Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Long and Winding Road Home

If I had known then, what it would be like once my boxes were settled in the "new house," this picture would have showed me running far, far away.

When I sold my house on the East Coast, I wanted to travel. My feet were itchy. At about that same time, my sister and I began to realize our parents in California needed help. But, after the two of us had left home long ago, our parents had never needed us. I imagined I could get these two cranky, selfish immortals set up with full-time help and then get on with my travels.

What a foolish girl I was. HIBK, as my friend, the writer Michele Slung, would say: "Had I But Known ... "

Now, after the death of my mother and the incarceration in nursing care of my father, I'm getting ready to move back into the family home. It is the most valuable of our family assets and my sister and I have decided it needs on-site care, at least until we figure out what to do with it. We're paying to keep it empty as it is, and we might as well have me as a tenant. And it is a mile closer to Dad. And, it has air conditioning! Hooray! It is hot here in the summer.

Wouldn't you know, it is the one home in my life I never really liked. I didn't like it the first time I moved in, and I liked living there even less.

Moving Day: from the really pretty redwood home my father built with his own hands, to the "grander" one across the street. Thrifty Dad had me use the old red wagon for a moving van.

I'm not saying it isn't a beautiful home. It is. It has beamed ceilings, a large country kitchen, and a fireplace that covers one entire wall of the spacious living room.

It is just that the first few years in that house were really awful: at least they were to the ten-year-old-to-twelve-year-old me.

Mom loved the all-wood country kitchen: but she hated the fact that the wood was stained green. The solution she and Dad chose was a mess: we spent the next two years stripping the stain from all the wood cabinets. From the beamed ceiling. From the louvered wood doors. From the floor. From the cupboards.

We had wood sandings in our silverware, in the drawers and in our shoes. When I helped Dad with the stripping, the varnish remover dripped down my arms and my skin broke out in large red boils. This sounds a little Dickensian, but I'm not making this up!

At the same time, my mother, whose asthma had left her a partial invalid, went back to work. She worked part-time for some professors at Stanford University and her health improved considerably. Not enough so that she could work there full time and enable me to get free tuition when I was later accepted to Stanford. Still, even forced as I was to go to UCSB, at least it was finally a chance to get away.

During those first few years in the new place, my father went back to school to get his Masters Degree, while holding down his full-time job, and spending his weekends taking the green stain off everything in the kitchen. He and Mom also invested in a fixer-upper in Mountain View and he fixed that up in what was left of his spare time, and then turned it into a rental, which he managed, also in his spare time. No wonder we didn't see much of him.

The new living room. Mom is beaming. The rest of us look as if we're trying to look happy. Except Dad. He isn't even trying.

My mother decorated the new bedroom my sister and I shared, and felt it was so lovely we were not allowed to put anything of our own on the walls. It was also against house rules for us to sit or lie on our beds before bedtime.

Okay, maybe it wasn't the house that was awful: maybe it was just a really bad time in our family's history. But I blamed the house. I thought the numbered address--911--was absolutely perfect for the place.

This photo, taken in the garden of 911 Echo, of my colt-like sister Kimberly, Dad and me, must have been taken during a break we took from stripping the green stain off the kitchen cabinets. We still had another year's worth of work to go at this point.

After just four years, my lucky sister escaped to college. I still had three more years to serve on my sentence.

Now, half a century later, I'm cleaning the closets in this place that once seemed so Gothic. I'm putting as much of my mother's furniture as I can into the garage, so I can get the ghastly stuff out of my sight, and donate it somewhere it will do some good. I'm making room for my clothes in the closets and my rugs on the floors.

My friend Leslie's husband, Mike, says it will be good for me to go back there and redecorate and exorcise the bad spirits, creating "new, happier memories" there.

I patted him on the shoulder when he said that because it was just what I needed to hear.

Still, I'm headed to the hardware store right now for some varnish. I just can't wait to stain everything in that kitchen bright green.

Just kidding.

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Devon C. said...

Children don't usually want to move, but alas they have to go where their parents say. Being a parent is a damned if you and damned if you don't job.

Robin Chapman said...

What can I say ... you just had to be there!