(I wrote this in September, 2010)
The siding industry should be alerted to the existence of Hudson, Wisconsin. I had occasion to pass through my old hometown last weekend, and I was struck by how little my neighborhood had changed, architecturally, since we moved away in 1990. It is a river town, your last stop under the purview of Wisconsin’s relatively liberal alcohol laws before crossing the St. Croix into Minnesota. The shady, sleepy downtown residential area boasts some 19th-century lumber baron mansions and a whole lot of stately inter-war frame houses. The changes over these twenty years are evident, but mostly superficial. Our old house has been turned into a spot in a garden, lovely but ill-suited to bruising games of pick-up football. The present owner was walking the dog and puttering in the yard as I went by, but I decided not to inform her of this fact. New coats of paint have been applied up and down the streets that linked the old downtown to the newer neighborhood “on the hill,” the grid in which my early life played out–bounded, roughly, by St. Croix Street on the north, Vine Street on the south, Second Street toward the river, and Ninth street to the east, where Zeb lived and we played baseball after we outgrew the tee-ball games down at the Cinder Lot.
So almost twenty years of a booming housing market produced some nice upkeep but no tear-downs. This must have something to do with the preserving and renewing power of siding, I decided. The house where Bobby K. and his grandmother–the only Koreans we knew back then–lived is stalwart in its mint-green sheath a quarter century after they moved away. Meanwhile, the white-sided childhood home of my best friend Ben Z. is now a mellow shade of brown. I was a little sad to see a high fence around the yard, which in days of yore offered such brisk access to the aforementioned Cinder Lot and its artificial slope of granite rocks, perfect for perching on in the days before lawsuits (though the city fathers evidently sealed up our kid-sized gap in the fence at that corner anyway). I would have walked right by our first house on Sixth Street, from whence we moved when I was still very young, if I did not know with something like muscle memory that it was the second-to-last house on the block. I stopped for a moment to contemplate the transforming power of a new color of siding from the sidewalk over which we jostled and bumped on our childhood rides in a dad-powered Radio Flyer down to Mickleson’s. The present occupants are not notably ambitious gardeners, which cheers me some. One doesn’t wish to be showed up by everyone who follows you to an address.
Some changes go deeper, however. My old elementary school is gone, replaced by a basketball court for the torment of new un-athletic children. The kids are educated next door, at what used to be the middle school–in my day, an impossible rabbit warren of seemingly pointless rooms and hallways, perfect for evading all the people who disliked you on your way to the talented-and-gifted classroom in the butt-end of the building. The town library is now a law office. Plenty of businesses have changed hands and upgraded their menus. And naturally it feels smaller than it did back then, even after bikes shrank it considerably. It actually felt quite spacious, a landscape broken up with lilac hedges, alleyways, backyard slides and swingsets, and the romantic built geography of a river town. It was, in other words, an excellent terrain through which to chase and be chased by Redcoats, Confederates, and/or Storm Troopers, stopping only to pilfer some rhubarb or take a nap. As far as I can tell, it still is, if children nowadays still do such things. I was there on a damp school day, so it’s hard to tell.
Children are instinctive keepers. They are the most conservative people around. At least I was. A friend moving away, even a short distance, felt like a Homeric parting. The closure of our favorite burger-and-malt joint on Lake Mallalieu, where the Willow River swells before joining the St. Croix, was like a death in the family. I remember asking my dad to pay a little extra for our lunches together at the A&W as they neared closing. The givenness of a child’s world–at least a child reared in a relatively stable environment–is immense and any alterations are a shock to the system. Leaving was a painful rupture for me, but it was well-timed in a sense: after 6th grade, things start changing anyway and the town of your youth becomes something else for you whether you are there or not. As it was, I said goodbye to my friends in Hudson before the deluge, before the onset of electric guitars and rock and roll and kissing and booze and cigarettes. Back when girls had just become terrifying (an Ann was my constant companion for a year or so, before we knew that this was supposed to be fraught with consequence; I narrowed her house down to one of two possibilities on Third Street and her last name down to any that begin with ‘B.’ Anyway, she moved at some point and I suspect her house of having been re-sided).
Eventually I wended my way up to Ninth Street, where Lois, our long-time babysitter, had lived in a house built by her late husband. It had been either five or seven years since I’d last seen her. She was our daily companion for several years and a grandmotherly figure of cinematic perfection. Nobody in my family had any current information on her, so I walked toward the front door just to ask. On my way up the driveway, I got a glimpse of the kitchen, where we had happily devoured cinnamon toast, venison in various states and arrangements, and the powdered mac and cheese that we adored but that my mother would not countenance. In that kitchen was a baby dangling his little baby feet, and it suddenly struck me that if Lois were living anywhere on this earth, it was not here.
All of a sudden I turned back to the car and got on the road back home. I am an inveterate visitor of old haunts–I have been to Deep Springs three times in the last decade, and in those early years away I visited Hudson at every opportunity–but as soon as the conversation runs its course, as the agenda is concluded, or as the landmarks have been glimpsed and the old hands clasped, I need to leave. There is no point in trespassing on one’s own past, especially since it is now someone else’s present. No young mother needs to see a long-ungrateful child, come back too late to make some small gesture of affection and memory. No new family needs to hear just how many days of my early life slow-leaked out within their walls. “These things have served their purpose; let them be.” So back you all go, Bobby K., Ben Z., Zeb, Ann B., into our common past and your individual presents. May your homes old and new never lack for warmth, good memories, and high-quality exterior finishing.