Visit Home Part 4

A recent convention trip to Florida provided me with the opportunity to visit my home town. This is part four of a series on that trip. Here is Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Probably the main reason I had decided to visit my home town, while in Florida, was to see the house in which I had grown up. My father had sold the house some 12 or 13 years ago and I had no idea who was living there now.

The house was built in, I think, 1959. My folks bought it brand spanking new. I saw pictures of it in the days before my sister and I came along. The pictures were black and white, but my mother told me that the house had originally been painted white with dark grey accents. By the time of my first memories of the house it was a very subtle pastel pink with white highlights, which it remained until well into my teenage years, when we painted it green. At that time we also painted over the terrazzo of the front porch, a porch so slick and slippery after the frequent thunderstorms that it was a wonder that none of us ever fell and split our heads open.

The house was built at the end of a row of houses, in what I presume was a fairly new neighborhood. Another row of houses stood across a narrow road, to the west, and just beyond, Lake Summit, where I first learned to swim. There was a lovely white sand beach that had actually been owned by our neighbors, Fred and Edna Hoaglin, but they had always given us free rein and I spent many summers wallowing in the warm, green-tinted shallows, which would quickly become cold at any depth because of the springs that fed the lake, plucking apple snails from the sandy bottom, carefully avoiding the reeds where it was rumored cotton-mouth moccasins lurked, and later, fishing for bass, and water skiing, during those two or three years that we had a boat.

The house faced east, onto the then named Cypress Gardens Road. Across the road was a vast orange grove. A scary place as a child because, in warmer months, tractors would pull huge red pesticide spraying machines, with giant noisy fans, up and down the rows, and in winter, smudge pots, filled with foul smelling oil, burned with a black smoke rising from their chimneys, keeping the trees from freezing.

On the south end of our property we kept our own little grove of citrus trees, all in a line. Two orange trees, a grapefruit tree, a tangerine and a lemon. The lemon tree died before I was born, but the rest thrived and we picked the fruit and had juice in season. The rest of the year we drank frozen juice, which has always seemed to me a sin for a Floridian.

Also to the south abutted the property line of the tourist attraction for which our road was named, Cypress Gardens. Cypress Gardens had been there since the 1930s. The back gates were a short walk away, and we always entered the park for free, playing in the famous gardens, running along the well-kept paths, watching the electric boats glide through the canals, and the four-times-daily water ski show.

Across Cypress Gardens Road was an orange stand. A tourist trap sitting on what was purported to be the second highest point in Florida, though Google contests this. In the 1920s a tower had stood on the site of the orange stand, and people could pay a few pennies to climb to the top and look out over the citrus groves.

As we grew up, various freezes wiped out the orange groves. New housing developments appeared. Shopping centers followed. The orange stand closed and was torn down. Cypress Gardens Road was renamed and bypassed by a four-lane highway. Cypress Gardens went out of business, long after I moved away, killed, like so many of its ilk, by Disney, and was reopened and closed twice again.

I approached first from the little road that had gone past the back of my house. In all the time I had lived there, the road, Lake Summit Drive, had been a through road, passing by Cypress Gardens and joining the larger Cypress Gardens Road later on. But now it was a dead end, cut off abruptly at the former Cypress Gardens property line.

I looked up from the road and across the half acre of lawn that still seemed to be infested with sandspurs and fire ants, as it had been in my day, though neither of those had ever forced me into shoes and socks. It was always flip flops at home, even in winter.

I saw immediately that the tall oak tree that had stood in front of the garage was gone. In its place was a small flower bed. A pang went through me. It was a shock to see that tree gone. There had been five pine trees near it when I was very young. Taller by far than that oak tree, and I had loved the cool shadows beneath them. But my father had them cut down when I was very young, because he was afraid they would fall and crush the house in a hurricane.

That remaining oak tree was the first thing I saw when I stepped out the back door in the morning and the last thing I passed heading back at night. I had never climbed the tree. Climbing had been reserved for the gigantic banyan tree in Cypress Gardens. Indeed, the deep crevices of the oak tree’s rough bark, like a dried up, drought-ridden mud flat plastered around its trunk, had never invited close contact. But no, I had never climbed it because it’s first limbs started far above my head. At least 12 feet straight up. My father had hung a tire swing from the lowest branch, a stout offshoot that had grown at a 90 degree angle to the trunk. When that tire had turned our clothes black, to the exasperation of my mother, my father replaced the tire with a wooden board, which served ideally as both seat and step. It was the most fun to stand on the swing and hang off the rope perilously, only hard ground beneath us. But we were orangutans then.

My father had planted two other trees in my youth, and these remained, thick and strong, their foliage now towering over the house. Neither of them held any emotional resonance for me, however. On one of them hung a No Trespassing sign. Another shocking change from memory. That sign and the abrupt ending of Lake Summit Dr. made me feel unwelcome. I didn’t stop for a picture but turned the car around and headed for the main road and the front of the house.

