My daughter spent her first thirteen months in an overseas orphanage before I brought her home. She came to me malnourished, sickly, and developmentally delayed. I poured everything I had into raising her, and my reward was seeing her gain strength and begin to hit her developmental milestones. By the time she was three, she was in good health.
At four, however, she started to become angry and aggressive with other children and had spontaneous episodes of weeping. She would sob inconsolably and have trouble naming her grief, offering an ever-changing list of people, places, and objects that she missed.
Over her elementary-school years she grew pessimistic and suspicious, never trusting the world to be an abundant or safe place. Though I tried to prove her wrong through my devotion, she did not outgrow her rage and sadness. During her sobbing spells she began wailing, “I want to go home!” — this as I held her in my arms in the house where she had lived since leaving the orphanage at the age of one.
My daughter has been diagnosed at different times with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment issues, sensory-processing disorder, ADHD, and executive-function deficits. I’ve modified her diet, fed her supplements, and medicated her. She has seen dozens of doctors, therapists, and specialists. Many treatments have seemed to help for a while, but nothing has had a lasting impact. It’s as though I’ve been hacking away at a tenacious thicket of brambles: I succeed in eradicating them in one spot, only to turn around and see new shoots emerging.
Eventually I gave up on the idea that I could cure my daughter. As she heads into adolescence, I am trying to help her control her moods so she can lead a stable and independent life. I quietly hope for her to make it through high school without running off the rails. My biggest fear is that she will never feel at home in this world.
Sometimes, on a warm summer evening or mild winter afternoon, Dad would slip out the back door and walk up the road. He always followed the same path: through the overgrown apple orchard, then the cornfields, and back again — maybe a mile walk in all. He often came home with observations: The red-winged blackbirds had returned. The wildflowers were at their peak. The leaves on the old elm tree had finally turned orange.
After I left home, Dad would report on his walks in his e-mails to me, and they would bring me back to my childhood. Whenever I visited, I would find time to join Dad on a walk, sometimes with my kids in tow. We would talk about birth (my interest) and death (his profession), and then we’d stand still and listen to the bees in their hives, the birds in the fields, and the wind through the corn.
Dad says that once he gets a rhythm going, he feels as if he could just keep walking forever. All the same, we never go any farther on our walks than the overgrown orchards and cornfields. We don’t need to. Everything we need is right there.
Pleasant Valley, New York
This month I will be released from prison. I have been warned never to return to the small town that was once my home. My sister longs to let me stay with her, but her ordained-minister husband says no. The only shelter near my hometown that can accept me closes for the spring and summer one month after I get out. Because I am a sex offender, government-housing funds — including veterans’ assistance — are not available to me. I am not allowed to live near schools, pools, or parks. Anyone who is willing to rent to me must have his or her address listed with law enforcement on an Internet-accessible registry.
I have served my sentence, and I want to go home. I just don’t know where that is.
When I close my eyes, I can picture that building in the Bronx, New York. There is the stoop leading to a dingy hallway. I remember the stink of piss and stale beer, like a bar after closing.
Our apartment was on the fifth floor, and as a kid I was always afraid someone was following me up the stairs. Our neighborhood was filled with crooks and hustlers. The tenements on both sides of the street were all painted gray, as though the painter had run out of every other color. There were no trees.
I hated going home after school because I never knew what kind of mood my mother would be in. She was a Greek immigrant who’d had an arranged marriage to my irresponsible, alcoholic father. After he had left her, I often found her lying in bed depressed, the smell of Bengay permeating her room.
I was the youngest, the one she took out all her frustrations on. I dreaded her screaming rages. “Go! Get out!” she’d yell, with a smack to my head for emphasis. “Go and live with your father!”
I would have packed my bags and left, but I didn’t know where to find him.
My bed was a living-room sofa with broken springs. I longed for a room of my own, a place I could go for privacy. Even the bathroom door had a busted lock.
