The Little Blue House

I think the kids are in trouble
I do not know what all the troubles are for
Give them ice for their fevers
You’re the only thing I ever want anymore
Live on coffee and flowers
And try not to wonder what the weather will be
I figured out what we’re missing
I tell you miserable things after you are asleep

Now we’ll leave the Silver City
‘Cause all the silver girls
Gave us black dreams
Leave the Silver City
‘Cause all the silver girls
Everything means everything

It’s a Hollywood summer
You’ll never believe the shitty thoughts I think
Meet our friends out for dinner
When I said what I said, I didn’t mean anything
We belong in a movie
Try to hold it together until our friends are gone
We should swim in a fountain
Do not want to disappoint anyone

I’m a confident liar
Have my head in the oven so you’ll know where I’ll be
I try to be more romantic
I want to believe in everything you believe
If I was less than amazing
I do not know what all the troubles are for
Fall asleep in your branches
You’re the only thing I ever want anymore

I was afraid
I’d eat your brains
I was afraid
I’d eat your brains
‘Cause I’m evil
‘Cause I’m evil
‘Cause I’m evil

-The National, “Conversation 16”

We moved into the little blue house during the summer before my fifth grade year. It resided in the Tacoma, WA suburb of Puyallup. We moved there from Kettering, Ohio when my Dad accepted a job with Boeing. In many ways, he took the job to please my mother. Home, to her, was back to live near my grandparents, who had retired to Spokane, WA. And please her, he did. A few years after her remarriage she was eager for a fresh start, in a pretty little house, just a short six hour drive across the cascade mountains to the eastern side of Washington State.

Our little blue house backed up to the track of Puyallup Junior High. It was where my brother went to school and where, of course, was already making an infamous name for himself. At the time, we had a small yard, and two basset hounds, Belvedere and Beefeater (the significance of these names lost on me at the time), who would bark in an enthusiastic and friendly manner at all of the teenagers who came running past. I could walk from my house to Maplewood elementary in less than fifteen minutes. You could walk to just about anywhere in Puyallup in under twenty minutes those days. Well, anywhere except for the South Hill neighborhood where all of the super rich people lived. We lived near the downtown area and near the schools. Directly across from the cul de sac where we lived, there were a set of train tracks, and we could hear the trains rushing by several times a day.

We were the last couple of upper middle class houses before reaching the “poor neighborhood,” which began mmediately across the tracks, just like you would expect to read about in any coming-of-age novel set in the 1950s. My brother and I used to sneak across and place pennies on the tracks, before running and hiding and letting the oncoming trains fling them off. It was fun, and it gave us a cool collection of warped and burned currency to show off. The trains would also make our pretty little blue house shake, but I got used to it. On most days we hardly even noticed.

The weather in Puyallup was grey and cloudy all winter, and blue and sunny all summer. Summer temperatures were perfection. I remember thinking it cool that we could crawl outside of our windows and walk along the roof, or simply sit and watch in awe the view of the giant mountain plastered against the sky. In spring and summer, the clouds flew away and you could see only Mount Rainer, with a white cap just like a painting, against the cerulean blue backdrop of the sky.

Our time in Puyallup only lasted for a little past a year, but it was the last year of my childhood before entering the “tween” years. And before having to begin, yet again, in another school district in another town. It was in Puyallup, that I remember pulling my step-dad aside to share with him something that had been on my mind for some time, but which I had been very anxious to express. “Steve?… is it okay if I start to call you ‘Dad’ from now on?” “Sure, kiddo,” he said, quite seriously and trying very hard not to show a smile, “I think that I would very much like for you to call me that. “

Puyallup was supposed to be another new start for us. We all dusted ourselves off a bit and tried to play the role of the family that we dreamed we could be. Dad started wearing suits, something he despised, to align with his new work culture, and went away on long business trips.

During these times Mom would take to sunbathing naked on the roof and gushing about how she had heard that the pilots had a map of women who did this and that she was probably on it. She spruced up the house, both inside and out, and that year became an avid gardener- doing whatever she could to make our pretty little blue house prettier. For my brother “M,” it was also supposed to be a chance to clear his growing record of outbursts at school.

