My House

20170524_170040I bought a house; in fact, I bought my house.  It belongs to no one but the bank and me. The life of the mortgage will almost surely outlast my own. In that sense, buying a house is, like planting a tree, a life-affirming action.

What makes it mine outside of the debt I carry for it, it that it represents an ideal that I had held most of my life but never fully articulated until I started looking here, where I am replanted, in Pittsburgh. It is, as a friend has named it, a “Pittsburgh house.” It was a type that I had grown up around, but surely not inside of. It was a style I had always admired as providing a solidity and expansiveness that was outside the experience of my own childhood home.

Every house comes with a history. As a child, I was told that two families at one point lived in our tiny then century-old house, evidenced by the china cabinet in the basement. Apocryphal or not I grew up believing that our furnace room was the site of a suicide by cyanide, which seemed reasonable in the context of the grimness of the surroundings. Certainly the fifty-year tenure of the Malloys produced its own tales.

But this is what I know about my house. I purchased it from an Latin American immigrant who was raised in Pittsburgh and married his high school sweetheart from Langley High School. After their graduation, they were married; then undocumented he was detained and deported. The awful details of this part of his life were made into a play produced locally. He and his wife prevailed and he returned to do the nicest rehab on a distressed property (real estate speak for foreclosure) in my price range. I love this part of the story of my house — the hardworking immigrant making good on the “American Dream” by working and dreaming.

The other side of this history is that foreclosure. It is, by definition, nearly always a tragedy. And so the woman who had been foreclosed on has her history.  I know a few things about her. She is in her fifties and grew up in an adjacent neighborhood that I will not characterize. When she was in her twenties she was arrested for having sex in a Pittsburgh public pool in the early morning hours with the mascot for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was reported at the time that he lost his position. When she next appeared in my search she had been arrested a few years ago for breaking and entering into a place of business where she had formerly worked. The accompanied photo looked as if it could be used as the  face of white opioid  addiction in Western PA.

This is my take on all that: I, the oldest Pittsburgh Boomerang, will be living in a house tragically lost by a white person whose life was likely undone by the declining circumstances of the working class economy in the Steel City. That house was brought to new life by a once-undocumented immigrant. Over the next several weeks, as I wash the windows and floors I might burn some sage to expunge the tragic part of this story. What I am bringing is a new chapter preceded by my own high and low points. I think my house and I are well-matched.

Giving thanks

thanksgiving-04

I love this picture of our Thanksgiving a dozen years ago. As all photos, it holds a moment in time. I look at it with a sense of deep familiarity coupled by an equally profound sense of distance. Friends and family gathered at our table eating, drinking, talking and laughing.

I notice the two college freshmen, home from school for the first time, the new high school student flashing her winning smile, my pre-adolescent boy with still plump cheeks. I linger over my now departed sister caught not long before her diagnosis, my niece and nephew in young adulthood.

I think about our friend who took this picture, who also photographed my parents as well as my wedding and that of the pictured first-year coed. I love the warm tones and candlelight, and knowing that the lights out the window are from the Tappan Zee Bridge. It must have been warm, because there is no fire, but I don’t remember.

I see the red paint from an art project gone wrong on the awful chair that my sister sits in. I can just barely remember the puppet that is hanging creepily by the book shelf. I get remembered pleasure from the gilt frame that held my former husband’s ancient hack license with an image of him that we used to joke made him look like a terrorist. Plates, serving dishes and linens that I mostly still have; silver candlesticks that have gone by the wayside along with the ficus tree, the marriage and the house overlooking the Hudson.

So many changes, but we all sit together blind to the future in this lovely moment. As I prepare for a much smaller celebration, awaiting the arrival of two of my kids, I give thanks for the beautiful holidays that I have had: the Thanksgiving that preceded this one, held in our garage with the floors covered with old carpets and the ceilings tented with sheer metallic fabric, lit by tiny Christmas lights and  warmed by rented heaters. The holidays shared with our brownstone neighbors that went all night fueled by too much of everything. And my first Thanksgiving away from home when I was a college freshman, captured in this photo:state-college-thanksgiving

Yes, I give thanks for all the people shown in these pictures here, alive and dead; for my beautiful sisters with whom I survived our childhood Thanksgivings; for my friends near and far; and for my wonderful family, friends and colleagues in Pittsburgh who have given me the gift of calling my new city home. But most of all I am thankful that my three children will share food with me, whether at my table or over the phone as they nibble the special holiday treats I have sent them. I look forward to giving thanks in my renewed awareness that I have much to be thankful for.

Let the other guy be the bastard

daddy-and-meLet the other guy be the bastard. One the many aphorisms my dad, born 103 years ago today, would declaim. It was always one of my favorites. It fit into my world view more comfortably than “if you’re going to be a rat, be a long-tailed one,” with his dubious attribution to my saintly grand father.

I heard hopeful echoes of this sentiment in “love trumps hate.” In fact, I have heard more about “love” in the public sphere recently than I have since I was 15 years old and a participant in the Summer Of Love, albeit from PA. I was heartened by this. It saddens me, but would not surprise him, that another of his other favorite axioms describes what I anticipate most after this election, “Let’s live a while and see injustice done.”

Daddy was an interesting man, certainly the most influential person in  my life. He was brilliant, charming and the most well-read person of his generation I knew . He was completely uninhibited by consistency, without a nod towards Emerson whom he found effete.  His thoughts were delivered with no concern for constancy.

