One of the biggest issues for me in leaving the place I called home for many decades is being cutoff from what had been my core identities. I had several over the years and most were jettisoned for different reasons — I was a printer who left the business to raise a family. I was an elected official, known for having taken on an entrenched incumbent and setting off a storm of legal controversy; I left that behind in order to focus on being a mother to a gravely injured child. I was a realtor until I needed the security of a monthly paycheck and health insurance for my kids and me. I was a homeowner until I had to sell my house. I was a wife until there was no marriage that required one. The most basic and important of these roles for me was being a mother. I didn’t turn the noun into a verb. I didn’t sanctify the job or ballyhoo it as heroic, but did acknowledge it as the most difficult job I ever had. I took it seriously, embraced its deep pleasures even as I bemoaned the frequent moments of loneliness and depletion. The days when my kids talked to me endlessly, I reminded myself that there would be a time when I would welcome the sound of their voices. As they pulled at me I worked at focusing on the tactile pleasures of their warm, soft skin. While tending their lavations I took pleasure in the beauty of their young limbs and torsos. Certainly there were many times when those moments were not held close but provoked annoyance and frustration. But for the most part, I have taken great joy and pleasure from my kids. I found as they grew older and the challenges greater, the rewards and pleasures deepened. I am now inhabiting a world that has not seen me much as a mother. While I have the privilege of being an old and loved friend or cousin, I am not known as the parent to my three remarkable children. No one here knows them for their bravery, beauty or skills. There isn’t anyone who is grateful for their loyalty to their own child or for their humor and generosity. Since I seem to belong here in so many ways, it is not readily apparent that I feel as if a huge chunk of me is missing. Surely there is an inevitability to continuing one’s life without your children being the central focus of your time and energies. One can actually gauge a measure of success as a parent by one’s children’s abilities to negotiate the world successfully and independently. It is also common to experience some level of discomfort in addressing the “empty nest”. I feel like my nest has been stolen from me, and them. Like much of my sense of dislocation, it is exacerbated by the absence of the things that make one feel at home. I did have an inking this might happen as I packed up. I left packing my vanity until the last minute which in addition to its expected contents also held most of the kids’ legal documents. I shoveled most of the stuff into a carton that I would take with me — the nail care bag, passports, magnifying mirror, birth certificates. I knew that it would be best not to have those items somewhere in the labyrinth of the storage facility. What I also added to the box was a framed photograph of the three kids and me taken over 20 years ago in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. The other day feeling particularly lost, I unwrapped that photo. The sounds of the carousel; the lush cushion of the grass beneath us; the moist, sweet smells rising from their hair as we posed for their dad to snap the picture now come back to me from the kitchen counter where the photo sits, just above the sight line behind my computer. You never stop being a mother, so you must keep finding your pleasures where you can find them. This picture will do for now.
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I think there is no better example of the remarkable changes between the neighborhood that I left and the one to which I’ve returned than the two linear blocks surrounding the Duquesne Heights Incline. I described earlier the active and necessary businesses that thrived there when I was a child. Things started to change when I was in high school as more people had cars and went to supermarkets instead of the small purveyors of specific needs like meat, fish, thread or prescriptions. Interestingly, the bookie joint with the ancient mayonnaise jar in the window was an early closure, gone not long after my uncles’ pharmacy became a hair styling place. It was to this area that my father decamped after being justifiably thrust out of our house for truly terrible behavior. My fear of being stuck between two warring parents, like a much less telegenic version of the original Parent Trap, informed my miserable reaction to this change in our household. In reality, it was quite wonderful in many ways because Daddy was mere blocks away, visited us at whim and didn’t stay to torture Mummy at every juncture. I also had a place that sometimes served as respite, which was more welcome as I grew into adolescence. He moved to a row house a few doors up from the fascinating and historic incline. There were many distinctive characteristics of his location, the most noteworthy that it was 9-1/2 ft. wide… from the outside! Lord knows what sorry circumstances brought someone to erect the building, but when he moved there, one