I drove by 7740 Suffolk Avenue today. I did another quick drive-by just like I’ve done countless times before since moving back to town. The house is tall and skinny, like a shotgun ranch flipped on its side. From the street, the house is mostly obscured by the four 50-foot pine trees that tower at its roofline and encompass the entire front yard. It’s quite unusual landscaping for the quaint suburb of Shrewsbury, Missouri. Most front yards in the neighborhood host a stately and elegant oak or a maple that filters just the right amount of sunlight towards the front window panes. These pine trees, however, cast gigantic shadows and create a fortress capable of locking secrets deep within. The four grandfather pines create a sky top canopy that bars a suburban lawn from taking hold. The ground beneath is a rustic display of brown earth, scattered pinecones, and cozy mounds of mahogany pine needles. Not all life can flourish here. The trees stand guard, obstinate in the face of well-mannered boxwoods and neatly mulched rows of hostas. They seem to whisper, “We will not conform.”
This front yard forest floor was a magical playground to me as a child. I would spend hours with my bare hands in the earth, digging trenches beside the deep tree roots. When my fingers tired, I would sneak a large soup spoon from the silverware drawer to assist my construction. I scooped out smooth curves of dirt that when paired with the sturdy framework of exposed ground roots created the most enchanted crevice chairs. I would sit in these concave bowls of earth and exhale the satisfied sigh of a master architect, sometimes reclining with a book whose pages would become gummed by my sap-slicked fingertips.
One summer, the front yard forest became the headquarters for the “bee hospital” that I created with my friend Rachel. First we captured “sick” bees, who generally suffered from the trauma of being captured with sticks and jars. We roughly scooped them off the clover and dandelion flowers that covered the small strip of lawn that ran between the house and the pine grove. Then we mixed magical potions from pine sap and dirt that we would paint on the bees with a popsicle stick. Oh to feel important and useful and innovative.
My drive-by today provided just a quick glimpse, like all the other passes before. Our house sits at the corner of a busy street that does not provide pavement for parking or space for slow cruising and gawking. At any moment, a car could turn sharply from the busy street, a continuous threat to any idling pedestrian or vehicle. I slow my driving speed just enough to steal a few quick sideways glances, before nervously turning back to the frenzied cross-street ahead. How strange to now perceive this place through such a fast and fractured lens, this place I once knew so intimately. During most of my blurred glances, I look for the basketball hoop that sits at the end of my driveway. It was a gift from my dad that sat awkwardly propped under the low branches of our Christmas tree. I spotted it from the landing of our staircase as I came down on Christmas morning. My dad installed it himself, digging a hole in our backyard against the fence and pouring a large haphazard block of concrete at the base to ensure the structure could withstand play for generations to come. I wish I could go play a round of P-I-G with my boys there.
However during my drive-by today, my eyes were drawn to new objects instead of old. In my first stolen glance, a chicken strolled across the strip of grass, heading for the front yard forest playgrove. It was definitely an anachronistic sight, despite the rising popularity of backyard chickens in our suburban culture. “Was there a coop in our backyard?” I wondered, imagining how my child-self would have been tickled by such a pet. My eyes darted back to the road again and I slowed to a stop at the stop sign. I looked back at the house one more time before making a right turn off the street. My eyes locked on a pink bicycle at the bottom of the porch stairs. “Is it a Huffy?” I mused, remembering my own childhood bicycle parked at the end of the driveway. As I left Suffolk Avenue, I imagined the little girl that lived there now and wondered if she constructed pine root furniture too. Does she keep a secret hideout under the front porch stairs? Does she shoot hoops with her dad on summer nights? Does she too thank the tall pines for shuttering her family, whose struggles don’t fit the suburban mold?
As my mini-van slowly picked up speed, I sit with the pleasant pain of the nostalgia. Like eating a jalapeño or getting a deep tissue massage, I feel the zest of a live once lived, the comfort of a home, with a residual bite and sting and bruising that never heals. There are errands to run and more life to live, running just parallel to this corner of the world where I spent my formative years. I now live just six blocks away from this childhood address, but these memories feel like they were formed lifetimes ago.
I lived at 7740 Suffolk for a dozen years before I went away to college. My parents suffered a house fire there five years later, quickly followed by a foreclosure and a bankruptcy, quickly followed by depression, disease, and their own early departures from this world. I lived hundreds of miles away when they left this house and never said any sentimental goodbyes.
The tall skinny house flanked by the tall pines still stands strong. The gray speckled siding has been replaced with a pale yellow vinyl. There are updates and elements of growth and maturity, but the skeletal framework remains the same, standing tall and strong. It is loyal and stands waiting for me to steal more roadside glances.