Losing the Familiarity of What We Used to Call Home
In 2011, when I arrive at my parents’ house in Pittsburgh for the last time before they move across the country, I find wardrobe boxes in my old bedroom. In the kitchen, new appliances (toaster, faucet) have appeared, and the second floor bathrooms—tiny sinks; fifties tile—long ago merged into one spacious room, whose shower doesn’t take a year to heat up in winter. It’s as though the house knows my parents are leaving, and is shedding evidence of their presence plate by plate, wall-hanging by wall-hanging.
But of course, my parents did it, performed this sloughing, this find-and-replace. For what seems like years, even before the house went on the market, before my father announced his retirement, my mother has been packing, slowly planning her departure. She bought the mugs and glasses that don’t feel right in my hand or on my lip, replaced her own paintings of Mahalia Jackson and the California coastline with vintage record sleeves. At first it looks like my mother has hung her own records up. But I spent my teenage years listening to her collection of 33 1/3s—Bob Dylan, Lowell George, Joe and Eddie, Steve Goodman—and these are not albums she’s ever owned, or would even ever listen to.
When she left California to marry my father in 1982, my mother brought the items she would need to assemble a kind of altar to her promise to return. A roll-top writing desk that had belonged to her grandmother; a leather wine-holder she’d tooled in the seventies; a wool sarape her half-Spanish mother bought on one of her many trips to Mexico. In her basement studio, which doubled as our laundry room, she painted California landscape: the Golden Gate Bridge, the beach at Carmel, a waterfall at Yosemite. She painted from her own photographs, as if slowly, painstakingly enlarging her memories of her real home, and hanging them on the walls of her temporary one, would allow her a portal, an easier passage back.
In 2011, my own passage back home from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is easy, familiar: the exit off route 579, the Oz-like glimmer of Pittsburgh in the distance. The cruise through Polish Hill, the turns at a car dealership, a strip club, then a prep school. Our dead end street, where I learned to make a three-point turn. My childhood bed, one of the few pieces of furniture that’s survived the purge, sags and creaks and gives me a bad back, so I sleep in my brother’s room. There, my mother has left me a box of clothing: a mustard-colored sweater, a polyester bias-cut dress, a deep salmon silk slip. Her shrugging off of clothing is habitual, a seasonal ritual. I’ve learned, when I visit, to leave room in my suitcase for her hand-me-downs. In Ann Arbor, I pass off my own unwanted T-shirts and high heels to Goodwill and Kiwanis, to no one who knows me.
I am lucky to have had my parents’ house as a steady pedal-point not only in my childhood, but at Passovers and Jewish Christmases during my peripatetic post-college life and its accompanying markers of impermanence: plywood bookshelves, unframed posters, never seeming to own a thermometer or a broom. With the house as our stage, my parents and I can reprise a series of scenes that summarize and satirize our relationship. (My father needs fewer and fewer cues to burst out jovially: “I’m rewriting my will!”). Meanwhile, late at night, I take an inventory of storage containers, bookshelves, photographs stuck in the slats of a cabinet, for the signs of my growing up: Are the things that made me still here? Am I still here? This is a selfish line of inquiry, checking to ensure that you occupy a space you’ve voluntarily left. But nevertheless, I do it, take the printed T-shirts out of the drawers, reread the liner notes of my mother’s records, excavate boxes of baby photos.
On this last visit, I’m overcome with memory fever, like Borges’s Funes, needing to remember even what I’m sure I wouldn’t mind forgetting. One morning, I look out the second-floor bathroom window at the house on the other side of my parents’ backyard fence. The roof of “the carriage house,” its apocryphal name, is the rust color I associate deeply with Pittsburgh, with early light coming over brown-shingled rooftops and into my bedroom. The windows on the top floor of the carriage house are of a style I can’t name, several hexagonal plates of glass stacked in columns. In one window, two of the plates have been covered or painted over. I won’t see this view from this spot again. I record the image carefully, but I’m not sure for whom.