walked into a narrow alley and entered the side door into the first floor. Daddy’s apartment was on the second floor. It could have been called a railroad flat to give it a cache that it didn’t deserve, and I know old railroad flats! To call another comparison, the front held a bed/sit. There was the hall, full bath and at the other end, a large kitchen with sitting area and access to the roof and one of the great downtown Pittsburgh views. The supremely odd, and to the young me off-putting, part was that the stairway that went through the middle of each floor was completely open with no doors providing privacy. This offered a colorful backdrop for my encounters with the changing array of upstairs neighbors. They were a fragrant lot, as Daddy would say. There was the wild father of a wild friend who was nearly always accompanied by women as his son would soon be. There was an older cousin who was battling the same demons that killed his father and bedeviled my own. A newly minted Viet Nam vet who took me riding on his Harley passed through as well as others less distinct in my memory. The anchor of this neighborhood for my father wasn’t the transportation or the dry cleaner, but that other necessity: the local bar, the perfectly named Hut. My mother became a denizen also, frequenting the back room, reached through a side “ladies entrance.” It was verboten in the 1960’s that any female would either want to or be permitted to drink at the bar accessed through the kind of swinging doors usually seen in westerns of the era. Of course,those doors did swing the other way & the men from the bar would come back and visit with the distaff patrons. It occurs to me as I write this, my parents probably spent the most time within close proximity at The Hut in those years. Certainly not always in communication, but it was at least the site of the greatest propinquity accompanied by the least conflict between them. When I was in college, I went into the bar at The Hut, which satisfied a decade long curiosity and appalled Mummy. I returned several times when I would visit. Here is my favorite Hut story: Once a notorious local sot bought me a drink. This was, indeed, unusual, for I had bought him drinks on several occasions. Upon hearing this, my father was astounded, not being able to cite a precedent for the event in said sot’s 40-odd years of drinking. A few weeks later, Daddy called to report that my benefactor had died. “And, kid,” he said, “I know what he died from. Remorse for buying that drink.”
Over the decades, the sites with views gave over to restaurants, the shops on the other side of the street were torn down and a few high rise apartment buildings took their place. And there, stubbornly, sits The Hut; a bedraggled two story building alone in a small prairie of parking lots. The owner, heroically to some, foolishly to others, waited for his price. And it didn’t come. So as valets swished past, parking the cars of patrons of the swankier neighbors this place carried on. I’m sure there have been students from surrounding colleges who found this dump romantic. I myself had enjoyed quarter beers at longshoreman’s bars in NYC’s far west side. But when I walked in one late night a few years ago, and it was so unchanged, so completely charmless that I turned right around and walked out. Word was out a few months ago that the place had sold. My response was not exactly “good-bye to bad rubbish,” but more along the lines of “finally!”
What brought this all to mind was my visit the other night to a new,elegant restaurant down the street from my dad’s old digs, between his place and The Hut. From there with their fancy cocktails and their lime and coconut hot popcorn bar snacks, I looked at the view that I had shared with Daddy on hot summer nights. Certainly not the same view, but a nearly identical perspective on downtown Pittsburgh. It’s not exactly the same because the narrow place that housed my father for nearly a decade has been removed along with a half dozen others, saved from tumbling over the cliff by demolition. They were built atop defunct coal caves older than the former business district and nearly anything else in the history of this neighborhood.
I looked out and was awash in satisfaction at how beautiful my city looked on a glorious, long-awaited early spring night. As I walked out I noticed that the neon bar signs for Iron City were lit at The Hut, which had been shuttered for a few months. I am surely not without misplaced nostalgia; but I walked past, refusing to enter, as I continued to bask in Pittsburgh’s 21st century beauty.
Thanks to Legends of Pittsburgh for the image of the rainbow 4/6/2015.
I saw a rainbow yesterday afternoon. The soft colorful arcs are one of the few biblical symbols that I still embrace. I was taught that they were a sign of hope. In the context of the end of the 40 days and nights of rain that lifted only Noah and his ark to safety the rainbow promised that it would never happen again. It is very hard to see a rainbow and not feel promised something. Now to break it down and ask who is making the promise and how could it be delivered is to press logic onto feelings, an unsteady amalgam. I merely allow myself to feel good upon seeing one as I did yesterday.
