When I was growing up, in each of the three or four neighborhoods I lived in there was the house where all the kids wound up. When I was in the second grade, the house on the block where everyone wanted to be belonged to a girl named Susan. I can clearly remember my friend Susan's house down the street from our first home. Susan's house was always full of children, and seemed to me to be the next best thing to heaven. I can still recall today the feeling of being at Susan's house, and how I never wanted to leave. I remember the couch, which was worn and plaid and always had room for one more of us as we watched cartoons. I remember Susan's dog, a mellow yellow lab that would lick your face and then go back to snoring on the rug, usually under the bare feet of the children crowded onto the couch. I remember Susan's kitchen pantry, which was a huge cavernous room where you could always find something to munch on (an image surely fueled by my seven year old stature). More than anything I remember the feeling in Susan's house, the vibe. It was like your favorite t-shirt... worn and soft and perfectly comfortable. The best thing.
My own house wasn't the house on the block where all the kids hung out. I regularly brought kids to my house, but usually furtively when my parent's were away, or if they were home, I tried to make everyone whisper and wipe their feet. I recently spoke to one of my brothers about this, and his experience was the same, which is something I can't quite explain as I look back on it now. My parents weren't mean (my friend Mary up the street had the mean parents)! My house wasn't a mansion (my friend Tanya had the palace)! My mother wasn't a clean freak (we had a cleaning lady named Fanny, and the rest was left to chance). Time at my house was spent either in the garage, at first wading through my father's mountain of fishing equipment, and later stealing first kisses, or in the pool on hot summer days.
Yesterday evening when I returned from a rare day away from my work and my family, I walked in the door (after navigating the a trail of sneakers in various sizes and states of decay strewn on the front steps) of my small home to find an army of six boys (seven if you count the dog). They were gathered around the table with their shaggy heads of hair hovering over the latest Guiness book of world records. They were whooping over a guy who could fit 127 straws in his mouth, "Look Mom! Look! They even took an X-ray!" The television was blaring the latest episode of Dragon Ball, and there was the distinct smell of burnt microwave popcorn in the air combined with that other indescribable but unmistakable smell of boy. The dog was chewing on someone's sock, and there were wadded up paper towels on the counter from a valiant attempt to clean up an errant spill, probably abandoned midway when the page with the guy with the straws in his mouth came up.
I was exhausted from a long trip, and still needed to check my e-mail and invent something for dinner. The house was a minor disaster and in need of a thorough airing out, and the dog surely needed to be taken for a walk. I thought of my second grade friend Susan's house from my childhood, and dropped my bag on the old, comfy couch, and shimmied my way into the group gaping over the book.
Amongst the smells, sticky fingers and crumbs under foot, I realized with joy that the house on the block where all the kids wanted to be was mine.