Philip Wolf: Visit to childhood home unleashes flood of memories

I had made the trip up the hill thousands of times. Only twice before had I actually been nervous.

Wolf family home

The memories flooded over me in waves.

I had made the trip up the hill thousands of times. Only twice before had I actually been nervous.

But this was the pleasant, anticipatory nervousness, as opposed to straight fear (more on that later).

The inner monologue began immediately as I drove slowly past the familiar homes.

“People I didn’t know. Andersons. Sledgehammer guy. Ramwells. Ruppenthals. New houses that weren’t there before. And there it is…”

It in this case was my favourite childhood home in Duncan. Our “forever” home. The three-level dream house, designed with our entire family’s input. The place where my parents would grow old together and their grandchildren would later frolic on the sloping backyard lawn that I mowed for all of my teenage years with a 3,000-pound push mower.

Sadly in this case, forever was a little more than seven years. Before the place was really even broken in, cancer claimed my mother, at age 44. Our world shattered and with a place that suddenly seemed far too big for just three of us (Dad, my sister Penny and I), the home was sold, we moved to a smaller place and forged ahead with our lives.

That was nearly 30 years ago. I haven’t lived in Duncan myself for more than a quarter-century but my memories of the house on the hill will stay with me forever. I have cruised by the old place a few times over the years, usually at Christmastime when I came to town to visit the family, and was missing Mum even more than usual.

A couple of times, I thought about knocking on the door, but figured some random dude rapping on your door and asking for a look-see might be a little disconcerting for the owners.

“Hello, police? There’s a strange man at the door insisting he may have stashed some Guy Lafleur rookie cards in our crawl space…”

Back in the day, the police visited the house once — after one of my half-witted and inebriated pals announced at the Galaxy nightclub that there was a party at (our address) and my parents were out of town. I arrived home shortly thereafter to find people all over the place, snorting strange substances off the stairs to the basement and trying to steal my sister’s clothes. Someone let our dog out the front door, and after I spent what seemed like an eternity shouting out “Misty, want some cheese?” into the night, I managed to corral her, only to return home to a now-overflowing house. Were it not for our neighbour down the street keeping everyone in line, things could have really gotten out of hand.

Not wanting to have to explain a wrecked home to my parents, I called the authorities myself, complaining of a loud party on our street. By the time they arrived, almost everyone had cleared out.

That recollection and so many more were going through my mind as I rolled up the hill. I figured I’d found a way around the stranger-at-the-door factor – visiting the home might make a fun column — with both Penny and I taking the trip down memory lane. She looked up the phone number, so I gave it a whirl.

First call, I started out in fine style, butchering the name, getting a “sorry, wrong number” and having to hang up. I called back with the right name this time, explained the scenario and the woman who answered could not have been nicer. She agreed we could come by, as long as I didn’t give out too many of their personal details.  Deal.

Before meeting Penny at the house, I drove slowly around the entire neighbourhood, wondering if so-and-so’s family still lived in such-and-such house, remembering how teenage me once traversed the entire area (willingly) on my bike and mostly wondering what the house looked like inside after all these years.

The aforementioned nervous anticipation reminded me of the two times I’d been a little more scared going up the hill. One, after skilfully navigating the family car into a field on Mt. Sicker Road, and having the police drop myself and my fellow Dukes of Hazzard miles away from home, making for one long walk, especially thinking of how I was going to explain this to my Dad. Fortunately, it wasn’t so bad, although I didn’t get to drive much for most of my 16th year.

The second ‘fear’ moment memory was especially vivid as I passed a certain house – the one where the giant deer jumped out of the brush and head-butted me (in the now-repaired family car) into the ditch. Great. I walked up the hill again, wondering what fate awaited when I explained that yet again, the car was damaged on my watch. Fortunately again, it wasn’t that bad, since I had evidence it wasn’t my fault – the still twitching deer on the road. The animal was dealt with by sledgehammer guy in a traumatic story I can’t possibly share in a family publication. Ahh, the memories.

At any rate, I arrived at the house before Penny, and rang the doorbell (“I wonder if it’s the same ring?”, I thought to myself. The owner, Judy, opened the door. I had promised myself I wouldn’t look inside until Penny got there, but I couldn’t help noticing the sexy, rust-coloured carpet of my youth had been replaced by nice hardwood floors.

Turns out Judy and her husband have owned the place for more than 20 years, with only one family in between for a short time after Dad sold the house.

I thanked her profusely for agreeing to see us, and she smiled and said there were one or two of her childhood homes that she had wanted to visit herself, so she understood.

Penny arrived with daughter Kaiya in tow, and we all went in together. It was surreal.

It was obviously still an expansive home, but for some reason, it seemed a little smaller than in my memories. There was the living room with the couch we weren’t allowed to sit on unless company was over, replaced with modern furniture. Pictures of another family hung on the walls.

The most bizarre memory hit me immediately. As I looked in the living room, I thought “that’s where the stereo with the fart jar was.”

The ‘fart jar’ was a little ceramic container that had the remarkable ability to store noxious fumes for long periods of time. Having unsuspecting folks open said decorative piece was high hilarity back in the day.

I was thrilled that some things were exactly as I remembered. The fireplace was basically unchanged, and the kitchen still featured the Jenn-Air elements I used to whip up my famous hamburger patties and beans pre-game feasts. The little bathroom where I once got sent for misbehaving at the dinner table was in the right place. A quick peek at the mud room and laundry room all brought a hundred memories apiece.

When we were kids, the downstairs was unfinished, and its smooth cement floors made for some epic hockey games. It was now finished, the hole secretly covered by an unwanted poster of Paul Holmgren long-since repaired.

The home’s top level held the most intrigue for me. We made our way up the stairs we used to slide down at top speed, and Penny took the lead. The first room we came to was her old bedroom.

Judy opened the door and Penny said with some amazement “it’s still got the blue carpet I picked out.” That it was still in good shape after all these years was fascinating.

As she stood in there with Kaiya, who has heard a few war stories about the house, all I could picture was how the wall looked funny without a Shaun Cassidy poster.

Next came the main bathroom, which now featured a modern, walk-in shower and was missing one key feature. There was no bidet.

When the home was built none of us kids knew what it was. Mum apparently told Penny’s friends it was a foot washer, and I once had to tell one of my friends not to drink out of what he assumed was a funky, low-to-the-ground water fountain. Mostly, we knew it as the thing that could shoot water all the way to the ceiling.

Then we came to my room. To this day, it remains my all-time favourite. When Judy opened the door, so many memories hit me at once it was like being pummelled by Muhammad Ali.

The carpet was a different colour, there were no team pennants, Bo Derek or Dan Marino posters; no giant, Dad-made desk or old Sony stereo complete with 8-track capability, but it didn’t matter. It still felt like my room.

It was all kinds of awesome.

What made it so special was that no matter where I looked, I could see Mum. It would be impossible to describe adequately, but it was like being transported back in time, and she was still there, all around us. Just to feel that one more time is something I’ll never forget.

Ella Winter once famously said to fellow writer Thomas Wolfe “don’t you know you can’t go home again?”

Ella was wrong. You can go home again.

We did.

»  VIFD managing editor Philip Wolf can be reached at philip.wolf@blackpress.ca or on Twitter @philipwolf13.

 

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