I have recurring nightmares about my childhood home, a 1960s California ranch on Melody Lane, a quiet street in the hills of Orange County. We were children of the air raid sirens and Kennedy’s bloody motorcade, mothers on Phenobarbital. We didn’t understand why Martin Luther King was shot on a balcony in Memphis or Bobby Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. At slumber parties, we talked in the dark about how Charles Manson had stabbed a knife 16 times into the pregnant womb of Sharon Tate. He could come to our house too.
Our family lived on Melody Lane from the time I was seven until I graduated from high school, and during that period, my mother divorced my father, dated and soon married another man, and had a baby who died two days after birth. Never during my mother’s pregnancy did she acknowledge she was pregnant, even though my two sisters and I could clearly watch her belly grow. My mother carried the baby for nine months and then one morning, while loading clothes into the washer, she said to me, “I’m going to the hospital today.” I didn’t ask why and went on to school. That evening our stepfather brought McDonald’s home for dinner. “Your mother had a baby boy today,” he said, unwrapping hamburgers on the table. “The doctors don’t think he’ll live.” And, sure enough, two days later my mother came home empty handed, and nothing was ever said again.
I was 12 and my sisters 10 and eight when my father sat us down in the living room one Monday night to announce he was moving out. “Your mother doesn’t want me living here anymore,” he said. My parents had never openly fought, so I had no context for this statement, yet it pulled from me a thread that had tied my world together. If more were said that night I didn’t hear it, so I walked down the hall to my room, while my sisters and father went to the den to watch Andy Griffith on TV. The next morning, my father packed some boxes and moved to an apartment near the freeway.
It was 1965. I didn’t have a friend whose parents had divorced. No one in our neighborhood was divorced. I didn’t know what divorce meant. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened until the next summer when I was at my grandparents in Iowa and I wrote a postcard to my best friend, revealing the news. She told me she had already heard.
After my father moved out my mother distanced herself from my sisters and me as she wrapped her arms around her new husband, a very masculine man who’d pull up to our house in an old army Jeep with a bicycle strapped to the back. He was athletic, and soon my mother and he were skiing on weekends and climbing mountains. They took rock climbing lessons at Yosemite. Rappelling ropes and ice picks hung on the wall above their bed.
My mother didn’t often look at me, but when she did, her eyes were hard and black, and she took on a casual indifference I didn’t recognize. For about a year after she remarried, I’d wake up around three every morning and lie under my covers in the dark, imagining her waiting for me in the shadowed hallway outside my door.
In my dreams, I’m standing across the street from my house, looking back at it. Usually I’m planning to go home, but it’s night, and I’m afraid of the interiors, dark and silent, and the half-closed doors along hall. In my dreams, I never go in. The other night I had the dream again. I was at my girlfriend’s house across the street, and it was getting late and had begun to rain. I wanted to rush home to turn on the lights, but I couldn’t do it. Perhaps in some other dream I will. A small girl waits for me there, still hiding under the bedcovers, probably needing to be held.