My mother hated the house on Speedwell Avenue. She may have had her reasons. The kitchen was small, the sink was too far from the stove, there was one bathroom for six people, and the whole place drooped slightly so the bedroom doors wouldn’t close. Then again, it was home.
We moved there in 1979. I was six. Before that we’d lived in the house where my dad grew up. It was built in 1886 by my great-grandfather John T. Murphy. My dad told us that John T.’s ghost still lived in the attic. I don’t think my mom liked that house much either.
I didn’t hate those houses. I loved them, especially the Speedwell house, which was quirky in the best way. I loved the sounds it made; the creaks in the floorboards; the squeaks; the little bell my mother hung on the doorknob so she’d know when some late-night sneaker let himself in.
I loved the staircase landing where the laundry baskets piled up; the bathroom with the light switch on the outside; the living-room window that gave the whole neighborhood a view of our Christmas tree; the ancient and faded wallpaper; the decorative Tuscan columns in the living room.
I loved all of it in the way of a child. That’s the way that doesn’t see your parents struggling to pay the electric bill. That’s the way that doesn’t know how annoying it is to have a lawn with grass that just won’t grow or a white picket fence that’s missing a few pickets.
When I drive by that house now I’m shocked at how small the property looks. As a kid I thought it was plenty big—practically an estate. We played every sport imaginable in its friendly confines, with eccentric grounds rules covering Wiffle balls hit over the porch roof or off the side of the house.
The driveway was only wide enough for a single car, and bounded on one side by a hedge, so we played quarter-court basketball. There was room for a layup on the right, but you could only launch jumpers from the left. The hedge led the league in rebounds.
My mother eventually achieved her dream of leaving that house, but before she did 234 Speedwell served as the setting for many great moments in the life of the family. Graduations, birthdays, homecomings, and holidays, of course, but also the unpleasant stuff—the hard Christmas when I dropped out of college, the frightening day my mother fainted and was taken away in an ambulance, my father’s heart attack.
One day I was coming home from high school and found Onyx, my sister Mary Ann’s cat, dead on the side of the road. She’d been hit by a car.
I buried Onyx using a garden spade near my mother’s rose bushes. Mom called Mary Ann to deliver the bad news.
“Mare,” she said. “Onyx bit it.” My mother wasn’t sentimental about pets.
The surprise party for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary was a famous hooley. A platoon of friends and relatives who’d gathered up the block were led in by a bagpiper. Mary Ann’s 21st birthday party featured a keg of beer that she and her friends couldn’t quite drain. Me and my teenage friends tried to finish the job the following afternoon.
I did the lion’s share of my growing up on Speedwell Avenue.
I tell you all this because we moved recently, leaving behind a house—and a community—that we had grown to love. My son Patrick got emotional when I told him we’d be moving. He’s about to be 10, and probably thinks of Millport Avenue the same way I think of Speedwell Avenue.
Patrick didn’t know the house was too small for us. He didn’t know the long commute was poisoning Daddy’s soul. He didn’t know how badly his parents wanted a house of their own. Millport Avenue was just his home, the setting for his family memories, and he didn’t want to leave.
“I’m gonna miss this place,” he told me, his eyes brimming with tears. “I’m gonna miss all my friends.” I promised he’d make new ones. He didn’t care. All that mattered was that we were going and we weren’t coming back.
How much would I love to walk through that old house again—to hear the bell ring as I come through the door and the stairs creak as I take them two at a time, to flip that hallway switch on my way into the bathroom, to sink a jumper from the left side of the driveway? I’d give anything to look up from the kitchen table and see my mom again, or to hear her sigh because the sink’s too far away from the stove.
I put my arm on Patrick’s shoulder and, pulling him to my side, said, “I know, bud. I know.”