Bear in mind that I am no idle rainbow sighter. For some, encountering a rainbow is a thing of serendipity. Knowing that rainbows are a meteorological phenomena does nothing to diminish their charm for me. When there is a sun shower I dash outside and scour the horizon for a rainbow. I’d say I run about 60/40 on catching one. I also have a broad definition of a rainbow. I count those that have two imperfect or partial arcs as a double rainbow. If I can see most of the spectrum, however slightly hued, I count that as a rainbow.
So it was yesterday. I was parking my car at the market, when it started raining with the sun shining brightly. I quickly put the car back in gear and headed towards the clouded part of the sky to the aptly named Grandview Avenue. It provides a panorama of much of Pittsburgh — its three rivers, downtown and all of the ‘burgh to the north. And there it was, a sweet, barely nascent, but wide, crescent of colors. It grew into a more tangible rainbow, if there could be such a thing, and slowly a second one bloomed above the first.
I’ve written elsewhere of the challenges this move has provided me, and when I watched those colors arise out of drops of water and sunshine I felt reassured about everything. It was nearly 70 degrees, something that seemed distant and unlikely only a week ago The city glimmered beneath its partial corona, damp, warm and welcoming. I was basking in the vision with a clutch of tourists and youngsters still on vacation. In those few minutes all of us with our disparate expectations and world views became a community through science in action. It was lovely.
What’s the big deal?
Over the last few months I have said my good byes to many people, places and things. It started with my determined watch of each sunset out the windows of my beloved apartment. I had a tearful moment with my daughter, M, at MOMA saying adieu to some of my favorite paintings there by Rousseau, Mondrian and Monet. I hugged the postal worker from my former village. I visited my attorney for a final chat. I dined with warm, kind and loving friends. I spent as many hours as I could with M who remains in NYC, for whom Pittsburgh is a distant unknown.
The last day I hung out with my oldest NY friend, whom I met the day I moved to NYC, a former roommate of my sister and of mine. That was perfect, not only for the symmetry it gave the occasion, but because he provided enormous help in clearing out everything from my apartment. We ate a lunch his wife had packed us sitting in his van looking out at the mighty, frozen Hudson.
The biggest intellectual problem I’ve had during this time, is taming the urge to see everything in symbolic and metaphoric terms. When I left Westchester with but one key for my car, the impulse to view this as emblematic of my nomadic (not to say homeless) status was huge. I tried to address this by joking, “do you need a key ring if you only have one key?”
The confirmation of my divorce which came in the mail the other day brought far too many temptations to see that event as an affirmation, or at least confirmation, of the break from one life to another. The inability for Spring to arrive, the loss of any number of things in this latest move, those items that I should have brought and sit in storage; all these and more dance in my head in capital letters as some sort of small-bore manifestations of the greater changes in my life.
Now I am sleeping across the street from the house I grew up in. I can look out the window in my bedroom and see the tiny two-bedroom house where I lived from the time I was born until I left for college. Unlike many things from childhood, it does not look smaller. It always was small, certainly too much so for the six of us who once lived there.
I like to think that I am not someone who sees my life in dramatic ways, but as I lay in bed this morning, I realized not only my proximity to my childhood home, but that I was actually sleeping in my mother’s bed! This does require at least an exclamation point if not capital letters. I can’t actually assign this enormous meaning, but it surely is damned strange! Upon reflection this is much like the time has been for me since I returned to Pittsburgh: familiar and strange.
My absent hostess and first friend, J, reminded me shortly after I arrived that the bed had been Mummy’s so I did have knowledge if not cognition. When we sold the house across the street, we didn’t move most of the furniture with our mum into her assisted living apartment. Each of us laid claim to some things and there was a great deal that none of us wanted, or maybe wanted but had no place for. The bed was in the former category. It wasn’t something that we had grown up with. Mum had bought the bed late in life, after Daddy died. We were happy that J wanted it, because she had been so kind to our mother. So it made the trip across the street, just as I have. Its journey was more direct than my own. And so when I arrived on St.Patrick’s Day I made that bed and every night I lie in it. Hell, there’s a metaphor right there, and I didn’t even create it!
