Debbie Morris

There's a Highway Running Through My Yard

West · Near West · Essay

Detroit-Shoreway Area – Two bedrooms down. Kitchen, bath, living, and dining room. Yard. No Pets. 7926 Grace Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44102. Call for more information.

My dad rents the house in the spring of 1962 when I am six years old. Dad, Mom, and me (baby brother, Davy, is staying with relatives in Pennsylvania until September) move to Grace at the beginning of June when school lets out for summer vacation. Grace Avenue is one street south of Lorain Avenue, which is where Universal Drafting, Inc., the machine shop where Dad works, is located. We rent the downstairs half of a two-family home built in the early 1900s, with a front porch adorned by a massive honeysuckle bush. When in bloom, it imbues the entire house with its sweet scent. The house sits on a lovely tree-lined street, surrounded by other two-family homes that are owned by a diverse community of first- and second-generation German, Irish, Italian, Romanian immigrants. In most homes, the grandparents live downstairs, with parents and children occupying the upstairs suite. Only two or three neighbors rent to non-relatives. Everyone seems to get along or keep to themselves.

The street itself is heaven for a six-year-old who has been in the house for the past year. Mom hurt her back in an accident at work, and for the past two years, she has spent most of her time in hospital. When she is home, she is resting, so I learn to play quietly in my room. Dad is either looking for work, at work, or at the bar. But Dad getting the job at UD, finding the house on Grace, and having a car that runs more than it breaks down is a rare blessing, especially for me.

However, about a month after we move in, everyone in the neighborhood receives a letter from the state of Ohio. “They want to build a highway, right here,” Mom tells Dad when he comes home at lunchtime. The developers plan to buy all the land on Grace, and the other streets close by.”

“Do we have to move again?” I ask, alarmed, in between bites of my bologna and ketchup sandwich. “In about five or six years,” Mom answers. To a six-year-old, five years is a long time. I promptly forget about the letter, finish my sandwich, and head outside to play.

That summer, I make my first real friends with the other six- and seven-year-old girls in the neighborhood. We take turns playing Barbie on one another’s front porch. One of the girls has a new two-foot pool in her backyard, and each day she can choose one person to join her for a “swim.” Sometimes I play by myself. I learn to ride my red twenty-inch bike without training wheels. I tie my very own skate key on a shoelace around my neck, put on my metal shoe roller skates, and skate the whole afternoon going up and down the sidewalk on metal shoe skates. When it grows dark, I catch lightning bugs in a glass (yes, glass!) jar while my parents watch from the front porch.

September comes, and on the Wednesday after Labor Day, school starts. Mom enrolls me in the second half of first grade (I’m a January baby) at Halle Elementary School. My small world is growing. I walk to school by myself; up Grace Avenue, to West 79th street, left on West 79th until I make a right onto Clark Avenue. I cross Clark with Mrs. Schneider, our school crossing guard and neighbor (she and her husband live across the street), walk up West 82nd (?), and left on Halle and my school.

I love school, especially reading. Dick, Jane, and Spot. I want to read more, but my school does not have a library, and my parents do not have the funds to buy me books. Miss Hayes, my teacher, teaches my class about the library. The library is where children and adults can go to borrow books if they promise to take care of them and return to the library on the date due. Miss Hayes says there is a library not far from the school, the Lorain Branch of Cleveland Public Library. Miss Hayes gives us a form from the library that a parent must sign if we would like to borrow books with our very own library card. I run all the way home after school to tell Mom all about the library and library card. She promises that one day very soon, I can visit the library and get my library card.

Soon it is the end of September, and Aunt Dee, Uncle Tom, and my cousin, Sheila, bring Davy home. They are moving to Cleveland to help Mom care for Davy, who will soon be one years old. Sheila is fourteen, and on the day she enrolls at West Tech High I get to stay home from school. Our dads are moving bedroom furniture around to make room for everyone to sleep. Although we are trying to keep out of the way, we are not doing a good job. I see Sheila and Mom talking and watch as Mom hands her a paper. Sheila puts on her jacket and walks over and gives me a sweater.

“Do you want to walk to the library?” she asks me. The library? Yes! I am going to the library! ME! I am going to the library! I run out the front door and down the steps, turn and wait for Sheila; I realize I don’t know my way to the library. We set off walking westward on Grace with the first of autumn’s fallen leaves crunching on the sidewalk beneath our shoes. The sun is above us, but the air is chilly, and there is a slight breeze coming from the direction of Lake Erie. We reach West 83rd Street and turn right. After a few steps, I see the library! It’s so close to our house! It’s beautiful! Sheila takes my hand, and we cross Lorain Avenue. Usually, I would argue that I am too big to hold hands, but today I don’t mind. We walk a few more feet, and then we are climbing the concrete steps toward two large wood-trimmed glass doors. It takes both of us to open the door. Once inside the room, we stop for a long minute to catch our breath and look around.

