By Rebecca Altman
I am parked out front of a Cape on Chesterford Road. I don’t know whose house this is, only that my grandparents lived here when my mother was born in the 1940s.
Occasionally, a wistfulness will settle over me, a haze that suspends clock-time, and I’ll turn left at the Hess Station instead of heading home, to the next town over, where I now raise my own children. From the opposite side of the street, I stare at the front steps, imagining my grandmother on the top stair, her ankles crossed and tucked to the side, holding her auburn-haired daughter. Above the stairs is the window in front of which my mother’s crib once sat. I picture my mother climbing the wooden rails to look out onto Winter Pond and the world beyond her windowpanes, decades before a place in her went vacant.
There are children-of-divorce, and there are children-who-follow-divorce, who have their own experience of its aftermath.
Children-of-divorce and children-who-follow-a-divorce often live together in blended families, where they are introduced as his, hers, and ours. There can be whole-, step-, and half-siblings all under one roof, and depending on parental visitation, different combinations of siblings at any given time. I am a child-who-followed-divorce. I have five half-siblings, but I have always disliked the qualifier: half, as in less than whole, so I often would drop it when describing them. But this, too, would feel inauthentic because, when I was little, they weren’t always around or, when they were, they weren’t always accessible: they had other families and homes—homes I only ever drove past. I spent my childhood guessing what went on inside of them.
In fact, as a child, I was driven past a lot of homes.
Even blended families come to share habits, although their origins are harder to trace. The custom in mine is that if you are near a place where you, or some family member, once lived, you ride by it. This doesn’t mean chatting with the current occupants or even stopping to get out of the car. A nod can suffice. A snap-inventory of changes in structure or color, a sizing-up of tree growth, but almost always, one last glance before pulling away, in case what we’ve come in search of may, finally, burst through the front door and chase us down the road, waving at us to turn the car around.
When my father’s mother passes, he organizes the family into a long caravan to drive by the places that he knew as a child.
His father was a builder. They lived in the houses his father built until it was time to sell.
The afternoon after the memorial service, my father drives with his window rolled down, us following behind, and when we near one of his former homes, he slows the car, reaching out the window to point at the one that matters.
I’m not in the car with him so I can’t hear what stories he would have told, but I’ve heard them before. He’s taken me on this tour once, maybe twice, when I was a child and we happened to be passing through Rhode Island. I recognize the white house with the grill over the front door as the one he lived in when he was seventeen and his father died in the den.
Eight years after the memorial service, when my father turns seventy, I ask him if he’d like to take a road trip to see the factory where he had made polystyrene before I was born. I had always wanted to see the old Union Carbide plant, to see where he spent a decade of his life. Before I was born, around the time of his divorce, he left plastics for a career in public service. He had changed religions, too, but he rarely speaks about how he rebuilt his life.
After a false start of my own, I became a sociologist who studies environmental legacy—everlasting things like plastic or pollutants that pose a burden passed between generations. I’ve been trying to understand how I came into my strange fixation with abandoned factories and polluted places. Only now do I see some continuity. I’ve broadened the family habit to include driving by other kinds of places that harbor past hurts inherited by subsequent generations.
It was my father who suggested we add old homes to our itinerary.
So en route from Boston, we pull off the Parkway to see the north Jersey house where I spent my childhood. The maple out front, the one I remember my brother leaping over, now blocks the front window out of which, as a toddler, I waved to my father as he left for his job at Town Hall.
As a child, living in this house, my five siblings are teens. I sometimes ride in the backseat of our station wagon when my father picks up his three kids for the weekend. They live in homes I never see inside, although once, my sister sneaks me in to use the bathroom in her mother’s house.
Mostly, I am alone riding out the tide of my siblings’ ebb and flow from the household. By the time I reach grade school, they have stopped visiting or moved out, two sisters to college, one brother to boarding school, another to mechanic school, and my oldest sister following a boyfriend to Wisconsin. We never get to know the interior of each others’ lives.
When my father steers the car down Webb Court, I feel a pang of familiarity. It is the arc of that curve, that way my body senses the shift in direction as I ride in the passenger seat next to him, rather than the sight of the actual house, which to my surprise, doesn’t induce nostalgia at all.
We drive by, turn around on the cul-de-sac, one more rolling pass and that is it. We don’t stop. I don’t look over my shoulder. There is no need.
The next morning, my father takes me by his first central New Jersey apartment, a slouch-roofed ranch at the back of another home’s property. I try to picture him, a newlywed with his high school sweetheart, riding his bicycle past the junkyard to make polystyrene for the plant down the road.