Travelling with Tiko
A recent article in the New York Times addresses the attractions of having pet cats, and challenges the misconceptions of women who do so. The piece was timely for me because I have been thinking of what a pleasure it has been for me to have my cat, Tiko, with me over the last few years. First when I sold my house and moved two miles away I was pleased that my outdoor cat could still access fresh air through a cat window that led to my third floor porch. During the last weeks as I have left New York and returned to Pittsburgh, I’ve realized how lovely it is to have a living creature that has been a constant during these transitions.
He is sweet, occasionally loud and very tolerant. When I go to bed, he burrows himself next to me and purrs so deeply that it sometimes feels like a relaxing ultrasound vibrating the tension from my stressed body. I am deeply fond of him and enjoy him not in an anthropomorphic way but precisely because he is a cat. He is soft, small and warm. He likes to sit on me as I read, wanting to be pet, but is just pleased not to be shooed away.
I would guess that most of my life I’ve lived with a cat. As a child we had a series of cats from the gorgeous and excellent mouser Panther to the sweet Puff. Their roles were to keep our house rodent free, a goal that went rather awry when my sister G had a hamster for a pet. Her short lived parakeet met his fate at the hands, or claws, of another of our felines. We also had pet turtles that had unfortunate tendencies to somehow escape their glass worlds; we found one months after it had gotten loose, its desiccated body shrunken into is soft shell. There were any number of gold fish and angel fish. I don’t remember any baby chicks at Easter, but do recall at least two rabbits that followed the example of the Velveteen Rabbit and ran off to join his wild peers; or so my mother claimed.
What was odd about some of these pets was the haphazard way that they came into our house. The beautiful Puff was a prize that my sister N won for her excellent artwork in a contest run by the local “educational TV” station. We sat at home and watched as she and Daddy marched across the set of the predecessor of Mr. Roger’s TV show to discover that she won a kitten. I vaguely remember my mother muttering about this. The rabbits were gifts from a convent where one of our priestly uncles served as confessor. I firmly remember my mother’s irritation at this bit of generosity. Fish came from bazaars and a family a block away who sold them from their basement. As I got older, I remember wheedling my mum for a cat trying to wear her resistance down, until I was the only one left at home and spent most of my time “loafing” on street corners and I no longer cared. But many of these creatures arrived in our house without pre-approval.
I often joke that I and my sisters were nearly feral, that there were few limits imposed upon us either by custom or indifference. One of the wonderful aspects of this was the chaotic sense of life that this begat. Animals came and went. While there were strictures that were enforced at school and church, those at home were malleable if extant. In my own family’s life, I had tried to create a world that was steady and boring in its regularity and I failed. When I put my Tiko in this context, it is no wonder that I am grateful for his constancy.
My apartment now looks as if someone is moving. That is good I suppose, if it is real evidence of progress being made. I’m not so sure that’s the case. If it is progress, it surely is accompanied by chaos. I’ve started with china and crystal, which coincides with the pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. That is apt: both foreshadow something happening soon but without any real indication of how things will turn out.
I am going through a remarkable amount of newspaper. I also have on hand the fun packing stuff: bubble wrap and bio-degradable peanuts. The latter are a wonder; they weigh nothing and dissolve in water. They will also disintegrate into a thousand tiny pieces when they land underfoot which they do with an annoying frequency. My dining room rug has small mounds of this white sand and my hope is that they don’t somehow bond with wool they way they do with water. Where is my son the materials engineer when I need him?
After packing medium-sized boxes with serving platters, bowls and other odd shapes, I started in on the upper reaches of the kitchen cabinets. I really must never say again that I don’t have enough bowls. Eight pie pans, is that sufficient for one person? If I ever host Thanksgiving again, will I make eight pies? I don’t think even I did that in my heyday. How about souffle dishes? I’m down to a mere three large ones and four small ones, leaving aside the eight tiny ones? What did I ever use them for? Olive pits, as I recall, but eight of them? Bear in mind this was after a terrible purge of things unused, unwanted, cracked or stained two years ago. I’m seeing I wasn’t a merciless as I thought I had been.