Happy Birthday, Daddy, and as you often said, “You’ll never know what you’ve done for me. You’ll  never know.”

School’s out…

For the first time in more than 25 years I approach the start of the school year without a student in my household. I’ve bought not a single backpack or pencil; no torrid visits to sporting goods stores or angst-filled purchases of extra long sheets.  This fall I will read the new books and wear the new shoes myself.

I miss the excitement, but not the expenses; the anticipation, if not the anxiety. Most of all I miss the kids who brought that welter of feelings as I think of them with joy and wonder in the beautiful, accomplished adults they have become.

I lost an old friend yesterday

I had known him since first grade. His life and mine took very different trajectories, intersecting most significantly in late adolescence and late middle age. We lived on opposite coasts. We kept up with each other’s lives through the many close friends we had in common. He made me laugh more than anyone I’ve ever known. He came back into my life when laughter was a sorely needed commodity.

I grieve for his widow and family and for his many friends. But I grieve most for the girl who, in his words and memory, was beautiful, smart and brave; mourn for the person he thought I was: kind, unafraid and strong. RIP, Billy.

Forget “carpe diem”, I “nominare die”

I dropped my last kid off for his last semester at school. Among the three kids, four years of college and two semesters per, there were quite a few precedents for this. It could be easy arithmetic to determine the exact number, but there was a semester abroad, an unexpected disaster, and at least one time when I didn’t do the dropping. Nonetheless, I have done this dozens of times. Each time after a clingy hug from me, I give a soulful look and good wishes, most often quoting my dad with, “knock ’em, dead, kid,” or one of his other exhortations of love and confidence.

I also have a rather unfortunate tendency to mark these moments as particular milestones for me and my children; hence the first sentence. When my oldest was turning 10 I told her that I was about half done with her. It had an unexpected effect on her, as if I were going to turn her out into the cold when she was 20 or so. Maybe I should have said, more accurately, that she was about half done with me! My view then, and borne out now as she enters her 30th year, was that your influence as a parent waxes and then wanes as the double digits add up. By the time they graduate from high school, you are done in many ways as a parent.You and they might even spend the next 20 or more years trying to undo some of that influence.

I don’t say any of this with great ruefulness. Some of my greatest pleasures as a parent have come from and with my kids after they left high school. They are interesting, fully conscious adults, a pleasure to behold and to engage. I am also the person that cried at the last day of elementary school for each of my kids. This could sound like mourning, but as these kids would tell you, I cry at anything! So my tears represented a depth of feeling; they were the product of reviewing a year in each of their lives. I am lucky that those years were nearly all high points; the low ones marked by the really, really bad math teacher, the witless class parent or the screaming soccer coach.

Oddly for people born in NYC and raised there and Westchester, my three offspring went to three different schools in the same Pennsylvania area code: 610. One result of me returning to Pittsburgh to live is that I am now twice as far away from all  of those schools as I was in New York. So the drop off for my son requires an overnight with one of my wonderful sisters cleverly situated near by. Another habit I have had when making these trips was to calculate the fastest, most scenic, shortest mileage routes to and from. My girls’ schools were a nearly identical commute, but I changed routes to see if their 10 mile separation produced new options. Need I say that these were occupations for my trip back after I deposited them? An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, as the good nuns would say — and did with numbing regularity.

As I drove away from my son’s house, I started to calculate the time and distance between him  and my sister’s house, and I realized that this would be useless information, and it was then that I fully realized that this was the last of these moments. I say fully because that night, after we got the snow board bag, clothing, Christmas and birthday gifts safely inside A’s house, I gave him a very long hug and said only, “I love you.” Not because I didn’t want the ghost of Jack Malloy whispering in his ear, “tell ’em where you got it and how easy it was,” or because I didn’t wish him anything  other than the success he has earned. It was because I will never be in that situation again and I was mute with the impact of that. What I also know is that is the truth of every moment.

Neighbors and their hoods

I’m sure that it has been noted before, but it is unsurprising that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was produced in Pittsburgh. It is a city that prides itself on its neighborhoods. It even counts them — there are 90! Some names reflect the immigrants who populated them: Polish Hill or Deutschtown; others their directional relationship to the three rivers: the North Side, East End. These are then often broken down even further: the North Shore, Central Northside; Central Lawrenceville,  Upper Lawrenceville, Lower Lawrenceville.

It should also be noted that this geographic banding does not always generate neighborliness, at least outside your own bailiwick. There is also an arbitrariness that some of those modifiers like upper and lower hint at. For example the area I grew up in was routinely called Mt. Washington.  That is what the street cars then buses that serviced us said on the front. There are two inclines that run up the side of the hill, called funiculars elsewhere, one with the name Duquesne the other Monongahela. We did not refer to our side of the hill as Duquesne Heights, it was all the Mount. We did call the neighborhood past the other incline, “the other side of the hill.” I’ve always thought its denizens called our spot “the other side of the hill.” A few months ago this nomenclature hit a height, or depth, of controversy on a Facebook page dedicated to this community with people insisting that it was always called Duquesne Heights. I demurred. I also ultimately left that Facebook page not because I felt strongly about it, but the opposite: to quote my son when chiding me about my standards of cleanliness, “why do you care so much?”

Yesterday I went to the local pool where I and every other kid from Mt. Washington – both sides of the hill — spent entire summer days. As I filled out the form to get a tag for the summer the last question asked after address, etc., was neighborhood. I was charmed by this official recognition of identity, as important here as other, more official municipal delineations. I put Mt. Washington.