I won’t know that our old house on Englewood Rd. is called a split level or that it is really small until I look for it on Redfin 20 years after we move. Strange how the pictures fool my memory. I guess the four of us shared one bathroom. Even though there are stainless steel appliances and a new floor in this photo a realtor posted back in 2012, the tiny rooms, two-car garage, and square house are still face-forward and midwestern like a textbook standing on a shelf. Redfin asks a simple question on the front of the website: “Is this your home?”
How can it be that I am still enamored by this small house from my past? It is cream colored with milky shutters now, no longer white and black, no longer with my mom standing on a linoleum floor in the kitchen and my dad filing bills in his makeshift workstation, a closet off the garage that he converted. Several families have moved in and out of that house. Surely the good-bye I wrote in my closet before moving south is erased by now.
I zoom out of my memory to see the high, middle, and elementary schools just a few minutes away on each side. The Neighborhood Pantry next to an old gas station before the main road is still there, I think. My brother and I would buy Sour Punch Straws, Doritos, and Nerds on long, hot summer days while our parents were at work. We had to fill the day somehow. Mamani visiting from Canada would grip my forearm as we walked to the convenience store. “I am responsible for you. I need to get you home safely,” she said, as though we were crossing a border rather than walking a few blocks in a suburban neighborhood to the convenience store. I didn’t live through a war and a migration. I had no context for her fears, just a sweaty grip and a desire to be free. I was young.
I tap the screen again to see each of the 20 photos and have to pause to get a sense of the rooms I’m looking at. Oh, there’s the dining room with Dad’s old all-in-one cassette and record box. On days my mom would finally sit down, she’d lay on the floor next to that wall, pull up her cotton housedress and prop up her legs against it. “I’m stretching them out,” she’d say, as she used her wrist as a pillow. If I could finish the image for her like a friend leaning in with a lighter, I’d put a cigarette in her hand as she lay there looking up, listening to Demis Roussos. She smoked in the garage, only ever in the house when my dad’s spell of verbal abuse poured out of his childhood onto our split-level stairs and throughout the hallways in heaps of ash and soot that never quite got out of my family’s exhale.
But we had tapes of old Persian music, too. Googoosh, Andy, and eventually Black Cats covered the bases. I think we’d play old songs some days while the smell of sabzi and sautéed onions covered up that smoke and brought us forward to lunchtime and then the future. If the tale of my old house was told in magical realism, then like Naguib Mahfouz does in 12 hours, I’d try to tell it with 24: I’d begin with a breakfast of familiar voices. Then, a late morning of thunderous patriarchy followed by a lunch with all the right ingredients to make a child know she is loved. Later, best friends laugh in the basement, which is almost enough sound to drown out the dark night. A father, back to the wall, holds a mother so tight because she’s shaking uncontrollably, back before the Internet could tell us why. All of that, then, would end with a final course, which is where I am now, examining incongruous flavors that constitute the time I was young.
My parents’ relationship and my reaction to it is consistent work. The best part of their bedroom, though, was their little plastic TV. I’d lean against their bed and watch MTV any chance I was alone. As soon as I’d get home from school until the time the garage door underneath me rattled signaling one of the parents was home from work, I’d watch interesting strangers discover themselves so publicly. I absorbed the foil-wrapped religion of the 90s with verses of Singled Out and hymns of The Real World.
Each time I click through the photos, I can barely finish without shaking my head. It’s not enough to say, “That’s where I grew up.” That home was a space in which I was young. That youngness with its fear and sadness, with its sun-filled rooms and fake, lace curtains, is a library of my youth. Sometimes I distance her, that girl in her room pretending to study while daydreaming about the romantic, outside world, because she is so eager and clueless; sometimes I forgive her for making me cringe a little. I want to sit next to her and say, you’ll get on the other side of this one day. Perhaps that is why I typed in the old address. To forgive the diseased parts of the house and make way for how once we were all younger in it.
At one point, I wanted to split from the house like an end that falls away. But that Englewood house was a home for that young woman who had so many feelings she didn’t know how to read yet, a person who wasn’t quite me yet. For that I mourn and relish, long for and recognize, and—for better or worse—remember and worship.
Samira Shakib-Bregeth has her M.A. in Literary Studies from Georgia State University. She is inspired often and doesn’t sit still much. You can find her work at Memory Box Mom, The Hungry Chimera, and Sweatpants & Coffee. She is currently writing a novel.