The Neighborhood of My Puberty

You might know that I’m writing a memoir. It probably won’t be done for a long time yet. I’m not complaining about the time it takes; I just don’t want you to pass out holding your breath ;).

To give you an idea of one of the book’s settings, I’ve written a description.

I’ve lived in a different neighborhood for every stage of my life.  The one I think of as quintessential suburban America was the scene of my puberty, from fifth through ninth grades.  At the head of the street, intersecting the busy main drag, sat the First United Methodist Church with its big parking lot.  Next to the cars, the church had installed one swing set and one seesaw and called it a playground.  Crabapple trees tempted bored children with their small, hard, bitter fruit.

Church at the head of the street

Church at the head of the street

My parents and brother and I lived a lazy walk down the street from the church, in a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath ranch. We had a large front yard with lots of grass to mow with the old egg beater Dad made me use.

Vintage "egg beater" lawn mower

Vintage “egg beater” lawn mower

At the boundary of my backyard my parents kept a garden of tomatoes, string beans, and zucchini.  Next door, the old man’s garden soil was darker and richer. His tasselled corn could be eaten crisp off the cob.  Next to our garden was my tether ball court and on the other side of the concrete slab, the playhouse my father built me smiled its crescent moon grin.  Dad’s joke was that crescent moons used to mark outhouses when he was a kid.

Some of the houses on my street were new like mine, but the ones on both sides of us were at least ten years old, and a few were close to twenty.  The houses were in good repair, with aluminum siding and front lawns—some green, others brown and patchy.  Around the corner, the houses were both single family and duplexes.  My grandmother’s duplex was at the end of that street, and I bicycled down there for dried apricots and butterscotch Dumdum lollipops and to babysit the baby boy of the young lawyer who lived on the other side of the duplex.

Along the back of the houses on the other side of my street was a forest of Balsam firs and white pines known as “The Pines.”  Under the trees, the earth was two inches thick with fallen needles.  When we slept out there in our sleeping bags, the boys visited.  Warm nights increased the pungent fragrance of the pine needles, which blended with the spicy scent of the teen boys.

At one end of the pines was the church and at the other end the minister lived in his parsonage with his wife, my piano teacher.  Below my scales and arpeggios, I could hear the boys playing softball outside and the timbre of their voices was a call to me to come play with them.

The little kids rode their Schwinn Stingrays and Huffy bicycles on the street, warm breezes blowing in their faces.  Between five and six-thirty every day, mothers called their children in to dinner.  A dinner gong at my house called me home just in time for the Mercury Vapor lamp to light up the yard.

Behind our house was an open field where we dug out forts in the dirt and weeds, which we covered with scrap lumber from the new houses being built in the next neighborhood.  Down at one end of the field, where there were a few oak trees, somebody had built a simple tree house, and even the protruding rusty nails couldn’t keep us from climbing to it.

Beyond the field was the City Dump which attracted us like maggots to a dead squirrel. A large pharmaceutical company dumped its wastes at the landfill.  The foam from their trucks hardened into large sculptures we climbed all over.  On hot and humid days, the toxic stink cloud hung over the dump and the field, and I held my breath.  The refuse from all the homes and businesses in the city ended up out back of our houses.  The best trash was the stacks and stacks of dirty magazines, molding and solidifying into blocks.

That gives you an idea of where my childhood turned into my adolescence.  When I was fully a teen, we moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, and my world changed.

###

My best memories are of the summers. But the photos I have are of the winter. In the parking lot of the church above, we ice skated on the frozen pavement. I wonder why so many of my memories are of the short summers?

Our house

My playhouse post can be found here.

My fort post can be found here.

Because my book takes place in a variety of settings (I have moved quite a bit), I probably will end up combining a couple of settings or using one setting over a period that is longer than I actually lived there. It’s a bit like combining two or more characters into one. It will be necessary to keep the book focused on what’s important, rather than forcing the reader to spend too much energy processing all the moves.

