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


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.

Obama Saved Me

Deirdre & Ben's wedding, Saturday Sept. 13, 2014. in Mill Valley CA.  (Photo/Douglas Healey

M at her sister’s wedding, Saturday Sept. 13, 2014. in Mill Valley CA.
(Photo/Douglas Healey)

September 24, 2008 my daughter M was hit by a truck as she returned to her dorm after a cross-country workout. She had been at her college for just a few weeks, and was by her account happy for the first time in her life. She nearly died from a traumatic brain injury which left her in a coma for a month. She had deep brain bleeds, shearing in her brain stem and severe bruising to her right frontal lobe where her skull had been fractured. It was hideous.

When we transferred her to NYC for her in-patient rehab, in the first attempts to orient her, therapists asked, “who is the president?”  Not knowing how long she had been unconscious, upon hearing that it was Bush my poor child was bereft, thinking that he somehow managed a putsch. When she discovered that the election was yet to be held she was relieved and excited to cast her first presidential vote. When we filled out her absentee ballot for Obama, it was the first time she wrote her own name after her injury six weeks before.

After the election M wrote Obama a letter telling her story. It was written by hand in many colors and embellished with drawings. She asked him to do something to help the many Iraq veterans who were returning with TBI’s. It was charming and compelling. He wrote her a gracious reply that was her most prized possession. I had it framed with a transcript of the letter she had sent him on the back. She took it with her when she returned to Swarthmore in the fall.

Three years later when I sold our house, she hadn’t taken it to the dorm with her. She reminded me that I had to be sure to bring it with me. Whatever I did with it, I cannot find it. I’ve searched repeatedly. There were so many things that didn’t make the move either by design or happenstance. I had to deal with the belongings of five people’s lives single-handedly. It was December, I was sick. Yes, I understand how this could have happened; but more so I understand M’s complete furor that it did. One object of the hundreds, thousands I was responsible for! I’ve sadly said my goodbyes to the porcelain ginger jar I had brought from Japan for my parents which housed my father’s ashes before we spread them with my mother’s. It was too bad about that crystal mantel clock that was left behind!  And yet I have my mother’s wedding gown and her first Holy Communion veil. But not the Obama letter.

Every time it comes up, it causes fresh anger for M and pain and guilt for me. When I packed up again a few months ago, I hoped that I would find it but I didn’t. I spoke to my congresswoman’s chief of staff who recommended that I write and ask for a copy. When I arrived here in Pittsburgh I did. I reported to POTUS that with enormous effort M had graduated in seven semesters rather than the usual eight; that she was thriving in NYC. I told him that of the many changes that were put into motion that awful September afternoon, if I could have a copy of his letter it would allow me to attend to one aspect of our altered lives.

Today I received two envelopes in the mail from the White House. The letter addressed to me expresses President Obama’s relief in M’s recovery, encouraging words to me and, most compellingly, empathy as a parent for the pain of watching a child suffer. The other is for M; I will forward it to her unopened. Will it be the same letter he wrote six years ago? Will there be a different one reflecting the coda of her recovery and courage? We are both hoping that it is a replica of his first, kind letter. Whatever the letter contains, it brings with it a measure of relief and gratitude that I cannot fully express.

I am also certain that it will be perfect. The letter to me was dated June 26th in the midst of what has been called Obama’s greatest week: Obama care upheld, marriage equity became the law of the land and he delivered his soaring eulogy for Charleston murder victim Clementa Pickney. At the same time, whoever authored the messages to M and me, President Obama took his pen to paper to sign a message of personal support and concern.

M and her siblings asked what I had said in my letter to the president and each expressed surprise at some of the details I included when I read it to them. What I was guided by was the deep desire to make clear just how much his effort had meant to us. It was important to me that he see how brave and successful M has been negotiating every day before and since her letter to him. In retrospect, it was confessional: I told the leader of free world that I made an enormous error and needed his help to rectify it. He did.


Before Thursday, Charleston, S.C. was mostly a city that I visited on my honeymoon exactly 35 years ago. Its beauty was undeniable, the food was great; every white person dressed in pastels and nearly everyone who served us was black. And of course, Spoleto had come a couple of years before, so clearly it was cultured.

Then there was that awful murder by cop several weeks ago.

And now I am struggling to find a way to deal with the mass murders. I am too embarrassed to make some claim on this tragedy. I am a white atheist, so I have at least one thing in common with the murderer. I am a woman, which tilts me closer to the six females who were killed. I have found that it is getting harder to negotiate this event as time goes on rather than easier. People box out their positions calling Roof a terrorist, madman, racist, psychopath.

He most certainly was a racist. That is the most central point.