Eager to leave, I got married at nineteen. The marriage didn’t last, but I was grateful to my ex for bringing me to California, which feels like my true home.
Every year at Greek Orthodox Easter I go back to New York to celebrate with my relatives. My family has left the Bronx, and we all now live in comfortable homes. At a recent family gathering I was talking to my sister, who had married someone wealthy. After a few glasses of wine I asked if she ever thought about that apartment where we’d lived in the fifties, about how poor we’d been.
She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Never!”
I set foot on U.S. soil for the first time on December 21, 1987, three days before my eighteenth birthday. My mother had sent me, the eldest male among my siblings, to the United States so that I could escape conscription in war-ravaged Nicaragua. She had made me promise to be good, to steer clear of drugs and gangs and crime, and to make her proud.
I was both terrified and excited. I had no idea where I was going, and I was torn between the thrill of freedom and the pain of leaving my mother and siblings behind. I made my way to Los Angeles and lived with my mother’s sister, where I often felt like an unwelcome guest. I attended high school, made a few friends, and found work after graduation. I spoke to my mother regularly and updated her on my life. I missed my home.
After ten years I decided to return to Nicaragua to visit, but I didn’t tell my mother of my plans. Instead I instructed her to go to the airport to meet a woman who would deliver some items I was sending home.
When I exited the plane, I saw my mother on the other side of the window, looking for this unfamiliar woman in the crowd. She made eye contact with me several times but continued searching. She no longer recognized me, now that I had grown into a man of twenty-eight. I waved frantically, tears welling in my eyes. When she looked at me again, I mouthed, Mama, it’s me!
She couldn’t get to me quickly enough.
Los Angeles, California
After our parents were dead, it fell to my sister and me to clean years of accumulated mess from the family home. We’d both moved far from Missouri, and we put off the task for months. I think we weren’t emotionally ready to step back into that house. Finally we scheduled a week to work there together, enlisting our husbands to help.
We parked our rental cars in the narrow driveway, which was shadowed by large trees and overgrown hedges. My sister started to cry as we stepped onto the front porch, and I fought back tears. Our husbands, who have never liked each other, looked for a reason to argue.
I unlocked the door and stepped inside. Heavy drapes covered the windows. I opened them wide to let in the daylight and saw waist-high piles of magazines, mail, newspapers, boxes, and clothing everywhere.
Clearing the place wasn’t easy. We had to keep our husbands working in separate parts of the house to avoid a fight. My sister and I didn’t get along so well either. We are complete opposites in personality and politics. About a year before she’d died, our mother had told me her only wish was that my sister and I could someday be friends. I’d tried not to laugh.
Our plan was to keep only what had sentimental or monetary value, but my sister wanted to preserve anything that had belonged to our mother. I didn’t care. Without my mother, none of it meant much to me.
After three days we were all at the end of our abilities to make decisions and be civil to one another. Feeling defeated, we let a dealer purchase the remaining items. The house had an endless list of code violations, so we agreed to sell it to a business that renovated run-down properties. By the time we left town, the four of us were barely speaking to each other.
Two years later I returned to Missouri to take care of some estate matters, and curiosity brought me to the street where our parents’ dark little house stood. All the tall trees and hedges were gone, the siding was painted a sunny yellow, and the house had a sparkling cement driveway and attractive landscaping. At first I thought they’d bulldozed the place and built a replica.
I stepped onto the porch and knocked. A young woman answered, and I explained that I’d grown up in the house and would love to see the changes they’d made.
Her husband appeared, and they invited me in. Lots of people had asked to see the place, he said: mostly neighbors, but, just a couple of months earlier, another woman who said she had lived there had come by.
My sister. This was the first I had heard of her visit. Surprise and a tiny pang of guilt washed over me. When was the last time we had spoken?
The couple gave me a tour. Sunlight flooded the living and dining rooms, and there was a lovely master suite and brand-new kitchen. This was the house I had always wanted to live in, not the hundred-year-old derelict that had been my childhood home.