34 Comments

Filed under Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing

34 responses to “The Neighborhood of My Puberty

  1. Were the moves related to jobs? Just curious. Very evocative description of the environment here. Love those thick pine needles!

    • Luanne

      The first 3 moves were because we were movin’ on up, economically. Then this house was a step down from the last house that my father had built but couldn’t afford to keep.

  2. I can’t wait for the next installment! You’ve really captured the spirit of your childhood, it’s not unlike my suburban upbringing…we went to a similar-looking United Church. But no dump nearby!

    • Luanne

      Isn’t it amazing how many of us had so many of same childhood experiences?! That’s the suburbs haha. Thanks for reading and letting me know you could relate!

  3. That looks like the Methodist Church I went to as a child, Luanne! I’m surprised your best memories are from the summer, with the summer heat, I’ll bet the dump was more stinky. 🙂

    • Luanne

      I’m guessing that there was a lot of movement to the suburbs in those days so probably a lot of new churches were built. And that is a distinctive style from the period! The dump was much stinkier in the summer! I don’t remember smelling it really in the winter!

  4. I chuckled over the lawnmower. We had one of those. For years I thought the brand name really was “Armstrong.”

    • Luanne

      Hahaha. Yes, you had to be really strong to push that darn thing. I was never very strong, especially not upper body strength, so I would just DIE out there pushing that thing! I thought it was the worst punishment ever and that my father was so cruel and that I was the only kid who had to use one. We had a perfectly good electric mower in the garage! But there was a reason. My grandpa’s cousin had mangled his foot in an electric lawnmower when I was a kid and my dad had to take him to the hospital . . . .

  5. “When we slept out there in our sleeping bags, the boys visited.” That sounds like fun. Strawberry wine?

    I won’t hold my breath but I will pre-order as soon as you say “Go!”

    • Luanne

      Haha, no alcohol at that point! I didn’t discover Boone’s Farm (looked up the spelling this time!) until high school. You are so sweet to say so, Susanne! But I’m glad you’re not holding your breath. That would have tragic consequences.

  6. Luanne, you erected a memory that’s beautiful and ominous — just like puberty. Hard to believe that dump is now “the premiere softball complex for the region.”

  7. You evoked my “Brady Bunch” and “Wonder Years.” Those few pubescent years that I spent with my dad and step mom. We neighborhood kids built a fort over a creek in the woods out of scraps from the newer homes going up. (The boys kept their beer in the creek to keep it cold.) You have a lovely ways with words and imagery.

    • Luanne

      Hahaha, I love that the boys added beer. A fort over a creek sounds so great. It makes me want to be a kid again and visit your fort! Thanks so much for your kind comments.

  8. Luanne, you certainly succeeded in evoking a feeling of nostalgia in your description.
    I liked your links and think that you should include them in your memoir. Are you planning on keeping the photos in?

    I also like the idea of you moving a lot. It gives a certain unraveling of a coming of age story.

    There are many lines which struck me. Among them are:

    Beyond the field was the City Dump which attracted us like maggots to a dead squirrel.

    When I was fully a teen, we moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, and my world changed.

    • Luanne

      Carol, thank you so much. It’s invaluable to find out what resonates with you. When I read memoirs, I love to look at the photos. I feel cheated when there aren’t any photos. But I know it’s not always the choice of the writer because of monetary concerns (always the money haha). For instance, my memoir is focused on me and my dad and his family and I would love to use their photographs, but we’ll see what happens.

  9. Ian

    Lovely, descriptive writing, Luanne. This evokes a lot of memories of the neighborhood I grew up in. It amazes me that so many North American suburbs sound very similar in some ways, but so unique in others. You’ve really captured it! BTW- Those vintage push mowers were brutal. By the time I was old enough to be able to push ours, it had basically rusted into a large, non-working garden ornament.