It was a short drive, and I pulled into the driveway in just a minute or two. Here, changes were more apparent. Someone had extended the garage forward, apparently adding an extra room to that end of the house. The front door had been widened to double its former size. There was a chain link fence across the front of the house, and on it another sign -- Beware of Dog. But some things were the same. The plastic shutters my father and I had hung beside each window were still there. Though they had been painted white, and the house a light tan.

As I parked my car and stepped out, the dog the sign warned about started barking from the front porch, joined immediately by another from inside the house. And then a third dog appeared from behind the house, on my side of the fence. He, too, barked, but I could see that as long as I faced him, that would be all he would do.

The dog was afraid, and I had to assume that the owner was afraid, too. What would possess someone to throw up signs and fences and dogs and who knew what else to keep out the brightly shining sun and what was still a nice neighborhood? What was there to be afraid of? There was a blue pickup truck in the driveway and I hoped I would be able to ask.

I didn’t honk my horn or call out to the house. I couldn’t approach the door to knock, but the dogs were loud enough to alert any occupant. While I waited to see if anyone would come out, I wondered what the inside of the house looked like, now.

If you had entered the house while I lived there (and so few people did, but that’s another story), you would have entered a tiny foyer. A white louvred door protected the oil furnace in it’s small room. To your left was a closet, filled with various and sundry. Some winter coats, my parents’ pink and blue suitcases, my father’s still and 8mm movie cameras, along with a projector and screen for the traditional viewings of filmed family vacations during holiday time.

To your right, the way widened out into the living room. Immediately beside the front door hung two beautiful Balinese masks, their dark shining wood a dramatic contrast to the pale golden walls. A huge picture window (now gone) looked out onto the orange groves across the road and beneath the picture window was a tasteful yellow couch with orange and green pillows on it. A wall extended two thirds of the way across the house, dividing the living room from the kitchen and dining room, and out from that wall a red brick planter had been built. Four feet tall, and as long. It’s twin was on the other side of the room. A large round chair, upholstered in the same fabric as the yellow couch, but colored orange, nestled in the corner made by the dividing wall and the brick planter. A straight orange sibling was at the opposite side of the room, next to my father’s marble-topped desk, which was tucked into an indentation in the wall along that side. Then the brick planter on that side, and then a dark green sofa that curved around to and along the west wall. Two huge louvred glass windows showed a view of Lake Summit and the setting sun. At all times various large televisions, first black & white, and then color, sat in front of the green couch. Behind the television was a long mahogany table, with two leaves folded down. A portion of my mother’s milk glass collection was displayed on the table. On each side of the table were two delicate wooden benches of dark wood, upholstered in green, orange and brown stripes. In the center of the living room was a large round carpet, the color of which I’ve never been able to pinpoint. A light sage? Pale green? In any event, it’s pastel circle had always suggested a planetary expanse upon which to stage my childish games. Platoons of plastic soldiers could march across its surface. Cars and trucks drive unimpeded. Dinosaurs ambled around its circumference. Painted portraits of my mother and father always watched me from the walls of the living room while I played. My parents had always, always looked so much younger in those portraits. Serene. Above the cares of the world. The table, the orange chairs and the yellow couch had seldom been used. They had not been forbidden, just avoided. We didn’t sit on them, and I didn’t play on them.

Behind the wall that extended two thirds of the way across the house was the kitchen. My mother’s demesne. Green counters, with a pattern straight out of the 1950s. Green wallpaper, and wooden cabinets of a pale reddish-yellow wood. One counter divided kitchen and dining room. In the cabinet underneath sat bottles of gin and vermouth and whiskey and liqueur. Never touched by my parents. Kept for guests who never came. Because I didn’t see my parents ever drink, I was never tempted to touch them as a teenager, either. My mother’s pots and pans hung on two walls, their copper bottoms always polished to a high sheen. The kitchen floor, a dark patterned linoleum, was the only floor of the house not covered in wooden parquet. Parquet that my mother waxed on her hands and knees, and then buffed with a hulking ivory colored machine, time and time again. I always liked the sound the floor made when I walked on it. The little crack of the wooden tiles

In the dining room was the oval table around which we ate countless meals. It was the table where I did my school homework. Always covered with tablecloths and place mats to protect the wood. The four chairs around it were upholstered in orange vinyl. In summer, when I wore shorts, my skin would cling to the seat. The end of every meal, on days like that, was punctuated by the ripping paper sound of my flesh separating stickily from the seat. My father’s chair was the only one that had arms. Behind his seat were two bookcases, with his (and only his) few books, and later, when my sister and I started school, a set of Compton’s encyclopedias. There was a huge bureau in the dining room, on top of which was the rest of my mother's milk glass collection, and in which were important papers and also the photo albums. On the thick black pages were pasted black & white, crinkle-edged photos of aunts and uncles whom I seldom met, grandparents who were dead not long after I was born, weddings, wars, and lives I never knew. Large copper trenchers hung on the wall above the bureau, with scenes of inns and ale-houses pounded into them.