Returning to the front door, I thanked them again. The young woman said, “You and your sister are so much alike.”
She obviously didn’t know us.
“She told us you would want to see the house, too,” she added.
When I got back to my car, I took out my phone and took a picture of the place to share with my sister. Checking my list of contacts, I realized that her number wasn’t there. We never called each other.
Pulling out the estate papers, I found my sister’s telephone number and made the first of many calls, just to talk.
Chicago was in the midst of a bleak autumn downpour as the last school bell rang. My cousin Cookie and I put on our jackets, said goodbye to our kindergarten teacher, and went outside to wait for Nancy, the neighbor who walked us to school and back. We waited patiently as the building emptied, and then the playground, but Nancy was nowhere to be seen.
The doorway we were standing in offered little protection from the rain. We were beginning to get scared. Cookie started whimpering and then crying.
Her mother and mine were sisters who stayed at home, in an apartment our families shared, while our fathers worked. It was the beginning of World War II. Money was scarce. Neither family had a car. Our mothers depended upon Nancy, and she had always been there.
“Do you think Nancy’s ever going to pick us up?” I asked Cookie. I said maybe we’d better just walk home by ourselves. Cookie shook her head. We needed to go, I said, before it got too dark. She shook her head harder. I took her hand and tried to pull her, but she just cried and wouldn’t move.
I let go and said, “I’m going.”
I was frightened to walk by myself. Home was a good mile off, but I knew how to get there: straight down a busy street that was always filled with buses and trucks. I made the trip as fast as I could.
When I knocked on our door, I was soaked but smiling and feeling proud of myself. Aunt Mae answered, looked around, and screamed, “Where’s Cookie?” I was so startled I could barely breathe. My mother hurried over. “Where’s Cookie?” she echoed.
I started crying as they pulled me inside and removed my wet clothes. When I tried to explain what had happened, the angry looks on their faces surprised me. They said I shouldn’t have left Cookie standing alone in the rain and that I shouldn’t have come home by myself. I’d made a terrible mistake.
Fifteen minutes later a policeman arrived with a drenched Cookie in tow. I was glad to see her home and all right. My aunt swooped her up, and I sat glumly by and watched as Cookie — who hadn’t had the courage to walk home, who’d cried and cried — was showered with hugs and kisses.
Forest Knolls, California
Leaving home seemed like the right choice. I’d lived all my twenty-four years in Montana, and the unknown called to me.
I soon found myself teaching English in a Japanese village. In the beginning I hoped simply to last the year. As time passed, however, I fell in love with Japan.
After three years my contract ended, and I had a difficult decision to make. If I stayed in Japan, I would miss the sharp Rocky Mountains and deep winter snows. I would miss the dry heat, the trail hikes, and the Christmas celebrations. And I would miss family and friends. If I returned to Montana, I would miss Japan’s rainy season, my neighborhood bathhouse, and the feel of a tatami mat beneath my knees. I would miss kindergartners clad in yellow hats and red backpacks, warm shōchū on cold nights, and morning greetings of “Ohayo gozaimasu.” And I would miss my adoptive family and friends.
I returned to Montana because, although I loved Japan, I would forever be a gaijin there: an outsider.
More than a decade has passed since I returned to Montana. My roots here have deepened with marriage and kids, while my Japanese has grown rusty and my contact with friends in Japan less frequent. Strangely, though, my resolve to go back there has strengthened.
In Japan it is a tradition to go home during a festival called Obon. Families gather for three days in their hometowns to dance, spend time together, and honor the ancestors. My ancestors are not Japanese, but there is a part of me that is at home only in Japan. Someday, during Obon, I will return to the doorstep of my adoptive family to be welcomed home, if only for a little while.
