This is a picture of the house where I lived for the first seven or eight years of my life. My parents did not have much income. My dad worked three jobs while finishing graduate school and, by the time they moved to a new home, they had three kids and a fourth on the way.
The landlords were exceedingly gracious. The contract stipulated “no pets”, but my parents had a cat named Annie Hall so the landlords ignored that detail. The contract further stipulated “no kids.” I was born a year later. Apparently, I wasn’t too bad so I was allowed to stay.
I remember a carpet in the kitchen that had a brownish-red color, a repeated geometric pattern (hexagon possibly), and a layer of grease and dirt thick enough that you could almost skate on it. I remember a cherry tree in the back yard that was great for climbing but only average for producing tasty cherries. I remember a large grate at the bottom of the stairs. Family legend tells of a time when my dad came down in the middle of the night to soothe a crying infant (rumor has it, it was me, but I was a perfect child, right?), and stepped directly on the grate after the heat had just turned off. Well, the rest of the story has my bedroom door being flung open, my crib being shaken while my dad jumped around on one foot, and my mom stumbling down to try to calm me and my dad. I don’t remember all this, but I remember that whopper of a grate. I remember going to put valentine cards in our mailbox and getting chased back to the house by a pack of snarling and snapping neighborhood dogs. I remember my mom giving the animal patrol guy a piece of her mind when he told her he couldn’t do anything unless the dog had bit me. I remember when my brother, my sister, and I all slept upstairs in one room that served as the laundry room, storage room, my brother’s potty-training toilet location, and our bedroom. I laugh when we watch HGTV and people complain about the bedroom for their one child being too small. Please.
I don’t remember my parents’ exhaustion. I don’t remember ever having sensed their worries about bills. I don’t remember whether we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night for dinner. I don’t remember fighting with siblings about space. These may all very well be true, but I don’t remember them.
I had not thought of this little house or the formative years of my life very often since we moved. It was, after all, only a few years in the beginning. But as I started hearing the character’s voice for my current WIP, while I was sitting in a very different house in a different suburb, I learned that she grew up in a similar location. So, I visited the old place and snapped a picture as I passed (The introvert in me had no inclination to knock on the front door with a sentimental tale of having once lived here and would they mind if I tromped through their living space). The cars in the driveway are different. The big shed in the backyard is an addition since we left decades ago. The shrubs have no doubt changed. Hopefully the carpet in the kitchen has been updated. But, the overall structure is still the same. It’s a good little house.
My character’s situation is different, the house she grew up in is different, but there are images, feelings, and thoughts that percolate when I see this picture and try to imagine into words what my character’s relationship with her childhood home is like. In many ways this old house is the perfect house for my writing – I did not live there long enough to risk miswriting the story into a memoir, but I was old enough when we left that I can recall snippets and fragments of details to enhance my character’s experience. I imagine forwards by remembering backwards.
Have you found inspiration for a piece of fiction in a surprising place?