Personal

The sad state of my childhood home

The neighborhood I lived in until just after my ninth birthday was crammed full of kids. I counted 31, not including my brother and me — and that was just on our street. So prolific were the parents up and down our street that they all called it Rabbit Hill.

The houses were small and plain. Mom once told me that the homes were manufactured, the pieces brought to the site on trucks and assembled in place. There were a handful of floor plans, all repeated throughout the neighborhood. Ours was the second-to-largest floor plan at just under 900 square feet.

During my 1970s childhood, these houses were about 20 years old. The owners took pride in them, and Rabbit Hill looked good. Here’s a photo from about 1971, looking up the hill. I’m the boy in the blue shirt. The house I lived in isn’t visible, but the yard is; we kids are just about to walk in front of it.

Photo credit: Judy Dieu

I have just one photo with our house in it. I shot my first roll of film in August of 1976, just a couple months before we moved out of that house. Meet my childhood friends Christy and Brian. Our house is in the background.

Christy and Brian

We sold the house to a family who lived in it for some number of years. They sold the family to someone who rented it out for the next 30 years.

Lots of the houses on Rabbit Hill became rentals during these years, and the neighborhood declined. I suppose it was inevitable.

In 2010, the elementary school I had attended held an open house after an extensive renovation. My brother, his childhood best friend, and I all met in front of our old house on Rabbit Hill and walked to the school from there, for old time’s sake. I photographed the walk and shared the images here.

I drove down our old street when I was in South Bend in March. The trees were all bare and the Zoysia grass was all characteristically brown, which didn’t cast the properties in the most attractive light. But it looked like some homeowners were once again working to make the most of their properties. Our old neighborhood might be seeing a bit of a renaissance!

Then I came upon our old house, and I was shaken by how bad it looked.

Childhood home

The windows are all new, at least, although replacing the plate-glass picture windows with two sash windows just looks tacky. I wondered if perhaps this meant that the previous longtime landlord had sold the house. So I went looking on Zillow and found that the property had indeed sold at the end of last year. See the listing here. The photos from inside are shocking to me. Next to nothing has been done inside since we moved out. The carpet has been replaced with vinyl flooring throughout, all of the closet doors have been removed, and everything has been painted white. But everything else, down to the handles on the kitchen cabinets, are exactly as we left it in 1976. I’m betting the wallpaper in the hallway is still there, under that white paint. Here’s a view from inside the house in 1971 showing that wallpaper, with a glimpse of the kitchen.

I know this is just a structure, and that times change, and that whoever owns this house is within their rights to care for it as they have. But I feel bad about what’s befallen our old house just the same. Rabbit Hill was truly a magical place to grow up, and I hate to see the magic lost.

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Stories Told

Summer’s denouement

I first shared this story on 14 September 2008, and have shared it three other times since. I also shared it in my book, A Place to Start — click here to learn more.

During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive. August 1976.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes. We squeezed in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, always organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get-together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”). And then the Jerry Lewis telethon was on everybody’s TV. It was Labor Day weekend, and we all knew it was over.

Rabbit Hill in 2010. The house I grew up in is on the right side, white with blue trim.

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. Kids have been back in school for weeks already. The grass hasn’t grown much lately because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home.

I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter. Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Then there was the time we were visited by Child Protective Services

I think every kid should know how to ride a bike. Kids today probably disagree, as I see few kids on bikes anymore. They must all be inside playing video games. I taught my sons nevertheless.

Neither was excited about it, but at least my older son tolerated it. My younger son resisted. After I took his training wheels off, he fought me every time we went out to practice. He told me he wouldn’t do it. He cried. He refused to get on the bike. Each time, I cajoled and wheedled until he gave in.

The divorce was final but still fresh. My stress had been off the charts and my fuse was still short. Each time I took my younger son out on his bike, I pulled together all of the patience I had.

He crashed a lot. Then I realized that he was deliberately crashing, hoping that it would shake me off, make me give up. One particular day he had crashed at least three times in five minutes and was visibly agitated. My patience had run out and I had grown angry.

I made him go again, but this time I kept my hand on the back of his seat. My plan was to steady him when he tried to crash. He shortly did just that and I grabbed the seat to keep him upright. Not only did it not work, but it made matters worse — he went right over the handlebars and landed hard on the street.

He was stunned, and he had skinned himself in a couple places. He cried a little. But after a few minutes he seemed okay.

I certainly didn’t mean to send him flying, and I felt bad about it. But I’ll admit it: much more, I was angry with him for not cooperating.