I got on Interstate 90 in Seattle and didn’t leave it until I reached eastern New York. A feeling of despondency had grown in me as I crossed the country. When I passed the Welcome to Massachusetts sign, the panic attack hit: racing heartbeat, feeling of impending death. I pulled off the highway to find some Xanax in my bags.
I was heading for Attleboro, the factory town where I’d grown up, to move my ninety-eight-year-old mother out of her assisted-living apartment and into a nursing home. She hated assisted living, but she hated the idea of a nursing home even more. I’d had sole responsibility for her ever since my older brother had died of a heart attack five years earlier.
I’d fled my hometown at the age of nineteen, hitchhiking across the country to Berkeley, California, drawn there by its countercultural reputation. Although I had flown back now and then over the years to visit my parents, I was never comfortable in Attleboro. Increasingly the place looked like a town in a Bruce Springsteen song: empty factories with broken windows, a city center with boarded-up storefronts, the only thriving businesses liquor stores and beauty salons.
Now I had to untangle my mother’s finances, which would soon be depleted by the nursing-home bills. Her home of sixty years had to be emptied and fixed up for sale. Though I did receive help from two older cousins, I was lonely and miserable. On top of everything else, that winter was the worst in recent years. Then, on Christmas Eve, I hit a huge buck and totaled my car. I half jokingly told one of my cousins, “I think this town is trying to kill me.”
Prescient words. Early one morning in February I woke with a terrible pain in my chest. My arms felt too heavy to move. I called one of my cousins, and she called an ambulance. When it arrived, I climbed in, and bang: my heart stopped.
I regained consciousness many hours later, after heart surgery.
In the weeks that followed, my mother died, and I sold her house.
Next year will bring my fiftieth high-school reunion. I’m not planning to attend. I still believe that town wants to kill me.
When we came home from the hospital after our son’s birth, I immediately shrugged the bags off my shoulder and set to work unpacking dirty clothes. (I have this compulsion to unpack right away after a trip, always in a hurry to restore order.) I noticed my wife, still exhausted from the delivery, lifting our son from the car seat into her arms. “This is our couch,” she whispered, walking about. “And this is our kitchen.”
This shriveled, squinting baby, who hadn’t even learned to hold his eyes open, couldn’t comprehend any of this. Yet she went on showing him the nursery, the crib, the artwork still leaning against the wall where we meant to hang it. I stopped to watch. The laundry could wait.
I had known my wife as a lover, a friend, a traveling companion. Now, as she opened the back door to introduce our son to the garden, I saw her anew. I didn’t need another way to love her, but there it was.
Growing up, I saw my father fix just about anything that wasn’t working properly: electrical, plumbing, automotive, mechanical. He seemed to relish the challenge. He was by no means a warm and welcoming parent, but my brother and I took pride in his abilities, trusted his logic, and sought his advice.
Even after I got married and my wife and I were both teaching school, I would sometimes go home to ask my father’s assistance. On one such occasion my car was running badly. He quickly identified the problem and helped me correct it. I was about to leave when he asked how my wife and I were doing. I said that we were trying to decide whether we should have children. Because we spent so much time with kids at our jobs, we weren’t sure we’d have the patience to come home to more of the same.
My father said, “Well, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have kids.” This didn’t mean that he didn’t love my brother and me, he explained, but since we’d left home, he and our mother had had the time to enjoy each other more.
Though I was accustomed to his brutal honesty, this candid response was unexpected. I thanked him for his help and left.
That was forty years ago. Many times since then I have recalled that conversation with a variety of feelings. Apparently he said what I needed to hear, because my wife and I have no children, and our love still grows. But I sometimes wonder how different my life might have been if I hadn’t gone home that day.
Santa Monica, California
In August 1973, one week before my seventh birthday, I was on a transpacific journey with my mother and four brothers, heading to the United States from the tiny Pacific atoll where I’d been born. My father’s defense contract as a radar engineer was ending, and his stint in the Marshall Islands was over. It was a three-leg, fifteen-hour flight that took us first to Hawaii, then to Los Angeles, and finally home to New Jersey.