Our next door neighbors just happened to be Lutherans (ELCA), just like my Mother. The W’s. The W’s dad was a used car dealer, and the W’s mom was always prim and proper, wearing dresses on a Tuesday. They invited my mother and I into the church, and introduced us around to everyone in their Sunday best. I was already becoming an adept student in body language, so it didn’t take me a very long time to figure stuff out and to put all of the things in their place. We were a charity case. “Look at this “unfortunate family” we brought into the church, Dear! We will get extra mana in Heaven for this!” After the first six months, you could tell that the project was getting a little tiresome and they began to drift away.

I never could put my finger on the “why” we were the charity case. Perhaps it was my loud, dorky (and ::gasp:: atheistic!) Dad in his Holy Seahawks or Bengals football jersey out monitoring the above-ground pool (with a deck built around) on church Sundays. Or perhaps it was my brother, who came home from school on the regular with demerits and detentions due to outbursts. It could have been a combination of all of those things, plus the realization, in retrospect, that it could have been the family arguments at night, which likely floated out to our neighbors’ ears on a fairly regular basis. These were mostly driven by my brother getting in trouble, and my Dad’s employment of power lectures with a booming voice. He thought he could cure by rational argument what could only be treated with the help of a psychologist and strict use of medication. By that point, at least one psychologist had already used the term “borderline personality disorder” to describe “M”. But the Bi-polar Disorder (BPD) diagnosis was still yet to come.

The “W”s next door had two daughters, and the oldest, “R” was in the same grade as me at Maplewood Elementary. She was assigned to me as if I were her pet. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Her job was to introduce me to the school and to become a default “friend.” My job was to follow her around in adulation and to praise everything that she did as “genius” just like the adults always did. She played the piano. She sang and wrote songs. She was even writing a children’s book about a dog that she was sending to publishing companies!

Well I’d never been trained on the piano, and I’d never been trained to sing. The writing part looked like a lot of fun though. I read “R”‘s story, and thought, “…well everyone else thinks this is great!” It was okay, but I was already deep into reading by this age and honestly believed that I probably could have done a better job if I actually sat down and put some effort into it. But I didn’t really seriously bother. I would either be bad, and I would be laughed at and pitied, or even worse, be really good and catch the ire of jealousy and retribution for trying to compete with the golden one.

Mom may also figured out that we were charity, but she never outwardly said anything to me. She just continued to work on the garden, and go to church, and to host super bowl parties (since we had a big screen TV) in tight jeans. In high school, she saw her only value as her looks. She went to college to “Get her MRS” degree, and then got spontaneous and married the first sociopathic, “handsome” man that her father introduced her too. Having that marriage turn co-dependent and abusive, getting a divorce, and then living in poverty because my father refused child support and she refused public assistance were all deeply shameful things that had befallen her. First she dated Daryl, a red-necked redhead, and then she dated my Dad (who I had noticed was different from the start), before finally getting married. Then “M” started having trouble in school… Puyallup, for her, was a chance to wash away all of that and regain favor as the oldest and, she hoped, “most loved” of her siblings. She loved being the suburban housewife with a successful husband, kids in school, and her own Mommy and Daddy within reach whenever she needed them. She was the closest thing to happy in Puyallup as I had ever seen her at before or after that period.

I wanted Puyallup to work too. I wanted it to “fix” whatever it was that was wrong. That thing that I could never quite put my finger on. I seemed always out of place in a world where everyone knew the rules except for me. Not wanting to upset anyone, I more or less disappeared into a sort of nothing, really, at all. I felt smart, especially in certain areas, but nobody seemed to expect much of me and I didn’t want to stick out or be too showy. I did know that some things did seem better since Mom and Steve got married. Something changed, but I was unable to articulate what. This was also before I discovered really good music, so I mostly sat in my room or toured the garden and came up with fantasy stories about how I was going to grow up and “show them all” once everything finally clicked. Until then, I just played my usual part of the child who was not good enough for Mom to brag about with others, but still at least better than my brother. And I kept my head down.

So that brings me to May of 89. But it wasn’t just any day in May. It was Mother’s Day. I had figured out the importance of the day just that morning, when I flipped on my boom box. I processed the phrase around in my head a couple of time, before saying it out loud. Mother’s Day. Had I even done anything for my mother? Nope. I hadn’t. Nothing at all. What the heck was wrong with me, that I hadn’t planned anything for my mom? I had done something wrong. So it was on me to fix this.

