After a painfully long unit on argument writing (so Common Core!) and the Seven Wonders of the World (interdisciplinary!), my sixth grade is finally moving on to reading a novel—our first novel this year. Finally. The brand new copies of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Sandra Cisnero’s beloved The House on Mango Street arrived last week.
As an introduction to the unit, I asked my students to do a free-write about their homes. What makes something a home? How has your home shaped who you are? They had the option to write about a current or former place of residence or a place that simply “feels like home.” I decided to write with them. (Author’s Note: So far, I haven’t been able to write about childhood without writing about Ryan.)
I have lived in several houses. For the past six years, I have moved every summer. The house on Dearborn Avenue is my childhood home. It will always be the home I grew up in. I lived there from August 1994 until December 17, 2003. I remember the day we moved because it was also the day The Return of the King came out and Dad let us miss school to “help move” a.k.a. go see The Lord of the Rings in the middle of the day.
The little house sat at the corner of two busy streets and had a tiny backyard shaped in a perfect square. We hit plastic baseballs into neighbors’ lawns constantly. One afternoon, when my brother and I went to retrieve a ball from the house next door, the kids who lived there invited us inside. We spent half an hour with them, drinking Coke and eating Lays potato chips and watching a television show. At the time, we reveled in the luxury of these activities, which for us were always reserved for weekends or special occasions. Still, we never went back. There was always so much wiffle ball to be played. We’d invite the neighbors to our house, but it would take too long to explain the handicaps we offered our little sister (fifteen strikes until you’re out) and visitors often were annoyed when we had to say things like “don’t forget about the invisible man on second base!” and “No, third base is the biggest tree root, not just any of them.” Only my brother’s best friend, Ryan, was allowed. He knew all of our games. He helped us create our superhero alter-egos we assumed when our families went on hikes together. There was always room for Ryan.
Across the street from the house on Dearborn Ave stood a proud, brick firehouse with an enormous, but unnecessary, front lawn and parking lot. Fire trucks came and left often but we rarely heard sirens. However, there was a sound we heard everyday: it came in a series of two to six blasts. Each one was approximately three seconds long—deep and low and loud. “WWWAAAMMMMPPP.” Very loud. The Womp-Womp, as we came to call it, was a part of our everyday lives. We knew folks who had other names for it: “The Blare,” “The Alert.” We knew that if we heard two on a snowy morning around 8 a.m. it meant that school was cancelled, and even though we always received a phone call bearing this news, the snow day womp-womp was a cause for extra celebration. When our relatives from Georgia worked up the courage to come visit their Yankee relatives, they ran to the window every “womp” to watch the firetruck pull out of the station, worried expressions on their faces. We went about our business. It was white noise to us. Dinner guests jumped out of their seats and looked around in fright when it shook the dining room, but we shrugged casually, as if nothing had happened. “Oh, that’s just the Womp-Womp.”
We used to live dangerously. On Dearborn Avenue, we had uncarpeted stairs. Both of my siblings and I fell down them in our youth, sometimes sliding down smoothly in a graceful stumble, but more frequently tumbling head over heels and causing my mother to race from the kitchen, mouth agape. We had a real fireplace. Our yard was elevated over the street, and a fully extended playground swing could reach over the roof of the garage. Once, Ryan flipped backwards off his swing, hitting his head on the hot, black cement of the garage roof. I saw it happen, because I was spying on him and my brother through the kitchen window, teaching my little sister how to become a detective. I had to tell his mother and saw the blood stain his blonde hair. She drove him to the walk-in and he was back the next day, playing wiffle ball.
I drive past the Dearborn Avenue house whenever I’m back visiting my hometown, which happens more often now than it has in the past six years. The house looks…small. I can’t picture myself inside it. Occasionally, though, I see smoke billowing from the stone chimney. And sometimes I swear I can hear a mother’s voice.
“Turn off the television.”
“Be careful on the swings.”
“Hold the railing when you walk down the stairs.”
“Hold on to these days.”
Caroline (Higgins) Nyczak (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.