My best friend’s family had left the island one year earlier, and I had pined ever since to be reunited with her in the States, despite having no real knowledge of what life in the U.S. was like. In my island childhood I had known only our crime-free community without cars or cold weather; bare feet, sunsets, and snorkeling over the coral reef; my mother painting ocean scenes while I biked freely around the island until the six o’clock whistle called me home.
Squished in a cab in a Honolulu traffic jam with honking horns all around me, I experienced the sinking feeling you get when you realize that you didn’t know how good you had it until it was over — and now you’ll never get it back.
Westmont, New Jersey
I first came to Maine when I was ten years old. The youth leader of our Manhattan church had spent time in York County, and he wanted to expose us city kids to nature. He took us on a three-day canoe trip down the Saco River. I didn’t own a sleeping bag or a backpack, so I shoved all my belongings into a Samsonite suitcase. When we got to the water, the youth leader repacked my belongings into a garbage bag and wedged it in the bow of the boat. I perched on the front seat as we took off, a long line of wobbly canoes filled with anxious preteens already slapping at mosquitoes.
Three days later, when we left camp, I was confident enough to sit in the stern and steer, and I dragged my paddle deep in the water, almost wedging it into the mucky bottom, because I didn’t want to leave the river. I wanted to wake up again and again in the tent, where I had wiggled out of my army blanket one morning to watch a moose wade along the riverbank and duck its antlered head into the water for a long drink.
I live in Maine now, but I will always be a child of the city. I still lock my car wherever I park it, even if I am in the middle of a meadow. Many animals remain unfamiliar to me. I know a pigeon when I see one, and a rat. My niece once laughed at me when I pointed to a red bird and called it a “robin,” proud to know that robins are red. After informing me that it was a cardinal, she asked if I’d grown up in a box.
Perhaps I did. But here are the things I love about the city: I love that you can leave your apartment at any time of day or night and find someone else hurrying down the sidewalk. I love the skyline, a jagged horizon of activity and life. I love the noise of taxis pulling away, of footsteps approaching the subway station, of voices on every side of me. In the city you’re never alone. In the city you’re part of something, and that something is the city itself — an enormous, breathing entity.
When I moved to Maine, friends cautioned that I’d always feel like an outsider here. They reminded me that I’d never so much as mowed a lawn. But what they didn’t understand was what I’d learned at age ten, when I’d seen that moose dip its head into the sunlit river while my tentmates slept: that our forgiving world lets you enjoy a red bird or a green tree whether you can name it or not; that nature struts her stuff for you and welcomes you home, no matter how long you’ve been away.
During my term of volunteer service in northern Nicaragua, “going shopping” meant walking five minutes down a dirt road, past children playing marbles and chickens pecking in the dust. The destination was a general store in the front room of someone’s house. When I walked in, Marvin or his wife or one of his sons would come from the living room to sell me what I needed. The offerings were basic: Coffee, potatoes, and sugar by the pound. Matches and batteries. Shampoo and bars of soap. A few shirts they had brought from the market in Somoto. Boxes of stale cornflakes and bottles of Coca-Cola for the gringos. Marvin would put my purchases in a plastic bag and add their cost to the handwritten tab he kept in a spiral notebook.
A few days after my return to the U.S., I ventured out to a shopping mall to replace my worn walking shoes. The department store seemed enormous, and I wandered past the racks and racks of clothing, feeling disoriented. The bland music, the fluorescent lighting, the strong smell of leather and rubber in the shoe section — all of it gave me a headache. The attendant brought me box after box of shoes to try on, explaining the differences between the various pairs. Afterward, as I walked to my car, I accidentally hit the panic button on my key chain, setting off a shrill alarm. There in the sprawling parking lot of West Towne Mall, five miles from the house where I’d spent my childhood, I burst into tears.
When the fire chief came to evacuate our neighborhood, I reluctantly began to pack, figuring we would probably return that evening, after the wildfire was under control. I told my ten-year-old son to pick out his favorite toys and put them in the car. Just before we left, I grabbed the broom and swept the kitchen. Then we drove away from our home of more than ten years. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and everyone looked solemn and scared.
The next day we went back and found that our house was gone, along with the rest of the neighborhood. We walked up the stone steps to our lot, which seemed much smaller now that it was empty. The ground was too hot to stand on. When I thought of all that I had lost, I was too shocked to cry.
Our home was well insured, and I had a good job, so we weren’t devastated financially. At night I would lie on my futon — a gift from a co-worker — and contemplate my new circumstances. Once the initial shock had worn off and I’d had a chance to cry, I actually felt pretty good. I owned nothing. All those things I’d thought I needed and had carted around for so many years were gone forever. When people expressed their condolences, I would smile and thank them, but privately I would marvel at my newfound freedom.
I eventually moved to a seaside town where I had always fantasized about living. Twenty-one years after the fire, I still own very little.
Santa Cruz, California
I grew up in the Green River valley of south-central Kentucky in the forties and fifties, on a family farm operated by my grandparents and their three sons, who had grown up on the land. The family was almost completely self-sufficient. My grandfather had a gristmill and ground cornmeal and whole-wheat flour. We grew nearly all our own food except for white flour and processed sugar. We butchered our pigs and cured the meat by salting and smoking. We had cows for milk and butter and chickens for meat and eggs. My father had an apple orchard, and in the fall we would make cider. We grew sugar cane and had it refined into molasses by a neighbor. We never wanted for anything.
I went away to college in 1960. In the late sixties the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to build a dam on the river about twenty miles downstream from my family’s farm. Many farmers, including my parents and grandparents, fought the plan, but to no avail. The residents were forced to leave, and all the buildings and trees were bulldozed. My family moved to another farm a few miles away. When I came to visit during that time, I witnessed the destruction. A new highway and bridge were being built across our former farm. The entire area looked like a wasteland.
The next time I returned, the valley was covered by water. If I had been dropped in by helicopter, I wouldn’t have known where I was. I walked out onto the bridge and looked across the new lake. Gone were the one-room school where I’d begun my education, the small church my family had attended for generations, and the nearby creek where baptisms were held. Gone was the swimming hole where my brothers and I swam in the summer after a day of farm work. Gone were the rich, silt-laden fields in which my family had invested their lives. I remembered my father calling to his mules as he plowed the fields for planting. I imagined I could hear my mother’s voice as she tried to round up her kids for supper.
Although I continued to visit my parents at their new house, it was never home. My home is gone forever.
Mom and I lie side by side on the living-room floor in the little tract home in West Orange, New Jersey, where I graduated from high school. She still lives in this house with Louis, her second husband. The freshly vacuumed carpet rubs against our bare arms. Our feet are up on the couch, and dust motes shimmer in the warm shafts of light coming through the front windows. We’ve spent the entire day talking and have ended up just lying here quietly, looking at the ceiling.
I haven’t been back for ten years, and in that time I’ve learned to breathe. I no longer feel the panic of claustrophobia I did before I left home. I don’t feel the choking grip of depression that finally drove me out as a teenager. The boxy rooms of this house don’t feel like prison cells anymore.
I’ve flown across the country because Mom’s Alzheimer’s is progressing rapidly. She’s at the point where she still has moments — sometimes the better part of a day — when she’s lucid enough to be scared of losing her mind. Today she says she’s managing, but this is just a valiant attempt to show me she isn’t afraid. I saw her wear the same mask too often when my brother and I were young. She cried sometimes, but never in front of us.
She gets tired easily now, much more than you’d expect for a woman in her late sixties. Hence our prone position. She has aged dramatically since her diagnosis. Her once-beautiful hands are withered, the skin translucent.
