Looking for home

May 31, 2008

How strange to stumble upon photos of my childhood house of the 1960s on a movie web site. I was searching Google images for a picture of Lake Sybelia in Maitland, Florida. Once a quaint hamlet of citrus trees and lakes, Maitland was long ago consumed by the tourist monster that ate Orlando. During my search, up popped the house — white columns, veranda, and canopy of live oaks — under siege by a phalanx of movie cameras and crew.

Interlopers! was my first thought, irrational given that my family rented the house and moved out thirty-eight years ago. Then the movie title tugged at me: The Way Back Home.

I’ve found my way back many times over the years, driving or walking past. It was odd that we lived there, given our middle-class status. The house and yard and orange grove out back, sprawling over a gentle slope overlooking the lake, hinted at money we didn’t have. But my parents rented the place for a steal. And it was a step up from the other two houses we’d rented on the lake since arriving from New Hampshire in 1958, when I was in the third grade.

My childhood was privileged not by wealth but geography. A field for football and treehouse with Tarzan swing. A grove laden with fruit for throwing at brothers and friends and occasionally eating. A spring-fed lake and two Labrador retrievers that swim with us.

Passing by the house as an adult was like looking at a movie set backdrop, a two-dimensional replica. I stared at the front door but saw a painted cardboard facade. I imagined crashing through this make-believe entrance, white-haired man tumbling into nothing on the other side.

I had found my way back but couldn’t go home.

Now home is in Northeast Portland a few minutes from downtown. My view out back is a small fish pond and three pear trees, an accidental shrine to the now murky lake and vanished orange groves.

I’ll rent The Way Back Home. Watching it in the dark, I’ll freeze-frame scenes again and again, searching for evidence that I once lived there.