There was a door between the kitchen and dining room that led to the garage. Although there was a back door in the house, proper, we had always gone into the back yard from the garage, for some reason. We had a series of dogs, always dachshunds, as I grew up, and the garage was where they spent the night and the coldest winter days. The rest of the time they were chained in the back yard, poor things. They must have gone mad from boredom. We typically parked the family car in the garage, and it was one of my chores to put newspaper around the tires so the dogs wouldn't piss on them. There were, in the garage, all the accouterments of the typical middle class American life. A washing machine and a dryer, garden tools, a riding lawn mower, jars and cans filled with nails and screws, an old cushioned chaise longue and a heavy red umbrella that we would always take on day trips to Daytona Beach.

Turning to the left from the front door, a hallway led to bedrooms and bathrooms. As a very young child I had been afraid to walk down that hallway at night. The hallway light was seldom turned on and I was afraid of the darkness there. At night I dreamed of electric monsters running at me out of the depths, the genesis of which was probably the frequent thunderstorms we had every summer. My mother and father never countenanced my fear. They would never turn on the hall light for me, and my mother would always grow angry when I at first refused to go to bed. She would yell, and because I was more frightened of her than of what lurked in the black I would eventually walk to my bedroom, certain that I would be grabbed by some unknown menace before I reached the safety of my bed.

My bedroom was painted blue. Pictures of clowns hung on the walls when I was very young and, later, my own paintings and drawings. My clothes and toys had typically taken up only one half of the closet and once we stopped buying real Christmas trees the cardboard box containing the fake tree we eventually bought from Montgomery Ward occupied the other half. When we got our first color television, which we kept for many years, the black & white set was moved into my room. I would lie on my double bed and watch Creature Feature every Saturday afternoon. A double feature of monster movies, both American and Japanese, and horror films from the 50’s and 60’s. The show was hosted by a local radio DJ who played a character named Dr. Paul Bearer. If I could get the rabbit ears adjusted just right I would watch the original Outer Limits on Channel 6 out of Orlando. Later I watched British television shows -- Monty Python, Red Dwarf, The Young Ones, The Goodies, Doctor Who -- late into the night. A refuge, that room, as so many children’s bedrooms are.

My sister’s bedroom was painted pink. Filled by a pale wooden dresser, on top of which was a music box in which a ballerina spun and danced on a spring, and by dolls and toy ponies. I entered the room seldom and never stayed long. The living room was where my sister and I played. Later, she and I drew apart and whatever happened in her bedroom was her secret.

My parents bedroom was painted light green. On either side of the king-size bed were dark green vinyl upholstered recliners. My father seldom sat in his. I don’t think my mother ever sat in hers. But I read hundreds of books sitting in my father’s recliner. I sat there hour after hour, day after day. The quiet green of my parent’s bedroom is the color of my formative years.

There were two bathrooms in the house. The boys bathroom with blue counters and tiling, the girls bathroom in pink. The girls’ bathroom also had a small extension with a makeup table and little pink chair.

As I stood in front of the house, the three dogs barking at me, I wondered what had changed inside the house. Were the beautiful parquet floors still there? Was the face I had always seen in the sponge patterned plaster of my bedroom ceiling still staring down onto the current occupant? Were the vulgar words my sister had carved into the wooden frame of her closet door in a fit of anger still faintly showing?

If anyone was inside they were apparently uninterested or too afraid to come out and see why there was a stranger in their driveway. I took a picture and drove away. Unsatisfied.

My Childhood Home
I visited Cypress Gardens as a child. I loved it; the trees were so beautiful. I was sad to hear it had closed, as I think it should be considered a national treasure.
Fortunately, Lego Land is opening a park there, and from what I hear, the gardens will still be a part of it.
banyan tree
did you climb it like a real Na'vi? Did you sleep in its leaves? :)
I didn't know what a banyan tree is, sa I looked and found out that "In Hinduism, the leaf of banyan tree is said to be the resting place for the God Krishna, who, after consuming all the universe during the time of destruction, absorbs everything created and turns himself to a child as small as he could fit into the tiny leaf of the banyan tree and keeps floating in the void space, until he himself decides to recreate everything back out from him."
Re: banyan tree
I'm not at all surprised that the banyan tree would inspire religious reverence. A full grown banyan is an impressive thing. Like a living cathedral.
Re: how
Yes, with wrought iron work provided for climbing vines. For many years the only plants in it were plastic, though. However, the windows on each side were large enough to let in enough sun to grow things.

For lack of a fireplace or mantle, my mother used to hang our Christmas stockings on the planters. My stocking on one, my sister's on the other.