Around us are reminders of the past: The chair in which my father would sit and read in my early-childhood home in Tucson, Arizona, as I peered around the corner, afraid to bother him. Photos of my mother and father as newlyweds, and of my brother and me looking serious on a postwar spring day. Then there are the more recent souvenirs Mom has collected while traveling with Louis: symbols of her newer and better life, after her first family.
I’ve told Mom that her granddaughter is doing well, which I know makes her happy. I’ve told her about my new wife in Oregon, whom she has never met. Mom doesn’t say much, but she smiles slightly. A child, a wife — these things make her feel that I am finally safe. During my teens and twenties she watched me lose my grip to drugs and worried that she would outlive me.
As the angle of the sun grows longer, the moments of silence stretch out between us. And then she speaks: “I want to tell you something.”
I wait, listening.
“I’m sorry I beat you so much when you were a child. . . . I was just so frustrated, I didn’t know what to do.”
I didn’t see this coming. “It’s all right, Mom,” I whisper. “It wasn’t so bad.”
Usually it was just a slap to the face. Once in a while it escalated to a command to go to my room, take off all my clothes, lie down on my bed, and wait for a whipping. The long moments anticipating the belt or the hairbrush on my bare skin are more memorable than the actual pain, which was over quickly. You expected corporal punishment back then: from teachers, from parents, from camp counselors.
I picture my young mother, almost still a girl, left with two willful boys and no family around to help her, scrabbling to make ends meet. But she always tried to be there for us. Lying here on the floor, I understand that now. She did her best.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Going home is hard when you don’t know where home is. I feel connected, of course, to the place where I grew up and to my family there, but I’ve spent less than six months in that city in the nine years since I turned eighteen.
Each place I’ve lived has left its imprint on me, and there have been many. I’m still a sucker for the hills of Iowa, the cicada-filled cornfields and the endless blue skies that saw me into childhood. I miss Seattle, too, with its mysterious calm, the romance of clouds and sea and trees older than Western civilization. The list goes on: India’s assault of colors, smells, and dust; Italy’s crumbling ruins and trashy discotecas; Russia’s bitter cold and hard beauty.
Even as my mental maps of these places fade, I hold each of them in my heart like a past lover, to revisit on nights when I’m feeling lost.
At the age of twenty-seven I’m still hoping to find a place in which to grow old, a place that will catch me in its net and hold me. When it happens, I hope I will be wise enough to let it.
I grew up on a farm but was never a fan of manual labor, bugs, or flannel. I was a bookish, thoughtful, introverted boy. You might even say I was dainty.
The most difficult part of life on the farm was the chores. My father would create long, detailed lists of them for me to complete every weekend. No matter how hard I tried, my work was never up to his standards. Depending on his mood, this usually meant I had to endure some verbal or physical abuse as punishment.
Some days I would ignore his lists completely and find other things to do. For instance, rather than pulling weeds, I enjoyed organizing our toolshed. I’d sort loose nails, nuts, and bolts by size and shape into leftover plastic margarine tubs. Sometimes I would even sweep the dirt floor to make the place look tidy. I was never asked to do this chore, which served little purpose compared to the more pressing work on the farm, but it appealed to me. Would my father notice? No. All he would see was that I hadn’t pulled the weeds, and another punishment would ensue.
When I was nineteen years old, I left the farm, escaping to a big city to live with my boyfriend. One summer morning, after several months of independence, I decided to go home for my first visit since moving out. As I pulled into the driveway, I saw my father sitting in the yard, repairing our lawn mower. I parked the car and called to him. The first thing he did was tell me to go get him a crescent wrench.
I trotted off to the toolshed, my hopes for a pleasant visit quickly fading.
The shed had become a mess in my absence. As I scanned the scattered tools and equipment, it dawned on me that I had no clue what a crescent wrench even looked like. For all the time I had spent with these tools, I’d never bothered to learn their names or what they did.
I grabbed what I thought was right and hurried back to my impatient father.