    • Luanne

      Brutal. Exactly. I thought my father was horrible for making me use it. I have never had a lot of upper body strength (more of a sprinter and low hurdles type gal than a chin-up type), and as I explained to Anneli above I would just die out there on the hot lawn trying to push that darn thing. I love your description of yours as a garden ornament. Hah. I would have wished that for ours! It’s true that there are so many commonalities in the suburbs that grew up after WWII and during the Vietnam War.

  10. I like the time you take to describe and allow us to not only “picture” where you lived, but also, “feel” how it felt. I like that you and I have some common moves, my first years age 2-grade 3, my second move, gr. 3-gr. 7, then my final house growing up before college, 8th until my parents retired and moved to the edge of Lake Erie in a cottage. I was midway through college, didn’t help much with the packing or looking at the things they sold. I don’t ever feel too much missing, had 2 friend from my first years, reconnected while I was a single mom, there is only one friend from my second move and my last move, I have only one friend. I am always excited for h.s. reunions. Did you ever feel you missed out on special, long-lasting friends? That is the feeling I have from my moves. Each time, I felt sad, too. I like the fact you are descriptive in unique ways, Luanne! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      How neat to retire to a cottage on Lake Erie! I know what you mean about friends. I had at least one good friend from each house, but what is sad is that there isn’t one person over the whole long haul. That said, I reconnected with my junior high and early high school best friend a few years ago. It was as if no time had gone by!!! Thanks for reading, Robin. xoxo

  11. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    If the pace at which you are writing your memoir produces this type of evocative, seductive prose, then keep at it! I really enjoyed this post and was surprised at the details I shared from my Southern childhood: the allure of crabapples, the lawn mower, the tetherball. How often we are unknowingly connected.

    • Luanne

      Shucks, Ellen. Thanks for your sweet comments. You have inspired me, though, to take this post and rework it as backdrop for a story. Not the memoir, but a short CNF story. Isn’t it true, though, about our connections? It seems miraculous.

  12. This post has an eye catching title! Memories from my childhood are dominated by summer as well. It’s such a magical time for a child.

    • Luanne

      Faith, thanks! I love to write titles ;). And beginnings and endings. It’s the middle stuff that gets harder ;). I think you’re right about summer. It is magical. Like the world warms up and gives itself to children for exploration and inventing. Whereas in the winter, there is the huddling into the mittens and hooded jackets and boots and frozen toes . . . .

  13. Luanne, I love your writing and the story of this period of your life. I grew up in the rural world, but in the same period, so I could relate to much of what you wrote. You have a way of recalling the little details that evoke so many memories…watching for more:>)

  14. I love your description of the neighborhood and woods. It made me miss the days of building forts, playing in dirt, and sleeping under the stars!

  15. You definitely have captured my attention. I also am waiting for more! I love your not wanting us to pass out from waiting! I sooo GET IT! I feel as if I have been writing my story for a decade and now I have moved part of it to another blog at the suggestion of an author blog. It is an intersting journey and it is exhausing at some spots! I loved this thought and the pics were like the cherry on top!

    • Luanne

      Me too! I’ve been writing it since at 2008, if I count the very very earliest jottings. Exhausting! Thanks so much for your nice comments and good luck with you on your book!

  16. I love this line: “Beyond the field was the City Dump which attracted us like maggots to a dead squirrel.” Kids are always attracted to those places they shouldn’t be 🙂
    I really love this post, Luanne. As you described your neighborhood, I felt like I was there with you, sorting through the landfill, riding my Huffy 🙂

    • Luanne

      My Huffy was blue–what color was yours?! Of course, I was jealous of the Schwinns haha. What’s more exciting for kids–the unknown that can produce “anything” or the known and the routine? Pretty easy to answer that one! Thanks for reading my posts, Marie! I love to know they’ve reached people.

      • I had a purple Huffy and a boyfriend who was quite embarrassed by it (he was a few years older than me and had a 10-speed) 🙂 I got a 10-speed when I was in high school. I don’t think it was a Schwinn, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
        You and Jill rock with your blogs!

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