One Home reflects on a retelling of memories from a childhood home in Bremerton, Washington. The book draws on and challenges the recollections from my short story “House On a Hill” from 2016, the first time I revisited and reconstructed my experiences from that time.
My mother would always brag about how long we lived in Bremerton. Three years. Well – just around two and a half. But that’s practically unheard of in the military. For most of my childhood, houses came in one and a half to two yearlong episodes. But Bremerton brought a pause. Though not much different from the times we spent in other places, to my childish mind, I saw Bremerton as a stolen breath in the midst of an otherwise childhood of transience. Our house sat atop a hill overlooking the harbor where the base’s aircraft carriers were docked. Each day, we’d descend from the hill in my mother’s stuffy blue station wagon to attend a small Catholic elementary school. Our daily off-base excursion. But every afternoon we would return, and once stripped of my uniform, I was free and my hillside explorations began.
At the front of the house, a sidewalk separated the short front lawn from the steep slope with a road waiting at the bottom. My mother learned to keep a steady supply of chalk to keep me occupied. I would grind chalk into the sidewalk until my hands were completely coated with a soft film speckled with the drops of blood pushing through the small incisions on my hand. I would park myself by the sidewalk joints where the slabs met and made what I saw as a miniature canyon. With piles of chalk dust at the ready, I began to lure ants from the adjacent lawn with small blades of grass. Once exposed on the asphalt, I would snatch them up and trap them in the cement canyon, pushing piles of dust after them. Sometimes I would gradually push it in, challenging the ant to escape the slowly spreading stream of incoming dust. Other times I would place them at the bottom of the concrete canyon and dump an entire mound at once, creating a suffocating tidal wave of chalk. As I pushed the dust, the ants would frantically attempt to climb through the waves of soft film, foolishly hoping they could beat the death game I had created. Once their black limbs had stopped wiggling their way through the surface, I would scoop out the remains and refocus my attention back to the pile of leaves, again in search of my next victim.
I wove an elaborate story of mountain climbers suddenly faced with the forces of nature. I would watch them fight valiantly but finally succumb to the inevitable doom brought by my all-powerful hand. I was struck by the beautiful tragedy of the situation, but in the back of my head, aware of the perverse game I had created. Eventually, I would suddenly be struck with overwhelming nausea. A concluding disgust at my play with mortality. Rising from the scene, I would look at the chalky film now streaked with blood on my hands. Pushing into the thighs of my pants, I would attempt to wipe away my shame. Once I saw that I couldn’t, I would sprint back indoors, abandoning the boxes of chalk lining the sidewalk.
In contrast to the dramatic drop at the front of the house, our backyard carried the hill with a soft slope. In the soft plateau of the hill, they put down a bed of pebbles and erected a small playset to amuse the officers’ children. The valiant effort to entertain us, though noble, failed to hold my attention for long. Once I had exhausted the slide and swing set, I began to believe that the bed of pebbles was, in fact, a thin barrier to another world. Each day, I began heading out to the set with the sole purpose of digging. On my hands and knees and with stones pressed into my legs, I would dig until the pebbles gave way to soft brown earth. As I got deeper, I would drag up clumps of dirt weighted with angular rocks and veined with coarse roots. Dampened earth would crawl up my limbs, staining my knees and forearms. Pushing away the heat of the afternoon, little streaks would form on my face. Markings of the wild earth child of the Bremerton Naval Base.
Once my limbs had grown worn and weary, I would begrudgingly lift myself up and stare at my progress. The gaping hole was impressive, but it hadn’t quite made it all the way through. With a full bladder and waning attention span, I would return to the indoors. But the dissatisfaction of the incomplete hole weighed me as I returned. Once inside, a trail of dirt followed as I wove throughout the kitchen and bathroom. My mother would come downstairs and shriek at the streaks running across the floor. I racked up a reputation with the base maintenance crew who began to grow weary of refilling the playground crater that emerged every week. My mother’s afternoons were spent chasing after me to force me into a bath as I vehemently argued that baths were only allowed for Wednesdays and Sundays. Time and time again was I told to stop my digging, that the playground structure should provide adequate entertainment. On occasion, I would make false promises to restrain myself. But each day I would return to my operation. No one could stop me from making it to the opposite end of the world.