I had visions of my sons riding for the sheer joy of it, as I had when I was their age. My bicycle took me everywhere and was my constant companion. I wanted them to experience the same! I wanted them to have a great childhood, even though it was no longer in an intact family.

But after my sons learned to ride, my older son rode once in a great while and my younger son never rode again. It just wasn’t for them. If I had it all to do over again, I would have still bought them bikes and tried to teach them, but when especially the younger son started fighting me on it, I would have let it go.

If I had that day to do over again, after the second or third time my son deliberately crashed I would have sat on the curb with him and said, “Seems like today’s not the best day or this. Why don’t we call it for today. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.” It would have given us both a break, and would have let me regain my calm.

A week later, or maybe it was two, I heard from Child Protective Services. I’m pretty sure they sent me a letter. If so, I’m sure it’s in my divorce file box. It’s been twelve years; some details have faded from memory. But I remember crystal clear that there was an allegation that I had abused my son, and they wanted to come talk with me about it.

There had recently been a headline-grabbing case of a child murdered by his father (I think it was), after CPS investigated abuse claims but decided to leave the child in the home. It generated outrage all over the city, and CPS responded by hiring a horde of additional investigators and cracking down hard.

I panicked. The end of my marriage and my divorce were so brutal that I needed serious professional help to cope. My mental health had been the focus of my divorce trial. It was partly why the judge awarded me no custody, not physical, not legal. At least he granted me the usual amount of parenting time. Losing custody hurt like hell, but I was grateful not to lose my sons entirely. When CPS came to call, I was still under psychiatric care. I had visions of losing my parenting time and seeing my sons no more.

There was no way I wanted to face CPS alone, so I called my pastor, Ed. He readily agreed to be there when the investigator arrived.

I don’t know why I remember that she pulled into my driveway in an old and worn-out car, a gray sedan. I also remember that she looked too young, probably 21 or 22. Ed and I met her at the door and she asked if we could sit and talk for a few minutes. I led them to the dining table.

She got right down to business. “So I understand after talking with your ex-wife that you’re mentally ill, and that you take medications to manage your symptoms. Are you compliant with your medication?”

I didn’t have time to be stunned by the question. Ed, a big bear of a man, immediately leaned way forward and said loudly and angrily, “Pardon me! Are you a mental health professional? Do you have a medical degree? Because unless you do, you will end this line of questioning right now as you’re not qualified to ask it. You are responding to hearsay from his ex-wife.”

My anxiety spiked. I felt hot; I had probably turned red. I was thinking, “Holy crap, Ed, what are you doing? I need your support and here you are antagonizing the investigator!”

Ed had intimidated the hell out of her. Her eyes widened to the size of half dollars and she immediately changed her tactic. “Ok then. I’m here because we have a report that you pushed your son off his bicycle. Why don’t you tell me what happened that day.”

I recounted my story as I told it above, including expressing my regret for not stopping when I started to get angry. Seeming satisfied with my answer, she then asked me questions about our day-to-day lives in the home. She also looked in my refrigerator and cabinets to make sure I had enough food, which was humiliating. And then she said she needed to speak with my sons privately.

I had sent them to their rooms when the investigator arrived, but we found them sitting within earshot in the living room. They’d heard everything, and their faces were ashen. They fixed their gazes at the floor as the investigator asked them to follow her to the back bedroom so she could talk with them.

She spent all of ten minutes with them behind that closed door. When they emerged, she said, “Mr. Grey, there are three possible outcomes of a CPS abuse investigation. We can find that there is evidence of abuse, or that there is no evidence of abuse, or that there is evidence that there was no abuse. I find that there is evidence of no abuse. You should hear nothing more from us about this matter.

“I’d also like to offer our assistance. It seems like you are working hard to be a good dad, and CPS can support you in that. We could come by from time to time and offer coaching. It’s completely voluntary.”

I was overcome with relief to be exonerated. And the truth was, I could have used someone to talk with who could give me good advice. I was doing the best I could to be a good dad to my sons, but I was building a home life all on my own while holding down full time work and still processing considerable anger from the end of my marriage. And I experienced my ex as very unkind toward me, which only made parenting harder. After all these years I can see that my ex was still processing her own considerable anger. We’d both equally destroyed our marriage; the betrayals had run deep. But all of my instincts insisted that help should not come from CPS — it would be better to keep the government out of my home. I declined.

After the investigator left, Ed said to my sons, “Come into the dining room and sit down around the table. I want to talk with you.”

Even though my own grief, pain, and anger were still strong, I had compassion for my sons. They were trying to cope with the breakup of their family, too. Even though their mom and I hardly interacted in front of them, I’m sure they were aware of the ongoing difficulty between us. It had to be so hard for them to figure out how to be in relationship with both of us. I knew they were going to their mom’s from my house and telling their mom everything that happened. I’m sure they were trying to find favor with her by telling her things she might find upsetting. I often got angry emails from her about things they told her.

