failures, and crucial appliances dying within weeks of each other. Dreams were so vivid at times, that I sometimes wondered if the events of my nightscape were in fact reality. I was disconcerted, disoriented. What was real?

My boss called me the Typhoid Mary of homes. My office at the college flooded twice. I was tired all the time. I couldn’t keep up with my grading. I found out my ex-spouse told my neighbors that I was either a lesbian or having an affair. Lawyer bills mounted. My ex and I couldn’t agree on much of anything: we ended up in arbitration. Disaster surrounded me for eighteen straight months.

Nightmares increased. I’d run through distorted landscapes with Annika, escaping from some unseen terror. I had horrible visions of losing my daughter. I frequently dreamt about my ex-husband breaking into the house or threatening me, or that he died. I’d wake up sweating. Get a glass of water and try and think of happier times. Like Pollyanna. “Think glad thoughts.” It didn’t often work.

Bolt-up-out-of-bed nightmares generally transformed the Larson house into something foreign to its honest rectangular shape–for example, an urban nightclub hotspot. In that particular dream, the house is completely altered. A party is in full swing. I tentatively explain I used to live here. This is where I grew up. I’m drawn into the party by a guest, wending my way in through leather booths and glass and chrome and loud people who look at me as if I’m a farm hick who landed in the wrong neighborhood. I don’t like the people who live in my old house. I don’t like their friends. And the house I knew is gone.

My childhood on Larson Drive had its own rhythm. Weekdays were filled with school, homework, the Mouseketeers, and after school play. On Saturday morning my sisters and I watched Road Runner, Mighty Mouse, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Bwana Don’s Safari theatre: Tarzan, Jane, and Bomba. Cheetah made us laugh.

On Saturday mornings, Dad sang reveille, “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning”–like he was playing his old beat up bugle. Ten a.m. was his absolute limit for letting us sleep in when there were Saturday morning chores to do; after all, he’d already played a round of golf!

Dad snored on the couch weekend afternoons after playing golf–and we were shooed outside to play. Late afternoons on Sunday, we often had family picnics in the living room watching Abbot and Costello, or my mother’s favorite swashbuckler, sitting on the petite pointe stools of my great grandmother, the food arrayed on the two small coffee tables. I still have a great fondness for Usinger’s summer sausage and cheddar cheese on crackers, and for bunwiches: a delectable combination of chipped ham and Velveeta cheese in a hamburger bun, baked in aluminum foil.

In contrast, the rhythms of life during my divorce were chaotic and stressful. I couldn’t see past my own daily crises. My rhythms were erratic, reactive, and a moment or two behind normal rates. Short term memory lapses became more frequent. Perhaps that’s why I thought more about my past. I made comfort food like bunwiches and cookies to soothe myself. Healing was slow.

Yet, during my difficulties, I received an abundant measure of kindness, love, and selfless acts of rescue by friends, neighbors, students, and family. A houseful of remarkable male students adopted me and helped me pull out wet carpet and paint bare concrete and seal walls when the basement flooded–twice. They did yard work and home repair, and fussed over my daughter. Women friends pitched in to help me repaint the bedroom to make it mine after my ex- was forced out of the house by court order. Male friends helped me heft objects too large or heavy for me. I am indebted to all of them. My parents and sisters called me and loved me over miles of telephone wires. Far-away friends would call or email–on the very day I needed a lift. The divorce recovery process is a lot like climbing Escher’s crazy stairways. In moments of despair, perspective is restored by contact or support from friends.

The most surprising discovery I’ve made through all this is that retreats can be restrictive. The urge to retreat can be habit-forming, stultifying. Steadily, I’ve changed my patterns of depression and begun to emerge from my self-absorption. I have more energy. I laugh more often. I sleep better now. I can attend the occasional party without feeling as if I need to stand close to the front door in order to get out quickly.

I am better able to take stock and accept my own failures and flaws now–my own contributions to where I am. For example, through this process of grief and healing, I discovered how inadequately I previously had attended to friends and family going through arduous times. We are so self-absorbed in this culture. T
he immediate throttles our mind with its urgency, and we forget to touch bases, touch hands, and touch each others’ lives with constancy of affection. I vow to do better.

My dad’s leit-motif from childhood, “Don’t be a quitter,” was knitted into my character and had contributed to my staying in my marriage far too long; but, it also helped me to survive the challenges of recovery. I reluctantly took charge of my life. I had to; who else was going to do it? I replaced furniture in empty rooms, put in new windows that wouldn’t leak, updated wiring, plumbing, insulation, gutters. I fixed and organized, purged and processed. I cleaned closets and donated boxes of my old life to Salvation Army. After two years of “urban renewal redecorating,” my home now reflects my personality, my new need for order and simplicity and my need to create a warm and loving environment for my six-year old. I also realize that the more this house reflects clearly who I am, and meets my daughter’s needs, the better I feel.

Emotionally, Annika’s father and I have moved on. We are altered but stronger. Thankfully, we have let go of some of our sadness and anger, growing from the pain of our individual struggles. Our daughter Annika benefits from this growing cooperation and the flexibility of adjusting parenting time when she needs one of us or the other. My students have benefited from their professor’s rekindled passion. And I have found a new church home that Annika and I both love. A fresh start and renewed hope. It is a brave new world. God is teaching me who I am to become.

1717 Larson Drive no longer exists. Sometime in the last few years, Larson became Larsen. Even the street has changed. Moreover, the vistas have changed to reflect the process and progress of time. There are new housing developments on my Portman’s Farm hills. Kaufmann’s was sold and became a popular Galleria of stores. People have moved in and out of the house on the hill and no longer remember what Vicki, Linda and I were like as children.

I still dream fondly of my childhood home on Larson Drive, but far less frequently and without that sense of unfilled longing. I tuck my daughter in bed at night and wish her happy dreams. She wishes me the same.

Debra L. Freeberg is professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan