An Ode to Hometowns, Hurricanes, and Google Maps
C I T Y
Not many people can say they grew up in a misnomer. From age five to fifteen I called the county of Missouri City home; half commercial-haven, half residential-oasis, fully located in the suburbs of Houston, Texas and very certainly nowhere near Missouri. Name aside, it was a friendly, humid, uneventful area, and I enjoyed a largely inoffensive childhood. Houston is a sprawling city, and even then it boasted a population of over two million people. Like any major metropolis, it had (and has) a lot of things going for it – a great museum district, all sorts of good food, a bustling downtown, great shopping, major league sports, big concerts, a beach nearby. But Missouri City, like many other counties around it, felt somewhat self-contained; simultaneously a part of Houston and apart from it. As an angsty kid too young to get her driver’s license, I definitely felt the separation more acutely.
My brother and I used to get on the computer and pore over streets through the eyes of Google Maps, investigating which of our neighbors had pools in their backyards, laughing at how funny our house looked on Streetview, marveling at the city we lived in and drove through every single day – yet here it was, immortalized on the screen of our desktop HP, somehow infinitely more interesting. It seems funny to me now – I was growing up in the pinnacle of technological advancement, fingertip access to a world of information – literally – and I used it to look at my own front yard. But this outlook was fitting, I think, for my experiences as an adolescent. Even if maintained unconsciously, your field of vision is limited when you’re young. Home, school, piano lessons, church, maybe the mall, maybe the library, maybe my best friend Cora’s house if I did enough begging – my experiences of Missouri City and Houston as a whole were pretty much confined to specific locations. And even then, most of my memories are rooted to my house. It’s no wonder the majority of my Google Maps searches were centered on my own neighborhood.
N E I G H B O R H O O D
My neighborhood, the pseudo-illustrious Lakes of Brightwater, was an amalgamation of young families and elderly retirees arranged neatly around a lake (manmade and almost always an unattractive shade of brown; my neighborhood was a misnomer too, come to think of it). It was quintessential suburbia, but it was comfortable and happy and I don’t regret the ten years I spent there. Growing up, I had the kind of neighbors who would bring you cookie tins at Christmas and pay you generously when they asked you to feed their pet fish while they were on vacation. Outside, there were wide sidewalks on which my siblings and I could ride our bikes – first tricycles, then training wheels, then finally real two-wheelers – and endless cul-de-sacs to circle through, endless driveways to ride up and down. At the end of our street stood the communal mailbox, a squat metal lighthouse beckoning residents to return each week, like a beacon of postal protection.
A lot of my childhood memories revolve around that neighborhood. In the fall of 2008, Hurricane Ike spun its way across the Atlantic and propelled itself to Texan shores. Growing up near the coast, I wasn’t unused to the threat of hurricanes, but Ike was forecast to be fairly serious and I was old enough to remember the experience. The night before it hit, our cul-de-sac gathered in the middle of the street, a collection of necks craned skyward. I was twelve years old, and I remember thinking I had never seen such funny clouds, nor had I ever seen the sky so pink. The neighbors were conversing excitedly (or so I assumed at the time; in reality, “worriedly” may have been a more accurate adjective. The line between anxiety and exhilaration is a fine one, especially as a child). Mrs. Rita from across the street was taking pictures on her point-and-shoot. Together, the neighbor kids and I scrawled Welcome, Ike! on the driveway in chalk.
Although I don’t remember much about the storm itself, I do remember my family sleeping together in the playroom that night. Armed with a flashlight, I remember being mildly concerned but mostly thrilled (again, it’s a fine line) at the interruption in routine. That’s how it goes when you’re young, isn’t it? My hometown certainly instilled a sense of naivety in me, but how can I feel ungrateful for growing up somewhere I felt so safe? In the morning, our house was still intact, and though there was a lot of debris on the ground, the whole neighborhood worked together to clear it.
Despite some mangled roofs and a prolonged shortage of electricity and air conditioning, the sense of community surrounding the entire event was indicative of the type of neighborhood I grew up in. Not overly sentimental, but practical, pleasant people all the same. Sometimes when I return to visit Houston, I’ll detour through Lakes of Brightwater, making slow laps around my old cul-de-sac, wondering which of my neighbors still live there, lingering especially at the curb of my old home.
H O U S E
4519 Northshore Court. It was the first address I was old enough to memorize; the first home I was old enough to miss. I built a library of memories growing up there; shelves of sounds and smells and colors that I’ll probably retain for my entire life. Itchy grass, cragged brick, summer concrete too hot to walk your bare feet across. Scraped knees stinging as you run through sprinklers, oak trees stretching wide green arms overhead. Inside now: eighteen steps upstairs to the second floor, twenty-one tiles across the kitchen. Yellow couch in the front room, eternally muddy from feet stepping up to pull window blinds closed. Housing my family of six, it was usually loud, frequently messy, always relaxed and comfortable and warm. Whatever the word ‘homey’ means, our house was that. A decade passed there, years throughout which we would paint walls, chop down trees, install new laminate. It never stopped feeling like home.
To this day, its walls are the ones which have contained the largest fraction of my life. After Northshore Court, I would go on to move and move again and again, and I’ll probably continue moving for much of my life. Perhaps that’s part of the reason it holds such a special place in my memory. That red-brick two-story represents more than my childhood home; it represents a time in my life more steady, more anchored, than any other I have known.
Sure, growing up in the muggy suburbs of Houston sometimes felt static and slow. Like every kid, I complained daily – it was too hot outside, there were too many mosquitos, we had to have leftovers for dinner, my older brother wouldn’t play with me, this homework was taking too long. It’s like I said: your peripheral vision isn’t great at thirteen years old. Your house, your neighborhood, your town; it’s your whole world. But there is something wonderfully nostalgic and beautifully innocent about that mindset. To be content with the geography you live in, even if only because it’s all you’ve ever known. To have access to the bizarre and incredible tool of Google Maps but to only use it to look at your hometown – a part of me misses this feeling, this default state of saturation in the space around you, with nothing and nowhere on your mind besides your homework for that night or which friend’s house you’d be sleeping over at tomorrow. Life as a kid was simpler. But it was this very simplicity of life that made the small things stand out. I hope that as I grow older, I don’t sacrifice this appreciation for detail in exchange for a broader view of the world. I’ve lived and traveled widely since my days in Houston. And on Google Maps, every house I’ve ever lived in is just a gray shape. It takes zooming in – a convergence of specific memories and seemingly insignificant moments – to recognize the things that really give your hometown that title. Missouri City, Lakes of Brightwater, Northshore Court. Itchy grass, yellow couch, summer concrete.