“What’s this?” he said. “Pliers? Don’t you know what a goddamned crescent wrench looks like?” He flung the pliers across the yard.
At that moment I realized that I didn’t have to take this. I didn’t have to be yelled at and made to feel stupid. I had my own home that I could go to.
And that’s what I did: I shut the car door and drove off.
Until my forty-year-old mother was apprehended in a mall, threatening shoppers with a butcher knife, we were an ordinary postwar family. I was seventeen. Devastated by what had happened, I walked with my head down as school friends fell away or spoke in hushed tones behind my back. I knew what they were saying: Her mother is crazy!
Mom was ordered by the court to receive institutionalized treatment. Every weekend for the next two years I made the 160-mile round trip by bus to the state hospital, where disturbed patients were kept under lock and key. I couldn’t believe the woman who had filled our home with piano music, tucked us in at night, and taught me how to bake brownies and drive a car had turned into a strait-jacketed mental patient.
When I pleaded with the psychiatrist to let Mom out of her padded cell, he said, “Look at your mother! She’s pissing on the floor and raving incoherently. Face it: she’s insane.”
The diagnosis was schizophrenia. I tried to look up this strange word in the dictionary, but I didn’t know how to spell it.
Slowly, as her medications and the electroshock therapy took effect, Mom began to recognize us, and she stopped babbling. Her symptoms faded over time, but she never went back to her old vital self.
After two years Mom was scheduled to be released. In preparation for her return I washed the floors, dusted, and cleaned till everything shone.
Dad drove us to the hospital to pick her up. On the two-hour drive back to our house Mom bit her nails — something I had never seen her do before. She confided that she had been raped many times in the hospital and that every gift I’d sent her had been stolen. I dug my own nails into my palms and looked out the window as we pulled into our driveway.
It was late spring, and my father’s roses, which grew along the walkway and on trellises against the house, were in full bloom. Mother sat in the front seat of the car and stared at the scene, her expression flat. We sat in silence, waiting for her reaction. After a long moment she asked, “Is this my home?”
“Goodbye for now.”
“We’ll be back next week.”
“Take a walk down the hall.”
“See what’s on TV.”
“It’ll be sooner than you think.”
These are the sounds of adult children leaving a mother or father after a Sunday visit to the assisted-living facility. The apologetic voices seem to linger in the hallway after the “kids” have reached the parking lot.
The parents commiserate later at the dinner table. There’s a sadness. An empty feeling. A clench in the stomach. A quietness.
When the visitors are here, they bring togetherness, family, love. But after a while they just stand there awkwardly. And then they return to their cars. They have their own lives to live, their own offspring to love, their own problems to solve, their own marriages to preserve.
They go back to their homes, obligation fulfilled, leaving their mother or father alone in the room, gazing out the window on a gray, rainy day.
Years ago I was flying from Miami, Florida, to Washington, DC, and back every weekday for work. My husband, Tom, always stayed up to hear my key in the lock. He would lift me off my feet, hugging me so tight I could hardly breathe. “Welcome home,” he’d say, “mi vida, mi reina, mi amor” — my life, my queen, my love.
One night, shortly after his sixty-fourth birthday, I came home to a darkened house. He was sitting on the bed without a shirt. His skin was a greenish yellow, and the whites of his eyes were golden.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
The diagnosis was inoperable pancreatic cancer. At most he had six months to live.
Despite Tom’s illness my employer refused to change my hectic schedule. No longer able to stay up and wait for me, Tom instead placed votive candles in every window, and on the kitchen counter, and in the dining and living rooms, guiding me to the glow of more candles in our bedroom. His body was wasting away in the bed, but his loving spirit still welcomed me home.
He lit those candles faithfully until a few days before his death.
It has been fifteen years since Tom died: the same number of years we were married. At night, when I come home, I sometimes think I see a candle glowing through the darkened window, and my heartbeat quickens. But it is only the moonlight shining on the windowpane.