One weekend, I woke up and set out to dedicate my day to the dig. I figured if I was disciplined enough, this could be the day to make it to the other side. As I approached the playground, I noticed a black mound lying between the slide and swing set. As I walked forward, I realized the black mass was a large dead crow. I was no stranger to dead animals; I had seen my fair share of roadkill strewn on the roadside and always giggled at my mother’s disgust at the occasional mouse my cat brought in. But something odd struck me about the composure of the corpse. The fallen crow lay perfectly on his back, his wings splayed out on the stones, his beak pointed directly upward to the sky. It was not until I came closer that I noticed that in his sharp yellow beak, slightly ajar as if gasping for one last breath of air, a thick pool of blood had formed against the back of his throat.
I did not dig that day. Instead, I spent the afternoon walking back and forth from the corpse, teasing myself with its subtle horror. Eventually, I would go inside and alert my mother of the corpse lying on the playground. Eventually – but begrudgingly – she would come out of the confines of the house and inspect the source of my curiosity. Indignantly she noted that the clean-up crew was responsible for disposing of such a mess. I was told to not touch it, that it was full of diseases, and that it would be gone soon enough. But long after my mother had gone back to the house, I continued to stare at the crow and wonder where it could have come from. Despite the call for its clean-up, the crow was there the following morning, still splayed out by the swing set. By then, I was able to return to my usual routine of pulling up pebbles. My excavation site was just south of the swing set, settled between the hanging seats and the green slide. The crow to the side of the site, its black wings hanging in the periphery of my eye.
My mother would always brag about Bremerton. But those three years were soon up. Once again, it was time to move. Such is the way of the military. For weeks, the sound of pulled packing tape resonated throughout our home. My afternoons were now spent wandering the rooms, watching as their belongings faded away. My mother was no stranger to the process; she always carefully packed and itemized each object that, almost without fail, stayed with us throughout each move. My mother was a woman of objects. Her love for finery was first informed by a couple of family heirlooms, but as the years progressed and brought more money to her disposal, she searched until she had finally amassed a connoisseur’s collection of antiques. Shopping was her hobby. For each place we lived, my mother would learn the landscape of shops, culture, and art and shop with an unnaturally good knack for thriftiness and personable bartering. The military is a life of transience, but my mother made sure that she would come to each new posting with a caravan of world possessions and always leave with the addition of several more. All of our homes were meticulously arranged with these trinkets, down to the detailed coasters and custom couch covers. My father had absolutely no interest in these objects. But it kept my mother busy, and so he acquiesced to carrying along the boxes she so carefully packed to each new post.
I loved this house. I had grown to admire the eccentricities of its interior: the mudroom acting as a barrier to my mother’s delicately arranged interior; the kitchen door that swung on creaky hinges and that I would frequently hide behind, wishing I had to work in the kitchen on homework like my older brother; my oversized bedroom with the walk-in closet that I would spend hours in, weaving stories with the assistance of my Barbie collection and looking out the small porthole window. It had seemed like an escape, but I had not forgotten the inevitable and knew I could do nothing but accept the next move. Much of my life was spent outside, but as the days came to a close, I went inward to memorize the arrangements that would never be repeated.
Unlike my mother’s objects, my father was not a constant within these houses. It was not uncommon for him to be away for months at a time, only coming home for the occasional three-day rest period between cruises. Instead of a fixture, my father became a commodity, a thing to count down to on our kitchen calendar. So I was surprised to see him when he came home right before that move, a strange specter among that sea of boxes. I saw this as a treat, a final ideal image of our complete family in our picturesque home. But there was something different. There was no calendar left on the fridge to count down the days till his arrival. There was no special dinner welcoming him home. Just a quiet meal kept to the kitchen, served on mismatched plates and cutlery not deemed worthy enough of my mother’s privileged packaging.