My mother isn’t interested in this kind of capture. Like a true believer, she’s dedicated her life in one place to her future in another. While I’m home, my father has a retirement party at the zoo. He gives a speech. When he took a job at the university, he says, he thought to himself, Pittsburgh? But now he can’t imagine living anywhere else. My father speaks his feelings as though he had just discovered them, not smooth in the way of fundraisers and high school principals and presidents, and the abruptness of his honesty makes me want to cry into my cake. I sit beside his friend Nathan, who grew up on the same street as my father in the Bronx 20 years before him. Nathan is a straight-standing, slim-waisted 85-yearold who walks like a military commander. When I was 12 he had a party to celebrate running the number of miles it would take to run around the world. Nathan is losing his memory, and he has hired a young woman to help him write down his life stories, which comprise histories I have only read about in textbooks, before he forgets.
In my father’s speech, in the warmth with which he shakes the hands of old colleagues, I can feel his fear of leaving. He has never seemed to me to aspire to a world to come—he lives where he stands. A few weeks later, though, he gets in the car with my mother as she drives across the country, through states she has barely visited, like Utah and Iowa. She drives as though the United States is a tablecloth, and she is done with dinner, shaking the crumbs from it so she can fold it and put it away. She passes through the portal of one of her paintings; she goes home.
When she arrives, I tell myself, she will be shocked by what she finds. I read about California, about Silicon Valley and the price of land, drought and choked highways. No one is writing on rolltop desks or tooling leather; no one is having tea at the Emporium. More than 30 years have gone by. My mother is going home to another country. I tell myself that if she is going to California to find the self she left behind, or traces of her ancestors (some of whom were among the Spanish Jesuits who thought the hills were their personal angels) she will have to imagine them; that my father is right to hold the hands of his friends tightly before he goes, right to go on one last run through the city park, because a place forgets its people as soon as they are gone, even if those people, far away, have a gouge in their bellies where the place should be. California, I want to say, because I think that I have eliminated the awful distance my mother contends with by reading, with information, has turned itself over like one of its own cold, violent waves. Even its natural beauty isn’t safe from its forgetting: A year later, when I walk a beachfront trail in Marin’s Tennessee Valley with my father and cousin, we see the remains of a natural sandstone arch on the beach, a landmark for decades, decimated by storms.
There’s an adolescent obstinance in my argument—you won’t find what you’re looking for. Believing in my mother’s disappointment, I betray something of my own bewilderment: at touching the walls on which my mother penciled my and my brother’s height, sitting in the kitchen where she cut our hair, cradling the last bosomy blooms of her prized blue hydrangea as they brown and fall, and finding that my intimacies with these places, these things, have already been exchanged for someone else’s future intimacies, for memories that haven’t even been made yet. A Chinese family has bought the house. The parents arrived in the United States 10 years ago and have been living in an apartment; this will be their first house. They have a son, who tells his mother he can’t wait to have a garden. What to me is a blank space about to be left by my absence will be the site of teeming life, better for my having to imagine it; the household exchange of objects and decorations that feels like a great forgetting is more like the way the brain works, winking and creasing to remember and in the process changing the memory’s substance.
In the end, I am not an exile, and neither is my mother—we’ve been cast out of places we love only by the force of our own wills, and then asked an awful lot of them in our absence. I think of Agha Shahid Ali, a true poet of exile, and his line:
They demand the republic// give back, jeweled, their every reflection…
I’ve been thinking that line about my mother—thinking that by traveling across the country, she believes that she can travel back in time, walk through the door of the little Alameda house she had in the eighties, live the life she might have had if she never left. This belief aches me, because it erases me from her life, if only in an alternate universe.
But I am wrong, and she shows me. A few months before the house sells, she calls me from Pittsburgh, in the garage. She’s heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on the radio; she drove all the way home listening to it, she says, got out of the car and stood in the garage, among the old kitchen cabinets, my father’s jars of nails and studs, our lime-green plastic sled, and cried. This is when I know my mother knows what she is doing, that she is ready. Anyone who really leaves her heart knows she doesn’t get it back.
Leah Falk got her MFA at the University of Michigan. She writes poems and runs the blog MFA Day Job.