Never before in my nearly three years at the helm of this blog have I passed so much time in between posts. Lately it seems that life has run away with me, and every manner of logistic hitch has thrown itself directly in my path. Among the many recent surprises has been my inability to successfully upload photos, so the pics from our trip will have to wait for a future post. Elihu and I are reaching the conclusion of a long and busy summer and we’re both looking forward to a new and structured routine for fall. But before we march ahead, here’s a recounting of our recent trip to visit mom’s family on Cape Cod.
Last week, as mom, Elihu and I left for a three-day trip to visit family on the coast, we had friend Ken in tow, and on our way to drop him off in town before hitting the highway, we passed our old friend Ruthie’s house and found all that remained of it was the chimney. Only ten in the morning and the backhoe was nearly finished with the demolition. By the time we were to return from our brief vacation, the construction at the end of our driveway would be recognizable as a house. Both events were stark and jarring evidence of how quickly and profoundly things can change. But thankfully, over the next couple of days we would visit many important landmarks of my mother’s own personal history, and we would be happily surprised not only to find these structures still standing and recognizable, but also to find ourselves invited inside to see the changes for ourselves. For me it was a great relief that these places still existed so that we might visit them again – but beyond that, it was a real gift to see firsthand how things had been modified over the past few decades. I feel we were beyond fortunate to have been given this opportunity – likely the last one for my mother – to see these places that had been such an important part of my mother’s growing up. Usually, you can’t go back. But we were given the rare chance to do just that. It was a good trip, and we covered a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally, in a short amount of time. Our trip was barely three days, but as jam-packed as it was of reunions, events and emotions, it almost felt we’d been away for a whole week.
The family that we went to visit (my maternal grandmother’s side) has become through the years something of a ragtag bunch that live not exactly on the Cape as one might say for the sake of simplicity when describing their location to a non-local person, but more accurately it could be said that they actually live in the armpit of the Cape. While the true beauty of that expression lies in the metaphoric possibilities it brings to mind, the more literal meaning – the one absent of judgement, irony or humor – simply helps one to place the location of Buzzard’s Bay by visualizing Cape Cod as an extended arm and flexed elbow joint. The thing is, the metaphor kinda rings true, and the culture of that particular area in question – being so close to the ‘real’ cape and yet not truly being the cape – being so close to the actual ocean but still not actually on it – that, plus the tiny houses all sitting ‘cheek-by-jowl’ (as my mother would say) all combine to give Wareham and its surrounds that unmistakable low-rent vibe. And this is where my family resides. Just a couple of generations ago there were doctors, lawyers and judges in the family, now many of us who remain eke out our meager existences on SSI grants and food stamps. My mother laughed to see how decidedly downwardly mobile our family has become in just three short generations. “I wonder what old Uncle Charlie would think of this” she chuckled, shrugging to indicate the neighborhoods of tiny, tumbledown summer shacks packed in one after another. If she hadn’t laughed, she might have cried. It does make one wonder how such a thing is possible.
When we arrived at my mom’s brother’s house, it wasn’t awkward as it might have been for the nearly two decades that had passed since mom had seen him and his family. We’d even made plans to pick his car up from the garage upon our arrival. (Turned out the garage ended up delivering it home.) What I thought anecdotally notable here was that both my Uncle Paul and I had had our cars in the shop this week to repair the very same thing: a faulty lift belt on the driver’s side window. (My car was in the shop back home, hence our getaway was made in mom’s trendy Prius.) I’d seen Paul just summer before last, so I kinda had a head’s up, but I’m sure brother and sister each surprised the other with their older, hunched and slower forms. It’s situations like this for which God gave us a sense of humor, I’m sure. Mom leaned on her cane, Paul hung to the porch, Aunt Sandy laughed in between them. I saw my cousin Rusty come around the corner and paused for a second at the sight of him – all that time in the sun and a penchant for the occasional cigarette and his naturally pale complexion had become as creased and weathered as a seafaring old-timer. Just a year older than me? I thought to myself. Yeeks. The reunion on the porch went just as if no time had passed, and so did the meeting of Elihu and Rusty, who, without so much as a word between them – or to us – began to collect up nets and other tools and within moments were coolly strolling away towards the inlet on a quest for sea creatures.
