When I was around 9, we moved from a small everyday normal home on a small everyday normal street to a new house.
It was only 6 miles from House A to House B, but it was in another county. In my mind, it might as well have been moving to another universe.
How would Maki, my across-the-street friend since the first grade, walk to my house to play? I fretted. I couldn’t fathom leaving the only street I had ever known.
And for a house whose directions go something like this:
Drive east on Military Road. Continue past my elementary school. Past the house with the 20-foot Nutcracker decorations standing sentry at Christmas. Past green tire road (named such because there hung a huge green tire as the unofficial gate to said road). To this day, I still don’t know the real name of that road.
Past the farm. Past the other farm. Past the pond where they found that 12-foot alligator. Past the two-pump gas station with the fried chicken that I was told was quite tasty, for gas-station fare.
Then turn right at the small white church. You’ll know it’s the right small white church because of the red flag in the sign. That’s our road. Drive down it. Keep going past the fancy houses. It turns to gravel. Keep going past the rundown houses. And the trailers. The snake curve, named such because it made an S like a snake, not because we saw a snake there. The log cabin. The pasture dotted with cows.
Past the county dump. Because in the boonies, there is no trash pickup.
The trees start to bend inward and graze branches, creating a thick forest tunnel as the road narrows to a little bigger than one lane. Play chicken to see who has the right of way.
Then, on your left, just as you think you’re about to run out of road … is our house. It’s in a hill. Not on a hill. In it.
We were moles. City mice turned country moles.
We lived in an underground house. One that I aspired to jump off of numerous times, but never worked up the gumption. One that my brother and I trundled down the side of in our little red wagon, me at the stern, more times than we could count.
The house with just two windows.
That house, if you could call it that.
It’s the only house like that out here. Or anywhere within a 75-mile radius, as far as we knew.
And there we were, a mole family holed up in a dark cave on 4.3 untended acres. Country living at its best.
Built facing the correct way, underground houses are the models of energy efficiency. They stay cool in the summer, warm enough in the winter. This helps the utility bill immensely, which might explain some of my parents’ motivation for moving.
Built facing the not-right way, these underground houses are growth chambers for mold and disease.
Ours was built wrong.
We were city folk trying to make the most of farm life. We had the starter kit: goats, corn, apple trees, and the dumbest chickens you will ever meet. Never let it be said that chickens can’t fly. They can, but not when their lives depend on it, apparently.
Me being 9, I named all of our animals except for our first goats – those were Lucy. Ethel, and Fred, named by my parents.
The country does have its perks, or so I was told. The near solitude. The quiet. The big sky. None of which appealed to a girl on the edge of puberty used to making silly tapes into her recorder with her friends.
My dad, in his infinite city slicker wisdom, decided to blend the suburban and bucolic by putting the basketball goal and tire swing in the back yard. Ethel the goat firmly disagreed with this decision.
My posterior paid the price as she found butting me from my tire the most enjoyable activity since ever, that is, besides eating the grape leaves instead of the grass she was originally purchased to eat.
We obviously weren’t cut out for this country living thing.
By the time I turned 15, my mother had enough of it and moved back to the city, taking me and my brother with her. My dad eventually followed.
The home fit for moles went up for auction, and the lucky buyers put – what else? – a trailer on top of the house.
Now my story could wind up being just a little slice of the South. But in this county out in the country, in this house in a hill facing east and not west, there’s a little more to the story.
Technically, we’re in the South. But not quite southern enough. Because the farther you get from the equator, the less sun you get. The less sun, the less vitamin D. The fewer windows in that house built the wrong way, and we were human-sized moles, with eyes that strained in the sun and illnesses that lasted months at a time because of the mold that colonized on our walls and in our lungs.
I didn’t think much of this house in the hill until that brutal summer nearly a decade ago.
In the beginning, the vision in my left eye started to go away, like a vignette in an old-timey picture show slowly closing on a scene. The eye doctor didn’t have a firm diagnosis – but we settled on optic neuritis. My eyesight came back around the time my right leg started dragging.
I wound up being dragged to the ER.
There, the attending neurologist was foreign, with a thick accent. He ran a battery of tests, left, and came back. He then explained the next course of action, which included more poking and prodding. He left the room again to begin my admittance paperwork for a five-day stay.
At that point, I lost it, my carefully constructed composure crumbling as I tried to decode all he had said.
“Steel rods,” I cried. “Why put steel rods in me when I’m only going to be in the hospital for five days?”
My husband looked at me bemused, then amused.
“Steroids, Jennifer. He’s going to put on you on a five-day regimen of steroids.”
A month later, after my hospital stay, the steroids, the MRIs, the spinal tap, the learning to walk again, the uncertainty, I received my official diagnosis: Multiple sclerosis.
Researchers don’t know what causes people to get MS – most agree that genetics plus environment must play some role. Many think that a Vitamin D deficiency is also a factor.
Postscript / I think back to those six years we spent underground, and how the country shaped us more than we shaped it. How we can be connected to a place event though we resist it. How tire swings and mold spores manifest into mood swings and closed doors.
I now live in a small everyday normal home on a small everyday normal street. There are no gravel roads, no gardens to tend, no grass-averse grumpy goats to fend off.
And the total number of windows equals 12.