“Mom!” I want to go walking to downtown? Is that okay? “Uh sure, just be back by…” I could hear her in her room. She was busy with folding laundry, or watching a show on Lifetime or something. I ran out if the house with twenty-or-so dollars I had saved up in allowance money and headed happily out for downtown. While there, I found a trinket, and some candy, and a card, and.. what the heck- I want that giant mylar”Happy Mother’s Day” balloon too.

I had spent everything that I had, but I didn’t care. I was so happy! And mom was going to be happy that I had gotten all of this stuff for her! I pushed the button on the crosswalk, and lady at the intersection rolled down her car window to tell me, “your Mother is a very lucky mother indeed, sweetheart.” That was a good sign. This was the right thing. My heart thumped in my chest. Today was going to be a good day.

I arrived home and went to go seek out Mom again before I was caught with the gifts. I went to my room to arrange them for presentation before walking across the hall to knock on hers, which was closed and locked. “Um, mom, can I come in?” I knocked again.

Heather, WHAT is SO important!” she yelled in the exasperated tone that she seemed to always have ready for me before stomping to the door and slamming it open. She, of course, saw me there with everything that I had gotten. I saw her process and force herself to begrudgingly readjust. “Oh, what’s this?” I quietly showed her everything that I had gotten for her. I tried to guess what she was thinking. There was definitely surprise, and maybe even a touch of sentimentality? But there was also annoyance. I seemed to always be annoying her. She covered quickly. “Oh, um that’s nice honey, thank you” came the almost hallow response, followed up with a mechanical hug. She wasn’t now, and had never been, a hugger. It felt like alligator skin draped over a favorite stuffed animal.

I left the room feeling both crestfallen and confused. Mom had said thank you. She had even given me a hug. What else was I expecting, anyway? Why on earth did I feel so… disappointed? Sad? I couldn’t find the answer, so I dejectedly went down to the garden to think a bit as I would often do around that time. The heart and mind strings of children are always bound to be pulled by the hands of others. At that time, I was still lacking the perspective to compare the world as it existed for me against anything else. And, with no other apparent solution, I deduced that I had somehow, once again, unknowingly done something wrong.

I spent so much of my childhood walking around on eggshells. Trying to keep things stable. Trying to keep Mom happy. Trying to blend into the background. All the while feeling like something was wrong, but having nothing to point to to say, “There. That’s what it is. That’s what is wrong.” At least not until I was older.

By the end of my fifth grade year, Dad announced that he had accepted a job back in Dayton Ohio. Maybe it was that news that was stirring in my Mom’s brain on Mother’s Day. I guess that I will never know. What Dad didn’t say to me at the time, but I found out later was that Boeing was never the right job for him to begin with. He had spruced himself up and put on the costume, but he could never convince himself, let alone others, that he really belonged in it. The opportunity to go back to a place where he could feel back in his element again for more pay was just too much for him to pass up. Important enough that he took my mother away from her little blue house. And she almost filed for divorce from him over it.

Our last summer there, my parents agreed to send me to Miracle Ranch (Christian Camp) with “R” for most of summer, and bought a plane ticket to send my brother to live with my bio-dad’s parents for that same period.  Looking back, I realize that this must have been a pretty quiet summer for my parents.  Boxed wine and gardening for my mother, and perhaps a trip to Camano Island in the San Juan Islands, before my Dad headed back to Ohio to begin working and find us a new house.

We said goodbye to the little blue house, and to everything else that we had thought that it meant for us. I began sixth grade as the “new kid” in another new school system. But our problems didn’t go away. My brother’s mental illness and associated behavior escalated to the point that my parents had to remove him from our home altogether. Mom got sadder and sadder, and she began drinking more and more. And I kept trying to tread water and trying to ask as little of my parents’ attention as possible. I didn’t mourn the little blue house, because it was never real, anyway. It was all just a facade. Like garden weeds that we kept picking because we forgot to apply weed killer. Or the peeling of another coat of fresh paint over rotted wood.

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