July 2022
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Still Life

“Drive by Wilson School,” I said. “Could it still be there?” 

“Remember Mrs. Suprenand, the principal?” asked my sister Connie. “We called her Superman and thought we were so clever.”

At the wheel of our rented car, Connie turned onto familiar residential streets and we peered out at our old neighborhood. Wilson School looked much the same, small and neglected.

We’d decided to take a roots trip, two grandmothers on a journey to see the house and street where we’d grown up. Having driven from the airport through Los Angeles on a warm spring afternoon, we arrived in San Gabriel, our California mission town. It would be a treat to revisit our childhood home, I thought, not realizing it would also surprise me.

“Superman is probably dead,” I said. “Makes me feel old. But I bet Billy is still alive somewhere. He was the cutest boy in school.”

“I don’t remember thinking he was cute,” my sensible sister said. “I do remember Mrs. Maple in her bathrobe. She never wore anything else.”

The neighborhood looked as tranquil as we remembered, a California postcard. Our ranch-style house was different from the other homes on the block. It had a long front porch with a row of posts along its length. When we lived there my father had put a wagon wheel against one of the posts. Very pioneer. Very Western. I’d imagine myself a cowgirl on that porch, gazing out at ranchland, the sounds of bawling cattle in the background. 

I felt conscious of changes in me since we’d lived here. I’d gone from barefoot youngster to high-school teacher to minister in Arizona. Connie had raised five children on a farm in Michigan. Our ranch house, though, stood unchanged, except the wagon wheel was gone.  

In the center of our front yard, the oak tree my father had planted on my tenth birthday stands like a monument, its thick trunk and branches reaching higher than the orange trees on the block. I imagined the oak to be a symbol of my own sturdy self. Like me, the tree was still standing, healthy and real. How satisfying!

My sister and I walked up the driveway, past the oak tree, and knocked on the front door. I knew what the inside of our house would be like. I’ve no idea what my sister was imagining, her face poised as always. I’d find our bedroom with the window to the backyard and the tiny bathroom the four of us shared. I could already hear Mother’s voice and smell my father’s pipe.

The current owner, a woman wearing a painter’s smock, invited us in. We told her how our parents had built the house on a street carved from an orchard where acres of citrus trees stretched for miles. Back then, there were no freeways, or sidewalks, or shopping malls. During the Korean War Toby, a neighbor boy, enlisted and was killed. She listened politely to our stories.

The interior of our ranch house looked all wrong! The shelves around the dining-room window-niche no longer held German beer mugs. The living-room fireplace should face two green wing-chairs. The screened-in porch used to have a cement floor where Connie learned to roller-skate; now it was carpeted and looked like a TV room. How could the owner live like this? There were no smells of Prince Albert tobacco. My mother wasn’t standing in the white kitchen. My mother was dead. 

I knew how foolish it was to expect our things to be in these rooms, and I tried to keep from making absurd comments, but until I’d walked in, I was connected to my early life by tangible imagesm like the backyard incinerator where I’d burned trash, or the mangle that squeezed the wet clothes in the laundry. Now, the emblems of my past had been erased; only an oak tree remained. 

My sister seemed as serene as always, a model of well-groomed composure. Speaking in a low voice, she talked with the owner, who told us she was an artist, and we admired her still-life paintings of flowers and old clocks. I could understand why she wanted to capture a scene and make it stay unmoving forever. I wanted things to be fixed too. People talk about “moving on,” as if they could leave behind their stories. That sounds like death to me.  

Connie and I said goodbye to the artist and walked out to the car. Before we drove off, I stared at the oak tree and remembered my father on the day he’d planted it, working the shovel and talking about how the skinny sapling would grow with me. The vision centered my spirit, quieted my heart and rooted me in gratitude for a good sister and a home preserved in good memories.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.