I don’t remember Ed’s exact words to my sons, but here’s his message to them: Boys, I know you love your dad, and you love your mom. Your dad is trying to love you as hard as he can. You’re trying to figure out how to love your dad and love your mom now that they’re apart. But you’ve got to stop going home and telling your mom everything that happens here. It can have very bad effects. You came very close today to never seeing your dad again.

I remember my sons sitting up very straight, their faces grave, when Ed said that last sentence.

I thought Ed went too far. I wasn’t crazy about the idea that what happened in my home had to be a secret. But I didn’t know how to respond and I remained silent.

The gift of hindsight shows me now that Ed’s words changed everything for me and my sons, creating a shift for the better in our relationships. Both sons, especially my younger one, became much more receptive to me. We were able to keep building our relationships from there.

This story has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe telling it will help me release my sad feelings about it.

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Personal, Stories Told

Brant’s and South Bend’s Miami Village

In the early 1980s I was a teenager living with my family on the south side of South Bend, Indiana. I lived in a real neighborhood, with plenty of shops and other businesses within walking distance. My favorite of them was Brant’s. In days gone by, Brant’s was known as a five and 10 cent store, or a five and dime store, or just a dime store. These were the dollar stores of their day — everything was a nickel or a dime. But their day had largely passed by the 1980s, and stores like Brant’s were more commonly called variety stores. The only thing you might still get for a nickel or a dime in them was a piece of candy. But nothing Brant’s carried was particularly expensive. It was a fine store to visit when you were on a tight budget.

Brant’s centerpiece was its gleaming stainless-steel soda fountain and counter with six stools. You could get a light lunch there, a hot dog or a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cup of soup. I did that from time to time, always the grilled cheese and bean-bacon soup with a Coke. They still made Cokes by squirting syrup in the bottom of the glass, filling it the rest of the way with soda water, and stirring. That was a throwback even then. They also made Green River sodas, a sweet lime drink. But for me, the soda fountain’s crowning glory was the milkshakes, hand dipped and mixed. I drank dozens of them over the years. Make mine chocolate, with extra malt.

I often went with my brother, who loved root beer. One day at the counter he asked if it were possible to make root beer double strength, that is, to use twice the syrup. “Of course,” was the answer, and they made him one. After that, he ordered one every time we went in. He became so well known for his double-strength root beer that every time we visited, while he shopped they’d make him one and leave it on the counter for whenever he was ready for it.

Like all five-and-dimes, Brant’s carried all kinds of miscellaneous stuff in its handful of aisles. For example, Brant’s was the only store on the south side that carried photo corners. They are little black paper pockets, backed with lick-and-stick adhesive. You place one, moistened, on each of a photo’s four corners and then press the corners onto paper. Regular photo albums were crazy expensive on my meager allowance. But at Brant’s I could make affordable photo albums out of three-fastener cardboard report covers, three-hole notebook paper, and photo corners.

Brant’s also had a postal station inside. I had pen pals in other countries, and we used to make mix tapes for each other. I packaged them up and took them over to Brant’s, where owner Ray Brant always took care of me. He’d weigh the package, look up the rate, take my money, affix the postage, and make sure the letter carrier picked it up.

That was another thing about Brant’s: it was a family business. His daughters and I’m pretty sure even his wife (who drew the image at the top of this post) all worked there. The whole family came to know the many kids who came in. They tolerated all of us kids very well. My brother and I were good kids who never caused trouble. Sometimes they’d chat with us briefly at the soda fountain — once Mr. Brant shared his snack of string cheese with me — and they always let us linger over our browsing well beyond the time we needed.

I loved going to Brant’s and headed there anytime I had a little money. A Coke was just 35 cents, so it didn’t take long to save up for a trip. I even had my first date at Brant’s, at age 13, taking a sweet girl to the soda fountain for lunch. But even as long ago as the early 1980s, stepping inside Brant’s was like stepping into 1965. It was clear to me even at that age that Brant’s was a holdover from a different time.

Brant’s was part of a larger community of businesses known as Miami Village, named for the street they were all on. Here’s a photo with Brant’s in it, next to a barber shop and what I remember being a little bar. Judging by the cars, this photo was taken in the 1980s.

The History Museum (South Bend) photo

Miami Village was just a mile from my house, a short bike ride or a long walk away. This composite photo from about 1975 was taken just north of Brant’s in the same block, on Brant’s side of the street, looking south on Miami Street.

