To say I grew up in the house is a bit of a misnomer. It was the house my grandparents lived in when I was young, and even then for less than a decade. But where my mom moved a lot, my grandparents stayed in place. For much of my childhood I would visit them weekly, and spend holidays at their house. They were a huge part of my life and my stability where everything else always changed.
The drive to my grandparents took you from civilization, through golf courses of retirement suburbia, up windy mountain roads with boulders looming over the street. The trees thickened, and eventually you found yourself on a a road lined with white picket fences called "Caminito Quieto" meaning "quiet road" in Spanish. Finally, you turned up a steep, windy private driveway.
The house sat on four acres of avocado trees, which my grandfather spent a huge amount of time maintaining. He had a four-wheeler, and if I was very lucky I would get to ride it with him to go repair a sprinkler.
In the front yard was a playground that my grandfather had built for me, complete with a swing set and play house. Beyond that, behind yet another white picket fence was a garden of fruit trees. I very vaguely remember, for I must have been very young at the time, him excitedly planning the garden, telling us of all the trees he would plant. The gated garden always seemed a little bit secret and magical to me.
All of my clearest memories from childhood came from that house. I remember planting a garden with my grandfather every year. I remember the strawberries that we had planted, and watching them with great anticipation while they turned from green to red, until it was time to pick them. I remember chewing on sour grass and licking honeysuckle. I remember the sweet scent of the gardenia hedges that my grandmother planted around the outside of the house.
I spent nearly every weekend there. Late Saturday mornings, I would get up and jump into my grandparents bed and watch cartoons with them. Birthdays took place in the gazebo, and on holidays the whole family would gather at the long table in the dining room.
The thing that I remember most from that time of my life was the the closeness and love of my family. In reality, those family bonds were seasoned with a hearty helping of obligation, psychological abuse, and an assortment of familial dysfunction. But I was too young to understand that. Like the fairy-tale aspects of my childhood, the unhealthy aspects seemed normal. What I did know was that I was surrounded by people that loved each other, and that I was loved. No matter what happened later or how my perspective changed with maturity, I still count myself blessed for that.
That house is so deeply rooted in my psyche that I still sometimes dream of it, a backdrop to some imagined life. It is only upon waking that I realize with a pang that all of that is gone.
My grandparents divorce drove my grandfather past a sanity that had held only tenuously, and within a year he had a break down. He staged an elaborate plot at which he was the center, both hero and victim. The story involved the powerful family of a jilted lover coming to seek their revenge by threatening him and burning down his, and my, home.
I remember vividly at nine years old sitting on the turret of my playground, crying as I watched the flames consume my childhood. The next day, walking through the damp charred ruin of the halls that had been my whole world.
I do not blame my grandfather for this brief bout of self-centered insanity. He too was watching his life crumble before him, and lacked the fortitude and resilience to adapt. At the same time, I don't think I'll ever forgive him for taking my home and my childhood away, all in one abrupt and spectacular night.