I drove down my old street where I used to live, and it made me sad.
My street was more decrepit than I remembered. Awkwardly perched between the solidarity of winter and the freshness of spring, the trees and yards lay cold and bare and brown. Without their summer shroud of greenery, the houses stood uncertain and desolate.
The house where I used to live was painted, twice, since I lived there. I saw it in its dusky blue and maroon state and thought of the little white house with a red roof that I moved into with a herd of tiny children and a baby on my hip.
That move was the bravest thing I ever did. I packed up my household goods into boxes while recovering from near-deadly childbirth, and moved with my husband into a town where I knew no one.
The house was tiny, only five rooms, but it was neat and clean. Will and I spent several months fixing it up and restoring old wood floors to their primal beauty. I painted the house soft colors, white and gray and blue, and brought in beautiful green plants that reminded me of my grandmother. Will made new knotty alder cabinets for the galley kitchen. The wood glowed with warmth and steadiness, and I unpacked my carefully-selected dishes and relished the silky smoothness of the only new cabinets I’d ever had in my whole life.
Behind the house was a fenced in yard where my children played. One day Will and the neighbor whose children were grown came walking down the street with a swingset that they planted in our back yard. Another day a friend came over and helped Will build a sandbox. I dragged home a kiddie pool from the dollar store and our back yard became a splashpad for the summer. A mulberry tree draped over the back fence, so the children climbed up and found purple treats to stain their faces and hands. I often watched the children through the windows of our tiny house, aching for all the changes in their lives yet relieved to see that they were still happy children with dirt to play in, a dog to chase, and a mulberry tree to climb and eat from.
In the kitchen, I stood by my large corner sink and watched the traffic down my street. A lady in a blue van drove by every day. I started watching for her, and every time I saw her drive past I prayed for the lady in the blue van. For over a year I prayed for her, without knowing her name.
Several houses down lived a young man who numbed his sadness with drugs. I noticed vehicles sliding into his place at all hours of the night. They stayed for a while, then crept away as silently as they came. Should I call the police? I often wondered. But I didn’t. I saw the young man work in his yard with a rake and hoe. “He likes being outside, just like me!” I thought, and felt an unexpected kinship with him. After that, I prayed for him as he raked and weeded his yard. Day after day I watched and prayed.
Next door we had neighbors who were a warm and friendly solace in a new town. They invited our little boys over to watch football or play with trains, and the man helped my seven-year-old son learn how to mow the yard. When it snowed, my son scuttled over to the neighbors with a broom and cleared off a path to their car. He returned with shiny eyes and several unexpected shiny quarters in his pocket.
One day we said, “let’s have a picnic!” and invited these neighbors. We crammed around the dining room table and feasted on hotdogs, baked beans, and pasta salad. It felt like home to me, to have friends around my table.
My children learned how to ride bike on my old street. Someone brought home a little trike that the toddlers spun round and round on our short driveway. The older children tried out their bikes on the street, their legs pumping off excess energy as they streaked up and down the neighborhood. Sunday afternoons our family started going on bike rides around town, everyone riding who was able to ride, some bouncing behind in baby carriers. We stopped often to say hi to the man trimming his yard or the lady sitting on her porch steps.
The year I lived on my old street, I observed the trees changing with the seasons, and how their outlines changed from month to month. Sometimes at night I stood by the picture window of our living room and gazed at the leaves patterned around the street light. Sometimes I stood there at night and cried.
In that house, I read books. Books, books, and more books. When winter came, I started reading the Bible in huge gulps. In a new place, a new setting, the old words became new. I read and read, and wondered why I had not seen so many things before. I started to write about the things I was learning.
Later we moved a few blocks away to a house shaded by oak trees. This house had five rooms that we turned into eight. We slept on the dining room floor while turning a sad house into a cozy home, but that is a story for another time.
My old street was a place of new beginnings and intense loneliness, of beauty and pain in one impossible tangle. As I drove on that overcast day between winter and spring, my old street seemed even more decrepit than before. I wondered if all I had experienced in that year-and-a-half was worth anything at all, or if it faded away and changed like paint on an aging house.
But on my old street, I noticed the daffodils that I had planted in front of our old house. Soon after we moved, a lady from my Mennonite church had sidled up to me one day when we were back visiting family, and said, “I have something for you.” I opened a brown paper sack to discover daffodil bulbs. “It’s for you to plant at your new place,” she said. “I knew that you loved plants and I thought this would help you feel at home.” In a time when our motives for moving were often judged, the gift was unspeakably precious.
I saw the daffodils marching in sturdy bunches of optimism, and thought, maybe not everything was in vain. Sometimes the smallest gifts, like a sack of brown bulbs, are the ones that bring the most happiness. Maybe all those prayers and all that reading and neighboring and mothering did something that I cannot yet see. Maybe even now, on another street, I’m planting bits of joy that will someday bloom.
It’s the promise of spring, and new life arising from what now lies bare and cold and brown.