As the days get longer, my time gets shorter
One of the great joys of my apartment has been watching the Hudson, especially the sunsets, for the last two years. As both the month and the time for me to pack get shorter, it is nearly six o’clock and the sun is still lighting the sky. It has dipped below the highlands across the river, but it has left a glorious peach hue on the horizon and blue, purple and golden tints on the ice-covered river.
My views are best without the trees’ leaves to interfere and I won’t get to see them leaf out this season. I should not be admiring the scenery. I should be packing and sorting. I did this just two years ago which will make this easier in many ways. But since I don’t move often the upcoming relocation is harder because it seems to me as if I just did this. I’m getting past seeing this as a disaster, rather, to use a current tech term it is a disruption. However, by both age and predisposition, I am disinclined to disruptions. When the kids were younger it was common parlance among parents to talk about a child’s ability to deal with transitions. It was years before I recognized that it was I who had trouble with them.
After we had rented for a couple of years in our “wait-and-see” phase of suburban living it came time to buy. I said that we had to stay in same small school district because D had been in three schools in four years, and she shouldn’t have to go through that again. She was eight. No, I admitted to myself, I didn’t want to start over. I was feeling at home, had friends whom I cared for. I had a life that I wanted to keep. And so it went. We bought our house, watched our children grow and thrive. We watched them in their sports, attended an enormous number of concerts, plays and exhibits. We entertained, walked in the woods, celebrated many birthdays and holidays.
We endured financial difficulties, sent our oldest off to college and felt our marriage fraying. When our middle girl, M, was hit by a truck three weeks after she arrived at her college, she sustained a hideous traumatic brain injury (TBI) and nearly died. All five of our lives were irretrievably altered by that incident. Life since then has been a series of transitions. I would like to think that I have managed them better than I did those between vacation and back to school. It is absurd, of course, to put them into the same category. One of the advantages of having endured the days, months and years of M’s recovery is that most other upheavals seem insignificant.
I worked in unpleasant circumstances that drove colleagues mad and my attitude was, hey, nobody’s dying! I have been out of work for a year and I’m getting a divorce (homeless,loveless and jobless), but I am satisfied with my life in general because the kids are all great. So here I sit watching the colors on the horizon deepen and the room in which I sit grow dark. However, the boxes that surround me are not packing themselves and the time I have to manage my next transition is slipping into the shadows.
The glass floor
It has become all but inevitable that I must leave New York where I have made my life for 40 years, about equally divided between Manhattan and Westchester County. The latter is where I am beginning to dismantle the fragile structure of my remade life after the unraveling of my marriage and family. I have fought the concept as I went through unemployment benefits and my small retirement funds. I am now faced with responsibilities that I must meet — car payments and insurance, phone, internet and utilities — for which I have no resources. I also must begin the official end of my marriage which has been on the books for nearly 35 years, in addition to finding homes for some plants that predate that event and for belongings that have accumulated among the five lives that were once under one roof and now are in other emotional and physical states.
It is a daunting set of tasks, perhaps having been made more so by my inevitable optimism. Over the last year of being out of work, I have found many jobs that have interested me and I, in turn, have created interest. These multiple applications and interviews have kept my innately bright view of the world in place. The times that a particularly well-fit job did not pan out left me — in sequence — disappointed, bereft, then disappointed again. I cut my emotional losses and in the end and I would feel abysmal for an hour or so, and after a cup of tea, better. This last is a good example of how wanting to feel good can work as a very effective coping mechanism. The fact that I allowed myself to misread my situation through the myopia of optimism for the last year is evidence of its darker side.
It seems, however, that now that I have come to grips with the truth of my situation, it is echoing back to me everywhere. The jobs I turned down for being too low-paying revisit me, begging for second guessing. The most recent answers to requests for information or help, are decidedly stand-offish, “I’ll keep this in mind;” from a man with whom I have worked and even served on his Board at his request, “no interviews yet, Erin. We’ll be in touch if/when we want to talk to you.” Yes, no need to read these tea leaves. Less reason to think that I can make my financial obligations with no income.
