Paradise Lost and Found
The suburban house where I grew up bordered on what we kids called The Field. A few acres of tangled scrub, it was lush with wildflowers, bugs and possibility, a place for secret hideouts and heroic make-believe. I can still call up the summer shimmer of spiky grass, the raucous buzz of insects.
Quivering with life, that field was kid paradise.
Never did it occur to us that someone else owned the property, not until the morning the earthmovers appeared. Within days they cleared and leveled the land for a new subdivision. They took our field! It broke our hearts and taught us a bitter lesson: You are small, and the world is big. Too bad!
Life has a disconcerting way of repeating that lesson. Many years later, I watched it play out again in Lakewood. In 2002, the mayor proposed razing a cluster of small houses in the city's West End. A private developer wanted to replace them with high-end condos and a shopping center. Lakewood's population was declining, its tax base eroding. Clearly, the mayor announced, this plan benefited the general good. Not surprisingly, many of the homeowners took a different view.
I'm a fiction writer and know a great David and Goliath tale when I see one. But more than that: The situation rekindled my childhood feelings over losing The Field. For me a story always begins with the desire to dig deeper into my own experience, to view my world in some new way. What was happening in Lakewood drew me in. I began to write a children's novel set in Cleveland.
The story takes place on fictional Fox Street, a neighborhood that's close-knit, hard-working, a little rough around the edges, like so many greater Cleveland neighborhoods. A dead end, Fox Street is bordered by Paradise Avenue and a scrubby, magical ravine that kids call The Green Kingdom. My early drafts stuck close to the West End battle. I had a reviled mayor, a wishy-washy city council, even a mini-lesson on eminent domain. I wrote and rewrote, unsure why the book wasn't working. One thing I knew for sure: My main character was going to win. I wasn't about to have her surrender her beloved home the way I'd lost The Field.
A fiction writer I know says that, as she works, she keeps asking herself, Is it true yet? One day I decided to scrap much of what I'd written. I jettisoned subplots, booted out characters, and whittled down my story to one family: a 10-year-old girl, her little sister and their father.
Mo Wren has lived all her life on Fox Street. It's not just home; it's her world. When developers threaten it, she looks to her father to stand up to the bullies. But now I found myself adding another complication: Mo's restless father wants to sell. The person she most depends on lets her down.
And there, at last, I found the heart of my story. I was back in my own childhood, remembering how a part of me had hoped that my father, a man I adored, would save The Field. Up till then, there'd never been a hurt he couldn't soothe, a question he couldn't answer.
Yet when the earthmovers appeared, he was at a loss. He was unhappy about seeing houses instead of open land out the window, and for the rest of his life, he'd bitterly criticize the people who lived behind us. But what could he do? Nothing, it turned out, and the shock of his helplessness still lived inside me, decades later. He couldn't always protect me. There were things that defeated him, things he couldn't give me.
Now, as I wrote, I realized that the field wasn't the only thing I'd lost. As the earthmovers plowed under paradise, I'd begun to leave childhood innocence behind. When I recaptured that bittersweet moment, my book, at last, became true.
Poor Mo! As hard as I tried, as much as I wanted to, I couldn't give her the same fairy-tale ending as the West End. The hotly debated Lakewood issue was defeated by less than 50 votes. It's such a good story. Almost too good to be true.
For me, What Happened on Fox Street is truer than what happened in the West End. Mo's father, like mine, turns out to be fallible. Their days on Fox Street are numbered.
Does she still love him? With all her heart. Will she ever forget Fox Street? Not as long as she lives. Just as I'll always love my father. And just as a part of me still plays in that long-lost field.
12:00 AM EST
January 19, 2011