While in Georgia for a family funeral last week, I asked Sweetums if he’d mind driving past the house where I grew up. The modest three-bedroom home was built in 1967 at 123 Lake Drive in Warner Robins, Ga., home of Robins Air Force Base. I lived in that house from ages 2 to 11, when my family moved to Alabama. We turned a corner, and there it was: the home where I spent my childhood.
Forty years after I left it, the house looked much the same. Navy blue shutters contrasted with the red brick and the white-clapboard background of the front porch. I could picture our beagle-mix dog Rascal lying on the porch. Oh, how we loved that dog.
Beneath the carport, I could see the door that opened into the kitchen, and the door to the utility room, which was once filled with my dad’s lawnmower, tools, bamboo fishing poles, jars of nails and the typical flotsam of middle-class family life. It was the site of my brother Doofus’ “hook in the hiney” incident, ca. 1973. The pronged fishing hook was forcibly removed by a doctor at the ER and Doofus was fine … after he stopped screaming.
Some past resident had widened the driveway where I’d learned to ride my banana-seat Huffy bike and roller skate with metal wheels strapped to my Keds by leather straps. The street itself had been paved, smoothing the tar and gravel that once covered it, a mix that was hard on our bare feet in the summer.
The gravel tore at our tender arches and the tar would bubble up in the wicked Georgia heat, burning our toes. Still, we never wore shoes. Our feet toughened as the summer progressed, until we could walk with ease the half mile to the Kwickie convenience store on the corner.
The store is gone now but images of its interior reappeared from somewhere in my mental vault: spinner racks of comic books and rows of candy bars (how I adored a Nestle Chunky, which proved to be prophetic).
Then there were the boxes filled with those flat, red-wrapped rectangles that contained Wacky Packages stickers and gum. We could hardly wait until we left the store before peeling back the wrapper to see if we had a new sticker or a duplicate.
I had a three-ring binder where I collected Wacky Packages stickers, which featured a series of comic and gross-out advertising puns, such as Crust Toothpaste and Cap’n Crud cereal.
(Side note: Wacky Packages were reissued in the 1980s and again in 2004 but they could never compare to the originals).
It would take Doofus and me up to 30 minutes to choose a comic book. My favorites were Richie Rich, with his loyal sidekicks Dollar, Cadbury and Irona, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. If I recall correctly, he preferred monsters and sci-fi.
As Sweetums and I drove up the street, I pointed out the fence that once corralled Pony-for-Sale, who was named for the hand-lettered sign hanging on the chain link. We’d stop to rub its velvety nose on the way home from school and wonder what life would be like if we could be the lucky owners of Pony-For-Sale.
Sweetums then drove me past the modest-but-neat home on Springdale Drive where my maternal grandparents lived for more than 40 years. It, too, looked much the same, including the lattice-work my grandfather had added to the carport.
I remember picking the fat, juicy muscadines Granddaddy grew on a vine beside the carport before making them into muscadine wine in the musty-but-sweet-smelling utility room in the back of the house. Before Granddaddy filled the deep ditch at the front of the lot, I would use it as cover when Doofus and I would have pinecone wars. Anyone who has ever been the recipient of a fat prickly pinecone to a fleshy body part knows pinecone wars were not for the faint of heart.
Granddaddy died in 1994 but Grandmother lived in the home until 2007 when she went to assisted living (she died in 2013). I could picture the interior in detail, especially Grandmother’s sewing room, which doubled as display space for her Avon collection.
She was a writer who worked as an Avon lady for decades, and the room had shelves and boxes filled with collectibles.
The first thing I did upon arrival to her house was go to the Avon closet and search though boxes of tiny sample lipstick tubes whose unmarred tips made me long to run them over my lips.
As we drove out of the neighborhood, I told Sweetums about the little white cookies I loved as a child that were only available at the bakery in Miller Hills Plaza, which was once also home to the Rama Theater but was now a worn and pitiful-looking shopping center. The Rama is gone but I looked over as we passed and was shocked to see a sign that said Wilson’s Bakery, and another that said, “Open.”
After my squealing stopped, Sweetums offered to take me back for a taste of childhood, the white confections called simply “flower cookies” because of the colorful icing flowers on top. The bakery – which had begun as Nygaard’s Pastry Shop in the 1940s and had been in the same location near grandmother’s house since the 1960s – looked exactly the same inside, down to the tray in the display case filled with flower cookies. Oh, those cookies practically dissolved on my tongue! They tasted like childhood on tiny white pillows of sugar.
On our way out of town, I pointed out one more familiar sight to Sweetums, one that had not been there when I was a child but had cropped up sometime during my many visits home from Alabama. It was a roadside garden of low shrubs that were clipped into the shapes of letters: EDIMGIAFAD. It stands for Every Day in Middle Georgia is Air Force Appreciation Day, although these days people broaden the AF to stand for “Armed Forces.” I’m not sure when it showed up but it’s now a part of the fabric of my hometown.
Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” which of course isn’t to be taken literally. But it’s true you can never revisit the home of your youth and see it from your child’s eyes. Homes look smaller. Details have changed. Businesses have closed or moved. Loved ones have passed away, leaving huge, unfillable holes in the landscape of your life.
But going home stirs those feelings from the days when we would leave the house in the morning and return at dinner time, and when we had few worries beyond which comic book to choose or fixing a loose bicycle chain. Sure, Doofus had to worry about the hole in his hiney, but we survived. How lucky was I, to grow up in that time and that place surrounded by all those amazing people? I wouldn’t trade it for anything.