The extraordinary grace shown by his victims’ survivors yesterday actually has contributed to my unease. The essential beauty of their forgiveness robs me of my right to hate and uncouples hate from any legitimate action, at least for me as a white woman. This has provoked a challenge for how to then react. Silence seems a decent option when the air is filled. Stupid, defensive talk vies with wise and thoughtful words by people who know this phenomenon in a real way. Banal calls for understanding and empathy fill in the rest of the discussion.

I know this in my core: too many are comfortable in their easy bigotry. This young man spewed his racism freely before he shot up that church and it raised no alarms. He lived in a world where this was not considered aberrant. How many of us engage with people who express bigotry in phrases that might be cloaked in different language? Prejudice is deft at finding new ways to communicate despicable ideas — it is one of its greatest tools for perpetuating its ugly intentions.

My only right to comment on this is the American humanity that I share with both the killer and the killed. We should all focus on what differentiates and aligns us with both sides of this event. No one wants to see themselves in Dylann Roof, but he is a son of our nation and thus ours. I cannot see myself as one the prayerful dead and I cannot lay claim to the glory of their relatives’ view of redemption. All of this has left me lost and miserable.

A time for Four Seasons

I just read that the Four Seasons, the inimitable shrine to modernism and fine dining in midtown Manhattan is going to move. The news awoke deep and joyous memories and, like far too many things lately, brought tears to my eyes. I’ve had a fair share of meals there — celebratory dinners, business lunches. I was never among those who sat powerfully in the grill room, and preferred sitting in the luxe pool room watching the air roil the chain curtains on the massive windows. We toasted a friend’s long-awaited graduation there as an errant champagne cork popped into the pool, and marked birthdays and anniversaries nibbling rolls from their cunning bread trays.

What sprung most quickly to mind, though, was my first meal there. Our mother came from Pittsburgh to celebrate her birthday with her daughters. Over the previous years we all had migrated to the City and it was the first time all four of us had lived in the same town in more than a decade. Mummy came alone, leaving Daddy behind. She, and we, wanted the Four Seasons for dinner.

It was the mid-70’s, I was younger than my oldest child now, and my mother was about my  current age. I was working in the printing business and living in the 47th St. Diamond District. My oldest sister was still committed to her radical politics, my two other sisters were involved in an evolving spiritual cult. It was a time when it was impossible to overdress for something like this, but I only remember that Mummy was wearing a gorgeous green Chinese brocade sheath.

Our reservation was a bit early, since we did not have the cache to secure a prime 8:00 seating. As we entered the pool room on that warm August night, I was transported to the Manhattan I had read about, to the city I had dreamed of living in. It really did seem as if nothing bad could happen here, to quote Capote about another meal in a different institution. While the captain did haughtily correct my sister’s pronunciation of truite bleu,  the rest of the meal was seemlessly presented and beautifully paced. I’m sure we had a birthday desert, but that recollection, too, has escaped me.

As the meal was finished, my sisters talked about the commitments they had to return to — child, husband, boyfriend, housemates. I had nothing that required me, and I was frankly annoyed that they were running off so early in the evening. Mummy had insisted on paying for dinner, and I felt strongly that she should not return to her hotel to digest it.  She had come to New York, we had to do something!

My relationship with my mother was fraught, more so than many less so than some, but it was complicated and often dicey. I was, however, determined that she, who ventured here alone to celebrate with her girls, was going to have a good time. I hadn’t been here that long and wasn’t quite sure where we should go to accomplish this. I opted for after dinner drinks at Sardi’s. It was someplace she knew of & it always held a sort of louche appeal for me. We went to the upstairs bar, ordered our cocktails and Vince Sardi chatted with us. The place filled up during surrounding theater intermissions and afterwards when we asked Sardi where we should go, he suggested  Jimmy Ryan’s one of the only remaining jazz venues in midtown, where Roy Eldridge led the house band.

Eldridge, known as “Little Jazz”, was a virtuosic trumpeter from Pittsburgh. My mother was an admirer. We again parked ourselves at the bar. When I stopped by the stage to leave a tip and ask if he would dedicate a song to my mother, he willingly obliged and his next tune was for “Lady Grace, from Pittsburgh.” During his break, he joined us for drinks and he & my mum talked about old jazz joints in Pittsburgh. He was flirty and charming and he left us both in a swoon. We stayed for the last set and stumbled out into the summer night giddy and laughing.

Neither of us wanted the night to end. We went back to the Pierre and happily found the little bar there still open. After last call, we headed to the ladies room. Upon exiting, we discovered we were locked in a hallway that led to the locked bar. We found this hilarious in the way that only drunken people can, and our shrieks of laughter alerted someone from the silent lobby who came and rescued us. It was the perfect ending to a perfect night.

It is unlikely that one of the best nights I had in NYC was with my mother. It serves as a virtual time capsule of a time and place;  a uniquely NY evening marked by world class dining, great music and kindnesses in unexpected places. It deeply saddens me that the Four Seasons will join so many other places in living on only in memory, but I am thrilled to have this one.