This Old House

This past weekend, I ventured north to Ann Arbor, Michigan. As a dyed-in-the-wool Ohio Stater, this would normally have been roughly akin to traveling to the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell.

But Jill spent her early years in Ann Arbor, when her dad taught journalism at Michigan. They moved to Kansas in 1976, when she was eight, and she hadn’t been back since ’77.

So since The Ninth Circle of Hell is only a three-hour drive from Columbus (yes, the “three-hour tour” line from “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” was going through my head), she thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take her husband and children to see her roots.

We had a good time on the way up. I put some musicals into the CD player, and we sang along loudly, while the kids jacked their headphones into their phones and tried to pretend they didn’t have The Most Embarrassing Parents Ever. Despite it only being a three-hour trip, we had to stop so someone could pee. I won’t say who it was, but it was the same person it always is.

When we got to Ann Arbor, Jill’s old street was under construction. So we parked at her brother’s old middle school and walked.

The house that used to be hers is tall and grey, and kind of majestic-looking. It’s an old house, and it isn’t in the wealthy part of town (her dad was an untenured college prof, after all). It was surrounded by enormous trees. They were big when Jill lived there 38 years ago, and now they were scraping the heavens.

We stood across the street, and Jill pointed out her bedroom window. She stared at the lot and was stunned it wasn’t as big as she remembered it. The legs of a young child took many more steps to get across it than an adult’s. It looked almost exactly the same to her, except she could see its true size now.

Then we walked up the street and around the corner, so she could show us her best friend’s old house. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was neat to see this quaint old neighborhood that reminded me a lot of my own childhood visits to Maine and to see the adult woman I’d married transform back into the girl who didn’t know she lived on a small lot.

On our way back to the car, we went down the side of the street Jill’s old house stood on, so we could get a closer look. Then something extraordinary happened.

A six-month-old chocolate lab came bounding out of the backyard to greet us on the sidewalk. Naturally, we stopped to pet him, and a man in his sixties approached apologizing to us for his dog’s enthusiasm. Jill introduced herself.

“Hi, I’m Jill,” she said. “I think you bought this house from my parents in 1976.”

“Yes,” he said, his face lighting up. “I did!”

They spent a few minutes catching up. He took us into the backyard so she could see the rest of the grounds. He told her how they’d expanded the garage a few years ago (which partially accounted for the yard being smaller than she remembered), and how they were going to have to severely trim back the gargantuan maple tree, because several branches were rotting, and it was threatening the house.

His daughter, whom Jill remembered as a baby, was an adult with a toddler of her own and lived only two doors down. They both reflected how time flies and things change.

He didn’t invite us in, and Jill didn’t want to press. So after a few minutes, we said our goodbyes and went on our way to explore the park at which she used to play and her old elementary school (which still had a stone statue of a seal from her childhood days, even though the rest of the playground equipment was all new).

We had lunch at the pub her father used to frequent, and the kids found a really good comics and games store we spent almost an hour in.

It was really very cool.

Jill beamed with light that had nothing to do with the sunny afternoon. She showed us where she came from. She saw things she hadn’t thought of or had forgotten about. She was eight years old again.

And it was all made possible by a puppy named “Java.” We’d have been happy to just walk by the house, but “Java” came out and (re)introduced us to the owner. It made everything more special.

We were on our way back to Ohio the following morning. The children returned to their headphones to hide from our music, and I was clad in my Bengals gear to get ready for NFL Opening Day. The Usual Suspect forced us to make another pit stop. It was a short trip.

But it was a nice little visit into the History of Jill. You can go home again, however briefly. I’m very glad we did.

Even if it was in Michigan.

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