My father and his first wife don’t stay long then. Neither do we. Before the features of the place can develop into memory, Dad pulls away, heading to the next town to see the duplex, where after a miscarriage, my oldest sister is born.
From there, we press on to Leland Gardens, a complex of red-brick garden apartments nearby. Once inside, he quickly turns around, disoriented by the labyrinth of similar structures that look much as they did in the sixties. He stumbles on the apartment, as if some visceral homing device steers the car to the place where my second sister is born.
Next we pass the Randolf Road house, my brother’s place of birth, where it occurs to me I’ve never seen a baby picture of him.
My father drives on, effortlessly navigating the grid of streets and storefronts.
But as we approach the turn for the next house, I see him slide his foot off the accelerator. Only momentum carries us forward. I look over at him from the passenger seat. He stares straight ahead, one hand on the wheel, the other covering his mouth. This is where I lost them, he says.
He inhales and exhales deliberately, through pressed lips, before swinging the car down Dixie Lane. He ducks to see out the passenger window as we creep along. And when we are finally out front, he pulls over. The tires squeak against the curb.
The conversation stops, but I sense an opening, and I begin to feel my way around it.
The white house hugs the road, its porch covered with a canopy of foliage. A steep flight of stairs climbs from the sidewalk to the front porch. I imagine his feet clambering up them, moving in his family box by box, and within a short time, carrying what few belongings he has back out.
Do my siblings watch his last descent? There are questions I have never asked, and until only recently, probably couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t bear to know the extent of their suffering upon which the very possibility of my life has been contingent.
I inquire about custody. My father’s voice cracks. It was the early seventies, he says. Mothers got custody, without question. It’s raining, and the windshield wipers strain to keep up. I have asked him too much.
Something unresolved still resides in this house. I wonder if its current family can sense its distress the way I do sitting at its curbside.
Two more houses complete my mother’s side of the story. I’d been driven by them before.
On this trip, we don’t drive past the Kempshall Terrace house, the house into which my sister and brother were born. Even without seeing it again, I can picture it. My mother tells me often how on the day she first walks through this house, the owner, a widow, has a pot of baked beans in the oven. It is the homey smell that sells her—the scent of a life she longs to lead within those walls.
The house we do drive by was a trim Colonial on Graymill Drive, where my mother and her first husband move to make room for their growing family and which holds the possibility for a third child. She turns thirty in this house. Her husband has thrown her a surprise party to celebrate, and then the next morning, moves out with the woman from two doors down.
After he has closed the door behind him, I imagine my mother collapsed, fallen to her knees, her hand pressed to the window that she won’t look out to watch him leave. But she can’t wallow. My brother and sister are little and will need her soon. She lives there for a while longer as a single mother on Valium.
My father stops the car to comment, of all things, on the chimney.
When he married my mother and moved into Graymill Drive, the brick chimney had started to split away from the house. They lashed it to the side, cheaper than rebuilding from its foundation. The braces remained more than three decades later. Look at that, he says, it’s still holding on. This is symbolic of my parents, who married into each others’ heartbreak, and remain married, defying expectations, possibly even their own.
I am conceived in this house. It strikes me then that conception is cellular union followed by cleaving, again and again, splitting apart to carry on, until, at last, something whole and unbroken comes into the world. But I am a half-sibling, conceived only after the split and merging of two other families, and born from the fact of their devastation. Sitting in front of this house I realized how much my identity has been shaped by things that I imagined to have happened inside its walls.
Sometimes I would wonder whether some part of my parents still lived in those houses where their first attempt at family fell apart, especially my mother, who still talks about her first husband, their divorce, and the house she left behind, though he died in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the stories she tells read like scripts. She repeats them often, always with the same phrasing. Sometimes, she’ll launch into a memory, and though I’m sitting beside her, I long for who she might have been had she not been left behind.
Which is why, a year after the road trip with my father, I’ve come back to her childhood home.
From my car parked across the street, I see two teenage girls shuffle out in flip-flops and climb into the Jeep parked in the driveway. They glance at me and are gone. I hear the bass-line from their stereo fade into the distance. A scruffy Labradoodle wanders to the curb, its gaze fixed on me in anticipation. And I realize it’s time to move on.
REBECCA ALTMAN serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and has taught seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. She is working on her first book with Vanderbilt University Press. Other creative non-fiction has appeared in Brain, Child, Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She occasionally blogs at tothescratch.blogspot.com.