It was during this last visit, as I was wandering the halls of our soon-to-be not home, that I stumbled upon my father. As I was peering around the corner, I spotted him standing in the living room, silently staring out the window. Instead of walking in to greet him, I rushed behind the doorway and covered myself with one of the jackets hung on the wall. I figured he had heard my hasty attempt at hiding and would make a game of uncovering me from my obvious spot. But he continued to stand, completely still among the boxes, eyes set outside of the windows. And I also stood, my back pressed against the wall, hidden by the thick green jacket.
The silence was suddenly broken with a sharp creak, the sound of weight pressing against the floors. I heard my mother’s voice sink into the living room, calling out to my father. Again, I rustled from behind my makeshift curtain, expecting one of my parents to notice and playfully chastise my obvious eavesdropping. But I went entirely unnoticed. Instead, I stayed and watched my mother as she drew my father from his stoic silence. Along the wall stood two tall pyramid structures with glass shelves held up by its angular metal frame. On each shelf, my mother had delicately arranged her silver collection: gleaming bowls filled to the brim with beaded fruit; her father’s engraved cigarette cases; a kettle and saucer series never touched by a single drop of tea. No matter what arrangement my mother seasonally chose for the room, the shelves remained a privileged site for her precious silver. Their arrangement would stay the same, only touched for the occasional cleaning to maintain their lustrous glow. From behind the doorway, I heard my mother direct my father’s attention to the silverware. She of course reminded him of their personal importance, of how she had inherited them from her late father, whom she loved dearly. She went on wonder about our next home and if there would be enough space in our new house, which was to be much smaller than our current one, to provide the proper placement for her pieces. My father stayed mostly silent, providing the occasional monosyllabic utterance to suggest his attention.
She asked him if they looked dull to him. He said no. My mother corrected him; they were, in fact, very dull. She began to express her worry about their safety in the coming move. Had he checked with the moving service? She had had enough of her things stolen amidst the many moves that she no longer trusted the integrity of the moving companies the bases had suggested. Maybe we should look elsewhere. Again, she brought up the silver. It was dull. It would be wonderful if he could shine the silver before he left. It had really become quite dull. My father brushed it aside, reassuring her that movers were reliable and that the new house would be fine. She asked again if he could shine the silver. My father said no. He didn’t have the time. I continued to stand there and stare out through the folds of the jacket, listening to the mounting argument between my mother and father. I realized that my mother and father were not putting on a vignette, that my playful plan to overhear some conversation had gone off track. But I stayed and kept hidden by that jacket, my ears turned toward the escalating voices from the living room. But then I suddenly I heard a break, a fall in my father’s voice. I had always known my father to be a steady spoken man. Even as my mother’s voice had escalated, my father’s voice had remained stern and solid. But suddenly it wavered. With shaking words, my father began to plead with my mother. He had less than a week. This would be his last time home. He begged her to stop asking about the silver. From behind the door, I finally realized that they had not seen me, that that foreign crack was in fact a sob. Among moving boxes, with my mother standing opposite him, my father was crying. The rest of those days faded away, and as my father had said, by the end of the week he had left. That was the last of his time in Bremerton.
In the following weeks, I watched as more of the carefully placed details of our house drifted away and were replaced by piles of cardboard boxes, perfectly labeled and increasingly menacing. I drifted about those days, weaving throughout the house and scaling sides of our hill. I tried to hang onto the piles of dust, the grass blades so carefully plucked, the pebbles pushed beneath my nail beds. But I couldn’t tape those up into a package; no label could be given to organize my childish trinkets. One day, I sat among the boxes, overwhelmed by the pressing weight my mother had stuffed away into cardboard. Even the silver pieces had been packed away, leaving a gaping hole where they formally stood. My mother shuffled into the living room and found me perched on one of her rolled-up persian rugs. She leaned over, grabbed my chin, and kissed me softly on the cheek. Moving was hard, she said. It was just a house. We would be in our new home soon enough, our lives lifted again from the boxes and rearranged to suit the new occasion. As she cupped my face in her hands, I stayed silent, unresponsive to her words of comfort. My mother’s words faded away and my eyes shifted sideways, set outside the window and looking for something else waiting along the horizon.