When I was growing up, there was a house up the street that we were not allowed to visit.
I don’t recall an adult ever literally telling me not to go there; seems like it was just something that somebody’s mom said, might have been mine or might not but, either way, we kids knew not to go there. The house seemed to sit further back from the street than most in the neighborhood and it had an odd, sloped-roof, modern style that was awkward in the midst of the cookie-cutter 1959 ranches that surrounded it.
Of course, if I looked at aerial views of our lot compared to theirs, I bet our house sat just as deeply, but our yard was broad and grassy and open, sloping down towards our home, while theirs was a jumbled, wooded upward slope with the house hidden at the top, very mysterious. And, by the way, Zillow tells me that the house was also built in 1959, in spite of its out-of-character style.
All I knew was that it was odd and scary and that the people inside it were not to be trusted. On Halloween, we skipped it. Selling wrapping paper for school, no way. Seeking customers for my budding lawn mowing/babysitting business, not a chance. I babysat for neighbors on one side, cut the grass and jumped on the trampoline of the neighbors on the other side, but never once dared to approach that house.
Imagine my surprise when it was later rumored that Olympic gold-medaled swimmer Steve Lundquist had moved into the house! This was after I moved off to college and my family moved to another neighborhood, so I’m not even sure it is true, but it was a great story.
When my parents got engaged my dad asked mom if she wanted an engagement ring or a house. She wisely chose the latter and the modest 2-bedroom, 1-bath house on Westmart Lane was the one they picked. We lived there until I went off to college. Why my parents decided to wait until I left home to move to a bigger house with more bathrooms is a mystery to me. I can only assume it is because my younger sister is their favorite, but we all suffered through years of the four-people-to-one-bath ratio, so we are all stronger for that.
I take you on this little descriptive sidebar to point out that our neighborhood was nothing fancy. So what was a world record-holding athlete doing moving into the proverbial worst house on the block?
“Who knows?” is the short answer to this question. I am purposely not asking my parents to confirm or deny any part of this childhood perspective of mine. I’ll let them read this and tell me what I’ve gotten wrong later, because perspective is exactly my point in telling it. The way I recall it was exactly my truth, regardless of the facts.
Whenever I think of how we felt about that house I am reminded of Scout, Jem and Dill’s thoughts on Arthur “Boo” Radley in the acclaimed Southern gothic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee published in 1960, not long after the homes of my neighborhood were built. If you recall, the kids had a dramatic and dark opinion of Boo, based purely on his reclusive nature and their well-exercised imaginations. As the novel unfolds you learn that misperception and character assumptions are rampant in the small town, because isn’t that the way we humans work?
As I watch people butchering folks of whom they have zero personal knowledge or understanding, I become weary. I am not immune to this tendency, mind you. I think we all tend to come to conclusions because we feel we need to. Allowing for mystery is terrifying. We need to feel we know the answer. We crave a conclusion we can be comfortable with, even if it means imagining a villain in the mix because that is the only way the story makes sense.
Sadly, the reality is usually far more complicated and muddy, leaving us to awkwardly face our own flawed humanness in the realization that most others are equally such.
All these years later, I sure do wish I had knocked on the door of that mysterious house. I have an artist friend who once approached a house that was surely abandoned, covered in vines and dark in appearance, imagining she might find some forgotten relics inside. What she found instead was a kind elderly couple living in a house filled with clocks, remnants of the man’s career as a clock repairman. What a rich and unexpected discovery!
In a similar way, Scout, Jem, Dill and the rest of the town of Lee’s novel eventually learn that Boo is not the hollow monster they imagined but a rich and complex member of their community, in spite of his secretive nature and their understanding of him. What might I have found had I put my fearful perceptions aside and bravely approached the unknown of that house? “Who knows?” is the short answer to this question, and how sad is that?
So, the challenge for each of us is this: Who’s your Boo, and what might you learn if you drop your assumptions and actually get to know them? You will find some rich and unexpected discoveries, I would bet. But, if we don’t try, “Who knows?”
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.