Composite of two The History Museum (South Bend) photos

Miami Village offered bars and restaurants, banks, dry cleaners, gas stations, a dairy store (a convenience store before anyone coined the term), a public library branch, a hobby store (where I bought the plastic model cars I put together in those days), and more. In this north-facing photo from abut 1975, the gas tower looms over the village. It stored coal gas used to heat homes, and was a South Bend landmark for 60 years.

The History Muesum (South Bend) photo

The south end of Miami Village was anchored by Buschbaum’s Pharmacy. I used to go in there to buy MAD Magazine and candy. This photo is from the Blizzard of 1978.

Sourced from a South Bend group on Facebook

Miami Village started to slowly decline after I moved away from South Bend in 1985. For years it seemed like every time I went home to visit, more businesses had closed along this strip. Brant’s held on for a long time, through the late 1990s or early 2000s if memory serves. By then Mr. Brant was ready to retire, and he couldn’t find someone interested in continuing his business.

Today, the only Miami Village businesses still operating since the 1980s are a pub and, of all things, a lamp shop. The library branch is still open, too. Other businesses have moved into the old spaces. I hate to say it, but they’re not of the same caliber as the businesses they replaced. A wig store has operated out of the Brant’s building for many years, one of its plate glass windows replaced with an ugly piece of particle board.

At least Miami Village was still great at a time when I’d earned enough autonomy and had a little money, and could enjoy it.

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Summer’s denouement

(originally posted 9/14/08) During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes. We squeezed in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Armsalways organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”). And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. Kids have been back in school for weeks already. The grass hasn’t grown much lately because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.

Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Dad was always there

It’s a steady presence that lets a child feel secure: a father who is there.

My dad had a strong singing voice. Like father, like sons: my brother and I could carry a tune and sing out. Dad encouraged it in us from a very young age. He’d ask us to sing as we rode around in his car, and we’d serenade him and Mom with the day’s popular songs. We also had a pretty good Beatles repertoire. My brother sang John and I sang Paul, our voices blending. Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!

My parents weren’t surprised when the school’s choir director asked their permission for me to join the choir a year early, in the second grade. She had heard me sing in music class and wanted my voice as soon as she could get it.

I loved being in the choir. I sang my heart out. At our concerts I sang to my dad, who was in the audience without fail.

James Monroe School

Sometimes I’d wait backstage for my turn to walk out as part of some production, but most of the time I stood with the choir on risers at the foot of the stage. From wherever I sang, the first thing I did was scan the audience for my dad’s face. I could seldom see it in the dark. But I knew he was there and it was enough for me.

James Monroe School

I’m fortunate to have these photographs of my elementary school’s auditorium from eight years ago when they held an open house after an extensive renovation. Here’s the view my dad would have had, as he preferred to sit in the balcony.

James Monroe School

Dad was always there. He came home every night and spent his evenings with his family. He attended every school event my brother or I were in. When my brother ran track and cross country, they went not only to every meet, but even to most practices. They’d sit streetside in their car and watch. Here’s a photo of them doing just that in 1984. Mom is prominent in the frame but Dad is there, in the driver’s seat. To the right, out of the photo, is the school practice track and my brother running on it.

MomInRenault

When I did a summer basketball camp, Dad came to watch me play (badly). When I was invited to sing in an opera, Dad came to listen to me practice with the chorus. When I got braces, Dad took me to many of my orthodontic appointments and waited for me. When I flew to Germany the summer after my junior year, Dad wrote me that he wished he could be a butterfly on my shoulder.

When I got my first apartment, Dad came to see it right away. When my sons were born, Dad waited in the hospital, eager to meet his grandbabies. When my marriage began to stumble, and then to crumble, and then to flame out horrifically, Dad had no idea what to say that would help but he took every phone call through the whole mess and let me vent and rage. Those phone calls home kept me from losing my mind.

Dad was there.

If you’ve read the other stories I’ve told about Dad since he died (all here), you know our relationship wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and that he could be difficult and unkind, and that it left me with some stuff to work through.

But none of that obviates one iota that he was in the game with his children every step of the way. That it set his sons up for successful adult lives.

Where I go to church, in an inner-city neighborhood that knows poverty, families are usually significantly broken. Fathers are out of the picture. Kids live with moms and current boyfriends, or with aunts, or even with family friends. They bounce from roof to roof, from bed to bed. They don’t know stability. It shows up in their lives: the trouble they get into, the challenges they have transitioning to adulthood, the deep anger so obvious in them. They got a raw deal, and they know it.

But I have a solid sense of stability and goodness because Dad was there.

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