On Jan. 9, the last full day of my visit to my hometown in Texas, I made an odd request of my folks.
“Will you ride with me out to Sotogrande and see if we can find our old place?”
We have only two “old places” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The most notable is the house we moved into when I was four years old, where my mother and stepfather raised four kids, where they outlasted every neighbor we had until, in early 2013, they up and moved to a new place a stone’s throw from my old high school.
And then there’s Sotogrande, the apartment complex where my stepfather, Charles, lived when he fell in love with my mom and moved us down from Casper, Wyoming, to live with him. At that time, forty years ago, it was one of the swankiest places you could live in the cluster of humanity known as the Mid-Cities. It adjoined a nine-hole golf course, had lots of swimming pools and boasted a nice set of tennis courts. It wasn’t hard to understand the appeal to Charles, a divorcee and father before Mom and I came along.
Of course, time brings changes. I hadn’t seen Sotogrande in twenty years or so. It’s undergone a few facelifts, and the name I knew it by is now a relic, replaced by “Westdale Hills,” a change for the worse, if you ask me. It’s a little rough around the edges. A friend tells me there’s a bit of a crime problem there.
Time had gone to work on us, too. For a while, we couldn’t find the damn apartment. We drove in and out of cul de sacs. We stared at informational signs. And then, finally, something clicked for Mom. From the backseat, she said, “Turn in here,” and there it all was. On our right, the swimming pool where we whiled away summer days. Dead ahead, the sidewalk where I learned to ride a bike. And there, on the corner, the steep flight of steps to our door, No. 116.
Charles likes to tell a story about me from that short time we all lived at Sotogrande. In 1973-74, he was still trying to make inroads with a little boy who would come to consider him both best friend and role model. One night, he called me in for dinner, and I came shooting up the stairs and through the front door.
“What are we having?” I asked.
Charles leaned down, scrunched his nose and said, “Liver and onions.”
“Woohoo!” I said. “My favorite!”
I don’t remember this, but it’s become family lore, right along with “a guuuuumbaaaaaall machine!” (don’t ask) and “that’s not just unbelievable, that’s incredible” (really, don’t ask). As we looped through the parking lot, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine the little boy I was bounding in front of my eyes and tearing up the stairs, just another day in a life that was undergoing remarkable change in those years.
Part of that change lay in the designs my folks had for their own lives. By the end of 1974, we’d be ensconced in that three-bedroom house on Crabtree Lane. In early 1976, my sister, Karen, joined us. Another two years brought my brother Cody. Keith, the older stepbrother I’d received by way of marriage, lived with us for stretches. A neighborhood thick with kids and single-family homes made more sense than a small two-story apartment.
So why was it so important for me to see Sotogrande on this visit?
In part, it was just the character of the entire trip. I visit my part of Texas irregularly—sometimes it’s a year between visits, sometimes a year and a half, sometimes just a few months—and every time I’m back I have to account for the rapid way in which it changes. Transformation happens where I live, too, but I can deal with that, as I assimilate it day by day. When I’m in North Texas, on the other hand, I have to play catch-up. Open spaces get gobbled up and stores and houses and schools are spit out in their place. The contours of roads I thought I knew change, sometimes drastically. On this trip, I spent hours in my rental car, sometimes with a friend but often alone, looking for traces of the familiar amid transformations. Sometimes I found it. Sometimes I just shook my head and tried to remember a different, younger time.
Sotogrande, though, was more than that.
You see, I have so many memories of my short time there. The first dog I loved, a stray dachshund we named Sniffer, was found there. I learned to navigate a relationship with a brother after being an only child. I saw my mom grow happy and contented. I found a man who was willing to raise me as his own flesh and blood, and let me tell you, that’s a remarkable thing.
Sotogrande gave birth to my earliest strung-together memories. Everything before it exists in whispers of recollection. I knew I loved my dad back in Wyoming. I knew he lived in Casper after we were gone. Little snippets of recall remain in my head, but they unravel quickly, and they’re out of order. Sotogrande, on the other hand, represents a real era in my life, a period both lived and remembered.
I enjoyed seeing it again.