Last month, I had my childhood home in Kansas demolished. Afterward, I Face Timed with my cousin who lives near Wichita from my current home in Pennsylvania. She gazed at me from her little square as waves of hair flowed behind her in the wind. As she turned her camera, it caught a flash of the crumbling dirt around the edges of a fist-sized clod, then panned a wide blur of treeless, houseless, snow-patched land. Still jolted by the missing things—chimney, swing set, porches, metal shed, pigeon pen, grapevines, apple tree—I returned to my computer and a Zoom meeting. I stared into the camera, my own gaping holes as invisible as the basement that had been filled in, leaving a smooth surface.
When people hear I’m from Kansas, they think I grew up on a farm, but I didn’t. I lived on the outskirts of a city where they made airplanes. In the 1960s and 70s, Wichita was home to four airplane plants and an air force base. The growl and hum of planes was the backdrop to my childhood. They passed low—scaring rabbits back into their burrows, urging flocks of birds into startled flight, halting lessons in classrooms, postponing intimate confessions, scrawling secret messages in contrails across the sky.
When people hear I’m from Kansas, they think that the deprivation of a landlocked childhood explains why I’m so riveted by the roar and movement of the ocean. But I did, after all, grow up on what eighty million years before had been an ocean floor. The primal tug of the sea has something to do with the fields around our house, of the roaring Kansas wind that tangled and snarled my hair, that knocked down blade after blade of grass and raised it back up again. That invisible wall of wind was exhausting to walk into but made me giddy when it was at my back, pushing me forward, rushing loudly as a highway of passing cars.
I grew up with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, unaware that I was sitting on part of the ancestral home of the Osage people, the Indigenous group about whom I was reading. In 1872, when forced to relocate to a reservation in Oklahoma, the Osages sold to a farmer, for $200, the land that became my childhood neighborhood. I was more intimately familiar with the remnants of the farm that then had occupied the land for almost a hundred years. Rickety wooden footholds climbed up the side of a tree along the deepest part of the creek. Dirt clotted the hairy roots that hung above eroded banks. The old dump at the back of a field where I played among the rubble included a rusty car, a discarded toilet, and squares of old shingles. The car became a house, its underside the upstairs, with bumps and ridges for couches and chairs. Around me, the field’s high grass rippled like the mane of a powerful lion. I was a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, but instead of a treehouse, I had an upside-down car, and instead of wild berries, I had shingle-squares of toast, and instead of jungle animals, I was surrounded by a wind that roared.
I’d been a toddler when my parents built our house on this street where a row of new ranches and split levels sat back from the road, with long gravel driveways and no sidewalks. It wasn’t a neighborhood designed for evening strolls, dog walking, or gossiping with neighbors. Bordered on one side by a major highway, cut off at one end by the Kansas turnpike, and poised directly under the flight pattern of McConnell Air Force Base, it was still rural enough for me to play in the creek and roam through the fields. At the same time it was urban enough to walk to a department store down the street, crawl through the network of cave-like drainage tunnels under the highways, and sled, unbeknownst to parents, down the turnpike hill.
When I was a teenager, the city of Wichita widened Highway 54, and our yard became a flood plain, water seeping into the house during every heavy rain. My little brother, who lived there for years, posted pictures on social media of his children wading tearfully through the lower level, water to their hips and shoes floating by. By then, there was a Walmart plaza across the road. The pharmacy, where I’d bought bandages for my mother after her mastectomy, stood where the old farm dump had been.
By last summer, most of the houses on our street were gone. There was a car dealer where the Merritt house used to be, a restaurant on the site of the Holzman house, a strip mall in place of the Cannabys’.
In my last conversation ever with my older brother, I tried to convince him that we needed to have the house torn down. He said he couldn’t afford it yet, maybe in a few months. I said I wanted to walk through it one more time, and he said that no, I didn’t. He was right; I didn’t. I’d been picturing the living room divided from the hall by a curio shelf instead of a wall. I’d been imagining climbing the stunted split-level staircase to the corner bedroom where I daydreamed for seventeen years. I’d been imagining descending another short flight to the family room with its big fireplace and the piano I once practiced on daily. But I knew that the reality was moldy, rotted floors from water damage, filthy bathrooms with sagging shower doors, gnawed corners, and mouse droppings.
My older brother died two weeks after this conversation. And then, a few months later, I scraped together money from his estate and my parents’ for the demolition. It took weeks for the company I hired to have the gas and plumbing disconnected. I thought of the nurses who told me, at my dad’s deathbed twenty years ago and then at my aunt’s more recently, how people die from the feet up. The heart becomes too weak to pump blood to the extremities, said my aunt’s hospice nurse, brushing shell pink polish onto the fingernails of my unconscious aunt only hours before she died. There’s a distinct line between dead and living tissue as death travels from toes to ankles to calves to knees.
The house also died in stages. All the utilities were shut down, and then, without me ever seeing the machinery, the house went. I never saw the dumpsters, the hardhats, the debris. One day there was just dirt and snow, nothing left. My dad, my mom, uncles and aunts, my older brother, the house—all gone.
“I saw that they tore down the old McCabe house,” a friend of my brother’s writes on Facebook. “Do you think they’ll put in a strip mall? Or a carwash?”
I visualize a strip mall over the scar in the earth where the basement has been filled, that basement with its craggy walls and cement floors where Saturday afternoons my mother’s sewing machine whirred. I imagine a carwash over our old driveway, moments stilled in time between the rush and flurry of Saturday errands. I picture cars rocked by the force of the high-powered jets as brushes circle, water cascading down and sloshing around the windows. I envision couples in their cars, in their own private storms, trapped for a few moments, kissing there on the very spot where, at 17, I kissed my first love.
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