I have looked for part time work, explored “gigs” on Craigslist, signed up for consumer field work, borrowed money from friends and family, applied for and received food stamps and applied for and rejected for “emergency assistance” [welfare as we know it post-Clinton] because my rent was “too high”. I enrolled in Obama care, and am pending a review for renewal because I cannot provide pay stubs. I fear another trip to Social Services is in my future in order to get Medicaid.
My financial mess has had a painful effect on my children, who have already suffered through so much. My youngest, and only dependent, cannot depend upon me financially. I have had the excruciating experience of borrowing and accepting gifts of money from my daughters.
Most of my life I have said that I am free of embarrassment, and that remains true. Standing in line at the supermarket and having one of my purchases rejected on my “food stamps” card (EBT) had no personal affect on me. Spending fruitless hours at Social Services made me only more empathetic towards the millions who are faced with the same circumstances every day. Not being able to take care of my family has left me riven.
Let us all understand that to “take care of” means, almost primarily, taking financial care. There is so much that flows from that: roof overhead, food on the table, emotional stability. Without a sound fiscal floor, the house of cards begins to teeter and fall. Because of my confidence in a good outcome in most things, I continued to say that I would take care of things and assure myself and others that my station was temporary. As weeks and months wore on, I can’t imagine what those assurances felt like to my kids. The idea that I dealt them empty promises haunts me. Worse case, the fact that my youngest’s return for winter break brought him face to face with my perilous situation and made him anxious, the feeling I refused to make my own. It is much worse reflected to you from your child.
I have been visiting a place where I had spent years, but had never seen in quite this way. I recently returned from the cave of my former spouse’s mind. I was surprised how easily I remembered its labyrinths. When I lived there I couldn’t always find my way out and I was inured to the scent of the wet dust of nursed resentments and the angry eddies in its cold streams. These often led to lovely open caverns where the unnatural light bathed us in its glow; I tried to prolong the visits to these welcome spaces. Too often, I was led off, following willingly through the treacherous, darkened passages that were familiar, but ever-changing. They showed few exits. Occasionally sunlight would pierce this world through narrow openings I would claw against these hollows seeking a way for us both to get out.
That work took often took too long and I would find myself outside, alone.
The idea of home is usually freighted by many divergent and personal responses. This is especially true as I am discussing a recent return to the neighborhood in which I grew up. The idea that I consider the place that I spent 17 of my 62 years as home seems ludicrous. Surely those were the most basic, formative years; but where does that place my four years in college, or several more as a single working woman living in Manhattan? What about my life as a wife and mother for the last 30 plus years and where we raised our children?
I think that maybe this visit, as the many before, merely confirmed what it knew: that my family, combined with those years in my working-class, ethnic Catholic neighborhood have formed how I have reacted to everything since. I think, too, that this is not unique, nor is it always inspired by good behavior. There were plenty of bad habits of mind and otherwise in my home.
What is particularly wonderful about this is that my close friends from fifty years ago and I can greet each other in ways that are both the same and different. One woman’s “hey girl, where have you been”, is another’s “oh my God, I can’t believe what my mother just said. Sorry, how are you?” They translate the same. “I know you, we are safe with each other and we are going to have a good time.”
There are a half dozen of us, not always at the same time. We have a couple of outliers for whom we see it as our duty to bring back to the fold. If we can make contact, we promise no recriminations, only hilarity and fun and stories never completed that are not always hilarious. We run the gamut of adult difficulties, but our shared experiences are not really about commiseration or direct support. We tell stories we want each other to hear because we will all agree, or they know e-x-a-c-t-l-y what it’s like, or because we know that no one else will get the humor, no matter what the circumstances, the way we do.
I recently read a review of a biography of John Updike which reported that Updike, after living in Ipswich, MA for many years kept few of his friendships after he moved. On the other hand, Updike maintained lifetime friends in Shillington, PA, outside of Reading, where he grew up. He felt Harvard robbed him of some of what was essential to him according to the author. I was not in such lofty precincts at Penn State, and I do remember some breaches, mostly healed, among my small, beloved group; but I will forever acknowledge and deeply enjoy the pleasures of my dear, long-held friendships as I continue to call Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh home.