A few years ago a friend asked me to write an essay about Home. This is what emerged.
Mom died when I was eight. Seven months later, Dad, my brother Sam, and I packed up and pulled out of our beloved Georgian brick house outside Washington, D.C. We left behind our cul-de-sac of dodge ball and barbecues, hide and go seek in our magnolia tree, and my favorite rose in the garden, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which was the color of orange sherbet. A neighbor removed Mom’s elegant silk scarves, the ones she tied gracefully off to the side to cover her bald head, the silver bell she rang when she wanted company, and her closet full of clothes from Lord & Taylor, donating them to our church. We left Mom, alone, buried on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery.
Dad’s next deployment in the Navy required he attend Captain school at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “Laurelawn”, a flat in a mansion on Bellevue Avenue, was home for the summer.
Then, in August, we shoved our belongings into suitcases and flew to Fullerton, California. Dad’s older sister and her five children looked out for us during the week. Dad had us on the weekends, when he wasn’t out to sea. Every Friday night, we rode the train to San Diego; every Monday morning he drove us back. This lasted for three years. At the end of this time, four of us relocated back to the Georgian outside of Washington, D.C. The fourth was Debbie, whom Dad met along the way.
Dad married Debbie. A year later, we came home from school to a note, “marriage isn’t my thing” and a house empty of her belongings.
A year after that Dad married Stephanie, an old flame. This time the Navy shipped us to a stucco bungalow in Aiea, Hawaii. Sam stayed behind to finish school. I went to the local school, where I was an outsider because of my light skin and blonde hair. After a year there, I moved in with Dad’s younger sister and her three boys in Pacific Palisades, California. I went to a Catholic school, but Hollywood reigned. My friends were daughters of celebrities. One classmate, Eden, got a red, convertible Mercedes for her 16th birthday. Cocaine was a favor at parties but I worked scooping ice cream at Haagen-dazs. Two years there and I was off to college.
Four years in college, including one in Paris, and I stuffed my VW Rabbit full and drove to San Francisco. I rented the basement of a house in Cow Hollow. One year there and my landlord asked me to leave–too many guests and too much steamed broccoli—both irritants to their life upstairs. This time I traveled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley, and bunked with friends. But I spent most nights at my boyfriend’s apartment in the city.
The boyfriend, Tim, got kicked out of his apartment because of The Illegal Tenant. Together, we gathered our possessions and encamped in a redwood grove at the top of Mount Tamalpais. What we fondly called a moldy shoebox—a studio with wall-to-wall carpeting–became our home. Six months later, we crammed a U Haul and ventured to student housing near Columbia University, where Tim was attending graduate school. We got married, and a year later moved into a maid’s apartment at the top of a brownstone on W 76th street. If we scaled the fire ladder outside our window we could reach the roof and see Central Park. We itched to own and found a possibility on the 12th floor facing south and west on the corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street.
Two weeks later, when I was visiting my brother in Poland, Tim called. “I spoke to the real estate agent this morning,’ he said. “It’s ours.” I put down the phone and didn’t sleep for a week. Every night I tossed and turned, terrified of the cost and the commitment to one place.
When I returned from my trip, the first thing we did was load up on protective eye gear and dust masks. We demolished cupboards, light fixtures, and meat hooks that were hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Everything was carted outside to a big dumpster. A crew from Home Depot rebuilt the kitchen; Tomo, with his improbable crew of 20, chatting in Cantonese, painted the walls; Mike, an English major from Columbia University, translated our sketchy designs into elegant bookshelves; and Sean, with his lilting Irish accent, finished the floors. Eight months later, we hauled in all that we had accumulated and stored at various relatives’ houses–furniture, lamps, boxes of books, photographs, bikes, skis, artwork, unopened wedding presents and clothes. We unpacked and moved in.
Every day after that, like clockwork, at 6:00 p.m. in my Soho office, I began to suffocate. My head ached, my mouth parched, my mascara, like a football player’s eye black, collected under my eyes. I crammed my things into my bag and ran out the door to the subway. The noise, smells, and delays on the train were insufferable. I arrived at my stop, hustled my way up the block to our building, threw a quick, “How was your day?” to Ronnie the doorman and punched the elevator button. On the 12th floor, I scrambled for the door, kicked off my shoes, and dove for the daybed.
Under our window, trucks passed, cars honked, babies cried, dogs barked, motorcycles reved, highways merged. Yet I sat still. Staring out at the Hudson River, I watched the brightly painted tugs towing the tankers. I unclenched. As the sun began to set over the polluted New Jersey skies, I breathed deeply. I walked to the stereo and turned on music, I danced. No one was watching. I was peaceful. I was home. I was settled. No more packing, no more being shipped, no more displacement. Twenty-three years after Mom died, I stopped moving. Finally.