My grandma’s house was always full. The hinges on the front door were almost invisible. In the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, not a side town along the way, but real Cleveland, is where I stayed. In the white paneled house with red shutters that shaded the windows. Down the street from the corner store with five cent candies and chicken and JoJo’s covered in red sauce.
The street seemed so long back then, so vibrant with all its people. The house seemed even bigger. The once bare walls in the living room transformed into my grandmother’s own personal canvas. The walls leading up the stairs to the second floor, covered in her paintings. The house never seemed too bright, except for on the weekends. It seemed as though the sun shined a little brighter at its full capacity. Maybe the lights reflected all the life the house contained.
Childhood never seems so distant until you try to remember. Remember all the fun memories that filled a space, all the events that occurred that subconsciously impacted your upbringing. All the memories that you never think about until you’re straining to remember. Like when you lost your first tooth or your weekly Monday trips to the zoo with your grandma.
There wasn’t a holiday not spent in the rooms of that house. Thanksgiving aromas filled the air with scents that aerosol cans try so hard to imitate. Christmas Eve nights curled up by the in-floor vents with blankets, alternating my toes in the square holed vent cover letting the air fill my nightgown like a hot air balloon. Easter Sundays woken up to the scent of burning hair from the hot comb and tub of grease on the stove. Birthdays filled the backyard with people, presents, coolers of rainbow Hugs, and golden 40s. Music filled the street and somehow blended into the perfectly mastered song.
Each holiday celebrated with parades at the end of our street. We’d always pick the circular corner right at the end. My chair slid in between the yellow sidewalk bumps that I thought had been placed merely for decoration. To make our street prettier. Until adulthood, I hadn’t known the bumps were to notify the visually impaired that they were leaving the sidewalk. Mardi Gras beads and Double Bubble thrown from floats cruising down the streets. Men and women on stilts in sequins outfits somehow managed to stay upright. I’d always dreamed of walking on one. To be cheered on and waved at from the side. Later in life, I did a few, but never on the street that was once mine.
One particular parade just so happened to be on what I now refer to as Sunday wash day. Oh, how I dreaded the sight of shampoo and conditioner on the counter next to the sink that afternoon. I’d baked cakes with my grandma on that counter. How could it betray me? That day it took four people to complete a one-woman job. Water covered the tiled floor and you couldn’t decipher water from tears. The soap burned my eyes in all my wailing. I’d made it. Hair undone, yanked into a ponytail, eyes puffy, but heart filled in the presence of the parade.
The playground in the background, set up just for me. The plastic blue swing with yellow rope to hold it together swung me into the trees that sheltered my backyard. You could play outside your house with no fear back then. As long as the gate was closed and the back door was open to the screen, you could go as far as the backyard could take you. Only my mom and grandma didn’t know that I had the key to entering all worlds from one place. It started with the swing then developed to my fingertips.
I would swing so high, or so I thought. I felt the wind through my freshly braided parts. I felt my toes grip the thong of my flop trying to not let it escape my foot. I was a bird. And if I closed my eyes long enough it really felt like I was flying.
The worms in the dirt dreaded days after school. I wonder if they told their friends about me. How I cut them up out of fascination. I didn’t know that when you’d cut them, they’d still move. Sometimes I’d just play with them though. Not caring if the dirt got underneath my fingernails or chipped the polish that was already on my cuticle, outside the lines. The Roly Poly or Potato Bugs, as some people call them, played with us until the streetlights came on. I could never tell when though. The backlight always seemed to be the only light I needed.
Then one day we moved. We’d left the art on the walls, turned away, and never looked back. Even now, I never bothered to ask why. I’d rather remember it in all its glory. It would hurt my heart to know the realities. That people grow up and houses get too small. Or people move out and they get too big, too lonely for someone to live in alone. Or maybe it was that love wasn’t enough to foot the bill. Was that the first time I learned that love would never be enough? I was never too good at catching those kinds of things.
That move was the jumpstart of all change. Everything after that seemed to happen rather quickly. Nothing seemed to last quicker than a split second. It was me and my mom in our cozy apartment that faced the street where our neighbors would open the fire hydrants and have parties in the water at nighttime; that ended. Being an only child for 8 years; that ended. Living close to everyone I knew and loved; that ended too.
My grandma moved into an apartment in another part of the city. It was much smaller. Two bedrooms held on to her grandmotherly concept of space. This house had the same warmth in the wintertime. The snow seemed different the way it piled up in front of the sliding doors of the first-floor patio.
Though she’d lived there my second half of third grade to the end of fifth, it seemed that those two and half years went by before I knew they started. Only this time it was me that was moving.
To another state at that.
A move that filled my heart with resentment that I didn’t know of at the time. It would carry into my teenage years and bubble over into anger.
That morning, my mother, brother, and I were the only people left in the apartment that used to be my grandmother’s. The night before we moved, I had a sleepover with my two best friends that had so lovingly welcomed me into their friend group when I moved schools. I cried a lot of tears that night. Every thought of me not being able to ride my bike to one of their houses on the weekend welcomed a flood of undiscussed emotions. My opinion hadn’t been asked about the move. It didn’t matter; I knew that, but it would have been nice to have been asked. It would have been nice to have more than memories.
I had no roots, nothing to return to. Was there nothing left for me in Ohio? The state that I had grown up in. Cleveland, the city that held some of my most precious memories. North Carolina had been my new residence but hadn’t felt much like home. Charlotte, the city where I’d experienced things I’d never speak of and where long-lasting connection was nonexistent.
How do I transfix my tongue to skip the “I’m originally from Ohio,” when answering the question of where I’m from? The question that is so common here in North Carolina. It’s like they could spot a transplant from one eye’s glance. Even with my northern, Southern-influenced vernacular, I’d never be solely one of either, though both have contributed to my development, as I am sure the other places I live will too.
Maybe I’m the bird that sown the seeds. I’m not meant to be rooted, but to plant the seed, to scatter them and leave bits of myself everywhere I go. Maybe one day I’ll plant a garden more abundant than others. One that so happens to grow a tree. And that tree will grow a branch strong enough for me to perch on, on my returns. To wallow in my memories and take in the products of my life. Maybe that tree will shelter another little Black girl’s playground. One that has the same blue swing as mine. I hope she closes her eyes long enough to know that limitations are merely suggestions waiting to be challenged.
I hope I find a home that resembles the spirit of the one I was born into. A red door to replace the red shutters over the front windows that lit the living room on Saturday mornings. I hope I don’t make my kids move too often and give them something to return to when they need to feel a grander sense of home.
I hope that when I’m lacking, fiercely searching for things to return to, I look within myself and remember that if I just close my eyes tight enough I can fly, and if I squeeze my pen hard enough, memories are bound to resurface and stories are bound to be told.
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