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        I collect houses like other people collect pens or seashells or those tiny spoons, souvenirs of touristy towns and attractions like Crystal Cave in Pennsylvania. I can’t say, though, that I’ve seen a collection of miniature spoons for at least a decade, since the time after my mother-in-law passed away and we sorted, stored, and dispersed her belongings.

        My belongings have moved from house to house to house with me as I was growing up and my parents shuttled from one part of town to another in search, always, for a more accommodating, more commodious home. A larger lawn to manicure, more windows to shine, a double driveway to park my mother’s newly acquired Dodge Dart and the family station wagon.

        By the time I left for college, my parents bought and sold three homes, moving more deeply into the suburban areas of the city. A series of moves meant to show my parents’ success at upward mobility, a phenomenon that parallels a country’s healthy economic growth. Historical accounts record a movement of young families to the suburbs during the post-war era and throughout the 1950s. We were among them, my mother as motivation. Her desire to decorate and redecorate. Her desire to rescue homes from the design disasters of previous inhabitants and to move her family into more and more aesthetically pleasing surroundings. Because I was an only child, I was easy to move. Only one to pack up all her toys, to enroll in a new school, to listen to when she cried about leaving friends behind. 

        Our migration began with a home in a row of identical homes with identical facades. It is the first home I remember and the first my parents bought with the savings from my father’s job setting up looping machines at hosiery mills. The house he returned to each evening from work. The house my mother kept clean and orderly for her family.

114 West Spring Street, City Center, Reading 

My mother painted the walls of our row home lavender in the summer of 1956. For her act of unconventionality, our neighbors looked askance and thought her eccentric. But having a free-thinking mother meant I was released from the starch of Peter Pan collars and plaid shorts donning instead a variety of swimsuits, befitting the summer’s swelter.

Box fans blew what breezes they could at night and I would wake on the back porch floor curled around my pillows near the giant blades whooshing. Breakfast was sweet sweet cereal, sugar spoon-scooped from the bottom of the bowl, sweet milk on the tongue and after, I ran out and around the alleys with McKenna kids and yellow-eyed dogs, candy cigarettes tucked into our pockets. We fought for bottles, scrounged coins for red hot dollars, wax lips, and peanut chews. We played mama with dolls too poor to own clothes and it was too hot anyway. What could have been more summer than lean-to tents clothes pinned to the fence, our blanket houses broom-swept clean? 

We played until the street lights scolded us home and fathers returned to dinner, our meals hiding sprays of blossoms swirling on china plates. I lined peas along the stems, ate buttered rice until the pink flowers petaled under my fork, then padded to a steamy bath and scrubbed new, went to bed unaware of the shortening arc of the sun and the shifting of the heavens.

Assemblage of Houses: A Geography of Memories

R.L. Farr

        When my mother opened a women’s clothing business in the northeast quadrant of the city, we moved to be close to her shop and also to leave behind the crowd of row homes on West Spring Street. The crush of indistinguishable profiles soldiered roofline to roofline along the arrow-straight street. We grew tired of sirens and horns and the backfire of mufflers.

        Belongings were packed in cartons, piled in the station wagon, and carted crosstown to the new house. Twin home, ours a mirrored copy of the neighbor’s. Alley leading to a driveway. No more jostling for a streetside parking space. Closer to the suburbs and closer to the schools my parents eyed since my birth. Houses bounded by grassy plots and trees, old, rooted to their surroundings, casting cooling shade on the neighborhood.

114 West Spring Street, City Center, Reading 

My mother insisted that the piano be muscled to the third floor. As it was hoisted around door frames and leveled up another flight, notes plinked out of tune and the black frame groaned in complaint. In its place beneath the glow of a stained-glass window, the light gleamed multicolored on the ivory keys. Isolated, this aerie, became refuge and escape. 

It was a summer of falling stars and navy-tinted night skies, my first boyfriend and my father’s illness. At first, no one event was more notable than the other but that’s the way of unexpected beginnings. On those clear and still nights, my father and I gazed skyward from the garage roof, chanted names of constellations and held up our palms waiting to touch a falling star’s light. None of my secret incantations made a difference. My father’s illness, grave and ravaging, stole our seasons.

Middle school, made difficult enough by an unending energy field of teen boys, teen girls, and demanding teachers, was even more troubling at home. My father stumbled through days, wished for endings and relief, stopped trying. Stopped working, stopped laughing, stopped naming the stars.

        Despite my father’s illness and rebellion of a teenage daughter, my mother would not be dissuaded from her search for suburban bliss. Happiness and health may come in the next home. One can hope. And brimming hope filled our lives as our belongings were, once again, enveloped in newsprint, deposited in boxes, and carted anew to the waiting two story single home. This home inspired hope but required the eye of a crew of visionaries to unearth its innate form. Almost 50 years old with no updating, the house was wanting for light, air, and plenty of dusting. 

        Layers of wall coverings papered walls with twining vines and hibiscus, ornate mirrors reflected dust motes as they whisked by on slants of morning sun. Floorboards creaked their 

ancient songs and window glass crazed in its frame. My father and I unearthed cartons of glass milk bottles, balls of twine and orderly boxes of fuses. My mother cleaned shelves of canning jars and dried bouquets of funeral flowers resting in their tissue paper wrappings. We moved there in spite of us ordinarily having good sense. Perhaps we all needed a distraction from my father’s decline.

114 West Spring Street, City Center, Reading 

We held our breath and made offerings to the gods for his health. God of vigor and god of wellbeing. God of ambulation. God of breath. To the god of days and the god of years. But when my father was barely able to walk, disease corroding the full sweep of spinal column, I led him by his hand through a maze of furniture. I rebuilt his world, moved chairs and tables, and finally set up ramps to accommodate his wheelchair, opened windows to bring to him July, sparrows, night blooming jasmine.

Cupped his hand to cradle treasured fishing flies, and up to light to trace the fine feathers’ multicolors. When he was no longer able to focus, the threads of optic nerves frayed, I constructed a world for him of vermillion sunsets, the garnet flash of cardinals. I intoned lines from beloved books, guided his hand over worn covers. When my father was no longer able to breathe, the heart engulfed by hastening tides, I tried to imagine the world he must cross alone. I freed his hand. 

The night my father died, I ran outside to the wintering trees, cold in their garden, cried for mercies and sank into the bark of a gnarled oak, broad, rugged, towering. Spilled my grief against its insensible shoulder, bark so rough it bruised my cheek, but its sturdiness, its blankness was what I needed. A time of stillness followed, stalwart through a bitter winter. It was a hibernation of sorts through snows and howling storms until, naked and stone, I wrapped my arms around an early marbled sky and broke free tentative and green. 

Night brings me his voice now on summer breezes, across snow banked fields, from house to house, packed and unpacked, wrapped gently in its newsprint bundle that I carry with me through a collection of houses.

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