The rhubarb patch and other places in other times

darwin copy

When I was little, we had a huge rhubarb patch in our backyard. My mother made rhubarb crumbles and pies and jams, mixed with strawberries to sweeten the sour taste, but we would also eat the long stems raw, fresh from the yard, dipped in sugar. This is the house we left long ago, when I was a teenager, but (along with the place I live now) still “home” when I think of the definition of that word.

It was a funky kind of place in the seventies, with an orange carpet and a striped green couch, and various things my mother had made: beaded macrame plant hangers, colourful papier-mache lampshades, still-life oil paintings. I wonder now where she found the time, having three girls and, for many of those years, a full-time job.

When I look at the picture above, I remember how the cat sat in the flower bed and scratched at the lower screen of the picture window to say he wanted in. And I remember the car in the driveway, a red Rambler convertible, one in a series of very cool but not terribly reliable vehicles my father acquired: a three-wheeled Messerschmitt, two Jaguars, an Alfa Romeo.

One of a number of tune-ups, this time in Italy, 1960

One of a number of tune-ups, this time in Italy, 1960

When we left this house, my sisters had already grown up and moved away. So this is the last place we lived together — my sisters, my mother and me — and for all of us it is cram-packed with memories. On a recent visit to my hometown, we all went for an evening walk together, and looped around Darwin Crescent (yes, named for Charles Darwin). This is something we’ve done often over the years, with casual glances towards the windows.  Earlier that day, Mom had been complaining that she didn’t have enough rhubarb for a pie, and we had teased her that she should pop over to Darwin to get more. And now, as we passed, she spotted the current owner in his driveway, and called over to him to ask if he had any rhubarb to spare. This is the beauty of small towns. He said she was welcome to it, since it was hers anyway, and the next thing we knew we’d been invited in for a tour.

It’s a strange thing to visit your old home after nearly thirty years away. Almost everything was different. Rooms had been torn out and reconfigured. An addition stretched into the backyard, where our picnic table used to be. The bedroom where I slept (the one mentioned in earlier posts, with the Farrah and Vinnie posters and the barrel of barbies) remained more or less in tact, but the room across the hall was a bathroom instead of a bedroom, and our bathroom, with its bright flower stickies in the tub, had ballooned in size and morphed into a bedroom. And yet there were tiny spaces that looked just the same. A strip of wood paneling around the front door. The long hallway down which I raced two small elves tucked into their glass candle holder cars.

Recently a photographer friend told me he had finally, at 50, let go of this kind of nostalgia. He is one of that unusual breed whose father still remains in the family home, and he had an idea that he’d like to document the place with its contents, room by room. But when the time opened for him to move forward with the idea, he realized he’d lost the need to do so. He says his focus is forward now, rather than back.

I like looking backwards. Maybe because I have a child now, I’m even more curious about the child’s world — what sorts of things impress them, how and why their perspective differs from ours. Writing from the child’s point of view feels both strange and natural and the same time. The house on Darwin Street is more or less the house in my first novel, Water Wings, and though the novel is indeed a novel, there are many details stolen from real life. The Rambler and the Alfa Romeo, even the rhubarb patch.

Every home teems with artifacts that hold the stories of its inhabitants. This is the why the childhood home leaves such an impression on us — not for the things themselves, but for the lives that take shape around them. When I first met my now-husband, he was at work on a project called Habitat, for which he photographed the interiors of abandoned houses. I was stunned by the things that had been left behind, and by the sense of loss that emanated from the images.

shane's room

Detail from Jeff Winch's Habitat series

When we were researching The Occupied Garden, set sixty years ago in Holland, we circled my father’s house in Leidschendam. We paused at the front of it and crept down the back lane. We peered through the wooden fence and noticed the patches on the brickwork, where, in the ’40s, new bricks had replaced the ones damaged by bomb fragments when my dad was a boy. I often wonder why we didn’t muster the courage to ask if we could go inside. What would that have been like for him, now in his seventies? Many times, during the course of our research, he was surprised by his own emotional response to something he didn’t think would effect him — this likely would have been one of those times.

In the home I have now, there are clues to the family who lived here before us, but over time they are disappearing with our updates and minor renovations. We noticed when we first moved in that there was a figure etched into the glass of the kitchen window. You could only see it from certain angles, in certain lights, but it was there nonetheless: a childish stick figure of a girl with a triangle dress. The artist must have stood on the counter to scratch it into the glass — certainly a wayward act at the time but a curious surprise for us later on; a glimmer of what had been.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The rhubarb patch and other places in other times

  1. Tracy

    Like you, I love looking back. I always have, and sometimes the distances I think I can see are enormous, and at the same time small. There’s a poignant nostalgia in me for certain pockets of time that makes me want to learn about them and immerse myself in them to as great an extent possible, and when my fascination hits on a time period – the first decade of the last century, let’s say, 1910 – it opens up a realm of curiosities. I wonder not only about the time itself in its historical context, but about different places and people living that time, how they differed or were alike. What was it like, for example, to live in the heart of London, England at this time, as my grandmother did, born into a lower working class family who knew tragedy up close. And how different was it for my grandfather, born around the same time in London, Ontario, an ocean removed in more ways than one?
    Years ago I did some genealogy, tracing my husband’s Irish family to the Ottawa Valley. What was far more fascinating than filling in names and dates from the census reels was the discovery of snippets of information – a newspaper article on a tragic death, a marriage in far away New York City, a young daughter who didn’t move with the family when they sold their farm, and then who died and was brought home to be buried. These snippets are like your etched window, I think, glimmers of what had been, and I imagined all kinds of stories around these small details, yet never came close to learning what really happened. There is a bittersweetness in not knowing, and perhaps it is precisely this that keeps the curiosity alive.

    • kristendenhartog

      So well said. I couldn’t agree more. I always thought that genealogy wouldn’t hold my interest, fascinated as I am with family history. The names and dates would be meaningless without a hint of the who along with them — but snippets are findable if you look hard enough, and they are so compelling partly because of the mystery that comes with them.

  2. Marilyn

    I also love looking back at the past. I have been doing family genealogy for about 30 years, beginning by writing to my mother’s cousin in England to find out about their childhood. She seemed happy to tell me about things they did as children such as going by train to Canvey Island for their summer holidays and when the tide was out they could walk right over the shallow water on stepping stones. They played in the nearby fields and along the beaches and when it was time to come home they looked for the flag that would be raised outside the house to signal that dinner was ready. It seems that these were such simple times but we only know the few details that family elders tell us about if we have remembered to ask.

    • kristendenhartog

      These kinds of documents can be a real goldmine not just for family members but for historians and writers of various sorts. When we worked on The Occupied Garden, the memories that people had jotted down were a real help to us, even when the people were strangers to our family. They filled in the picture of a time and place so that we could better imagine our own family’s experience.

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