I have been thinking about my childhood a lot lately. I have been tracing our house in Oracle (a smaaaall town about 30 miles north of Tucson, AZ) and the land around it in my head, imagining every crevice to make sure I haven’t forgotten how it looked. As a child, I was not privy to the drug abuse or the poverty or the poor infrastructure in our town. I only have memories like the the parade that happened every spring where I got to dress up like a princess and do a choreographed dance with my class in front of a crowd. One of my favorites is the time my sister and brother were in a play at SPYTS, the youth theatre (which was really just a small decrepit building next to the convenience store, where we got slush puppies - a cross between ice cream and a snow cone - one of the greatest inventions of our time). I snuck onstage before the show to a packed audience to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ I have a vivid memory of my mother rising panicked from her seat to come collect me, as I bowed to a standing ovation. I was 3. That was my debut as an actor, and I craved the stage ever since. Memories like those are strong and present in my identity, while others only drift into my consciousness from time to time, like the smell of the long hall next to the cemetery that my Brownies meetings were in, Gordon’s grocery store, or the rolling hills behind our acreage we used to hike in that seemed to go on forever.
Childhood is weird that way. You don’t see things for what they are. You mostly see them better than they are. I never knew we didn’t have money because I ate when I was hungry and had things to wear, and didn’t know you needed anything else. It never occurred to me that I had to wear my sister’s clothes because it saved money, or that we made all our holiday decorations because decoration was an extra luxury. Or that we all slept in the same room when I was little because construction was taking longer than anticipated and my parents were quickly accumulating debt from building the house. That debt that would later get to the hundreds of thousands but was forgiven by the man who owned the land before he died, an act of pure goodness that both my parents still refer to as life changing.
Our house on Cody Loop Road was a modest haven. It was four acres of the perfect mix of desert and forest. Big trees and dry air and painted sunsets. The house my father built is the home my mind will always wander back to when it feels lost. When I was born the house wasn’t finished yet so for the first couple years of my life my siblings and I all slept in the same room, warmed in the winter by the wood burning stove and cooled in the summer by adobe walls. I don’t have concrete memories from this time, as I was very young, but I have emotional memories from it. I would fall asleep to the reassuring sounds of family, my siblings bickering or my parents chatting, or sometimes the TV quietly performing to no one in the background. I think that’s why now as an adult I sleep most sweetly when in a room of people I love who are still talking to each other.
I remember that house with such clear and intense fondness. Purple and green glass bottles lined the window sill in the kitchen. Mine and my sister’s bedroom had a loft and a window where I’d watch for animals or look up at the sky as the first snow fell, taking pleasure in how the big fat snowflakes danced from the sky to the ground. We had a porch that wrapped around the front of the house that javelinas ruined one summer by running through every screen panel. Our dad made us a swing out of dog leashes, duct tape and a plank of wood that hung from the big Oak tree my whole childhood. My brother and I used the clearing inside the bamboo-like patch as a secret clubhouse. There was a wood shed that had a chopping horse that I would sometimes pretend was a real horse, and a pond next to our chicken coop and outdoor washing machine where Oscar, the giant goldfish lived (I was devastated when the pond froze over and Oscar passed away). My dad had a little red truck that he would sometimes let me steer while he did the pedals, a tradition my mom never approved of but always allowed. We sometimes piled into the bed of that truck late at night to watch meteors grace the sky ever so briefly and brilliantly.
The safest I felt was snuggled up in a large metate rock in our front yard. I would sit for hours in that rock under the juniper tree, watching the sun sink, content to waste time in a way I couldn’t imagine doing now. I was a child meant for wilderness. Always outside, always barefoot (which I still take pride in - not an easy feat for a desert dweller) and with my long brown hair strewn across my face. I was never one for TV or video games, but then again we were children before the internet, so screens only had so much to offer us before we tired of them. The world was at our fingertips in a different way.
Sometimes, especially when I got too hyper so..often, my mom would take me outside and lay me down on the ground. She would lie down next to me and close her eyes and breathe deep, and she would tell me that if I tried hard enough, if I was quiet and still enough, that I could feel the earth move. And so I would do my best to focus the way she was, against my urge to flail and giggle. And I did feel the earth move, huge and slow. And it always left me awestruck.
My memories of Oracle are all simple and joyful, because that’s what life was. Of all my privileges, a childhood free from serious trauma is the one I am most grateful for. The older I get the more I realize that so many people do not have this privilege, including some of the other children who lived in Oracle. Also including most of the people I love.
When I was 8. or 9 maybe, we moved to Tucson because my dad needed to be closer to work, and because we could. Plus the schools in Oracle were lacking and my parents realized they wanted more for us. It was the best decision, I know that now. But I remember even then knowing as we drove away from our modest haven that things would, from that moment on, be a little less simple.
We like to think adulthood is separate from childhood. That we leave behind our small naive versions and trade them in for people who always know what to do and who don't play or need things, because playing and needing is for children. That somehow things like sex and complicated emotions and hardship and money and work make us into completely different creatures. But it's not true. We are all just young hearts whose shape has grown. For all the places I've been and people I have met and things I have learned and and ways I have lived, I am still just a wild and curious barefooted little girl craving the simplicity of art and nature, and to fall asleep to the reassuring sounds of family.