There is a small table up ahead on the right that holds small sheets of lined paper, and a pencil attached to the table by a string. In front of the table, the circulation counter encompasses the center of the room. It is made of wood and sits between two floor-to-ceiling white columns. The counter forms a large square, and the library staff works behind the counter. Wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with books lines the perimeter. Above the bookshelves, both side walls have three large windows filling the room with natural light. Behind the circulation desk, there is a mural of what I now know to be Ohio City looking towards what will one day be Downtown Cleveland. We walk over to the circulation desk. Sheila asks a staff member who we see to apply for a library card. She directs us to the children’s room on the right.

“Oh!” I cry out, and Sheila shushes me. This room also has natural light coming through windows. Afternoon shadows dance on top of child-sized tables and chairs. I walk to the middle of the room and slowly turn in a circle. A fireplace adorns one wall with books displayed on the mantel. There are bookshelves around the perimeter of this room also. In the back corner stands a flannel board with the words “Story Corner” at the top and pumpkins on the side. Books are everywhere. Even at six, books are my heaven.

“I’m Mrs. Fedas, the children’s librarian,” a kind voice says. “May I help you?” I turn around, and Mrs. Fedas is looking at me, smiling. Mrs. Fedas is a short woman, with kind eyes and a welcoming smile. She wears earrings and high heels, her dress is pretty, and she smells nice. “I would like to get a library card.” I hand Mrs. Fedas the form. Once she sees my mother’s signature, she motions to me to follow her to a small office in the left corner at the back of the room and asks us to wait by the door. Books, stacks of white cards, stamp pads and stamps, a typewriter, and more, clutter the small office.

Mrs. Fedas returns, smiling, and hands me a brand new, sparkling white Cleveland Public Library Card. I print my name at the bottom. Mrs. Fedas reminds me to keep my library card in a safe place. She tells me that I will need to show it at the circulation desk every time I check out books. She hands me a paper about library guidelines and a listing of children’s programs the Lorain Branch offers. Then, she shows me the penny bird.

The penny bird is made of heavy, gray paper. It has eyes and a pointy beak, and two wings with pointy tips. Then she places the tip of the beak on the tip of her finger. She explains that the pennies on its wings help the bird to balance and stay in place. Next, Mrs. Fedas takes a book and shows Sheila and me how to balance the bird on the book. She hands me the bird and smiles her beautiful smile. Her exact words have faded after almost sixty years, but I remember this: Within the pages of books, I can fly around the world just like that little bird and all his friends.

Oh, do I travel the world! I visit Laura Ingalls on the prairie, Mr. Popper and his penguins, Betsy and her little sister, Star, Caddie Woodlawn, and many more! The library introduces me to Seventeen and Writers Digest magazines. School trips to the library teach me about the card catalog, Dewey decimal numbers, and how I can be a student volunteer in the library when I enter junior high. Most of all, the library becomes my sanctuary. There, I can write and read, and, for a little while, not worry about my parent’s fighting, financial issues, and illness. I escape; I travel to the homes of happy families and beautiful places. The Lorain Avenue Library and Mrs. Fedas provide me with a love of books, reading, writing, and libraries.

We rent the house on Grace Avenue for six years. My aunt and uncle both take jobs at Universal Drafting with Dad and rent a house within walking distance, on West 83rd, on the same side of the street as the library.

Sheila graduates from West Tech in 1966, and it is around that time that the state begins purchasing land from homeowners. One morning in 1967, I head off for school at Thomas Jefferson Junior High. As I walk down the street, all of the houses on the south side of Grace are empty but standing, as if awaiting new owners. By the time I walk up the street after school, the houses are razed. A lone oak tree stands in the middle of what is now an empty field. That summer, the neighborhood kids and some of the dads play baseball in the field almost every evening. Some evenings, I sit with Steve, my first love, on the side of the tree away from home base. We joke about driving over this field one day on the highway. We promise to keep in touch. One night he takes out his pocketknife and carves our initials into the one-hundred-year-old trunk. Last fall, I found Steve’s obituary in the Plain Dealer. I thought about that last summer in the old neighborhood, when nothing mattered but riding bikes, listening to WIXY on my little radio, and the innocence of young love.

By the summer of 1968, the houses on our side of the street are deserted. Some homeowners migrate west to newly formed suburban communities. Some go south and settle in Parma. Others head north to Lakewood and Rocky River, and a few move east towards Mentor and Twinsburg. After four moves in two years, my parents finally purchase a house in West Park. The house is a three-bedroom ranch with a small slab front porch on a tree-lined street named Leroy Avenue. The ranch sits close to the end of the street. The end of the street runs into a field.

And, on the other side of the field, is a highway.

Debbie Morris

Debbie Morris writes personal essays, poetry, and short fiction. She has participated in writing workshops through Lit CLE and Cuyahoga County Library. Debbie has also been involved with the Skyline Writers Group monthly critique workshops and was chairperson of the Annual Skyline Writers Conference in 2011 & 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Communications from the University of Phoenix. Debbie works at Case Western Reserve University in the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences as the Assistant to the Director of Lillian and Milford Harris Library. When she is not writing or managing the library, Debbie enjoys spending time with her family.


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