We passed an hour or so visiting before we all went to dinner together. Mom and I enjoyed those true east coast delicacies of whole fried clams. (Strips are one thing, but they pale by comparison to the whole kit and caboodle, bellies included.) Before the food arrived Elihu and I went to the adjacent dock to watch the locals fish. We got our first whiff of salt air and I could hardly wait until our beach day began the next morning. For me, I almost feel that the years in between visits are just time spent in wait for the next opportunity to get into a large body of water. Nothing in the world comes close. The following day did not disappoint, and although it was an entirely different experience for my mother now than it had been just a couple of decades ago; she made it in and enjoyed floating on her back in the buoyant salt water. It occurred to me in a moment of nostalgic contemplation that of all the many photographs I took on our trip, the one I might have treasured the most – that image of my mother, totally in the moment, floating there in the water, enjoying herself as fully and as unself-consciously as a young child – that image remains in my mind’s eye only. I too was enjoying the water and didn’t think to take a picture. It was only later when we returned for a last swim only to find the tide far too far out to do so that I realized this might have been the last time my mother would find herself floating in the ocean she’d so loved for all of her life. That I missed the image. That I could have – but didn’t – document that personally significant moment. A pang of regret hit me, I breathed in and felt the sting of it, and then I did my best to let it go. I reminded myself that I’d been there with her, that I’d given her my arm and helped her out of the water on that last swim, that we three had all been enjoying the beautiful day and the warm sea water together, and that was what really counted.
Later, as we began our long trip back home, we planned for our route to pass both my mother’s Auntie Helen’s home in town as well as her beach home, one in which I myself also had some childhood memories. The home in which my grandmother’s sister had lived in was grand indeed. The woodwork and stained glass of the Victorian era giant was impressive as was the huge, central staircase and the moldings and details at every turn. Now an attorney’s office, (mom’s own uncle was a doctor and made his office there too) we were welcomed inside and mom recounted her memories there as a little girl to Elihu, me and the secretary (also named Nancy like my mom), occasionally using her cane to direct our attention to something; the maid’s staircase down which the children would run, the kitchen’s original boundaries, the office where her doctor uncle had once given her a shot against her will… I snapped pictures in every direction as I tried to imagine my trim and fashionable Auntie Helen in her glory years moving through the large house tending to her upper-middle class life. Here we were in sneakers and shorts, too casual it seemed to even be allowed inside by such past standards. What a different time it had been then, how much had changed. And yet the current owners had put a great deal of love and money into restoring the place to its original, historic grandeur, so this turned out to be a very happy ending for us. We left feeling uplifted and ready for more healing discoveries ahead.
While I’m not sure mom had any plans to actually seek out – and find – Auntie Helen’s coastal home, that’s just how serendipity wished it for us, and after a quick consultation with a neighbor passing by in a handsome Mercedes, we were able to confirm our suspicions as to which house it was. As with most places known to children and revisited by the same as adults, the whole neighborhood seemed so much smaller than it had once seemed to me as a child. Even the old photographs from the ’40s had shown much more open space, almost no trees and lots of windswept yard stretching out in all directions, yet now the area was full of growth and mature trees. Elihu and I approached the house the roundabout way, walking out onto the great pier (which had also been added somewhat recently) and then back up towards the house on a neighboring lawn. A yacht sat just off the coast and lent a Kennedyesque air to the seascape. I looked at it all with new eyes. While I could easily remember a vision of my mother in a white, yellow and black bathing suit walking ahead of me down the sandy path through the blueberry bushes, I was able to superimpose that image against what I saw now and felt as if I were in a film shifting its focus from past to present, creating a great tug of nostalgia that was impossible to ignore.
Shortly we three were knocking at the door of Auntie Helen’s old place, and once again we were kindly invited in. Ah, what money can do, I thought as I took in the completely modernized interior. The porch and the sea beyond were as I remembered, but nothing else was the same. Instead of dark walls, rope-framed photos and nautical-themed knick-knacks, it was now a bright, open space which showcased pieces of modern art, historical figurines, sculptures and gorgeous finishes everywhere. I’d grown up with moneyed folks, I knew what it was all about, I felt absolutely comfortable in it, and goddam it, if I ever came to know it for myself one day, I’d certainly enjoy the hell out of it. Like these folks were doing. I’d surround myself with beautiful things, with gorgeous views. I’d live by water. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to live like this. Every day. To know this sort of beauty as home. As I took a photo of mom and Elihu looking out the window at the bay beyond, I felt a certain sadness that I hadn’t known this place beyond my youngest years. It felt as if it were in some small way still mine – as if it might have been mine even now but for the slightest detour… But on the heels of that came the understanding that even if I’d had the luck to know this place as a child, I certainly did not have the means to enjoy it as an adult. It would have to be enough that we were all here to witness this together. I was so grateful for the kindness of the gentleman who lived there and allowed us a few moments inside. Now my son would understand better where his family had come from; what it felt like to look out and over that immense and stunning view. What it meant to live on the ocean.
We headed East and easily found the house mom had lived in as a teenager. It was her maternal grandparent’s home; the one she and her mother returned to when her father had left. It was here, in Fall River, where mom’s memories came freely and happily. The steps of that immense high school where as part of a sorority hazing for the incoming freshman she was made to scrub the steps with a toothbrush… the river views from Highland Avenue, the various landmarks of her youth strewn here and there, names came back with the sight of familiar houses, stories and anecdotes too many to recall… Seeing this town seemed to revive a mood in my mother, and it was nice to see her happy like this. Her life is so taken up with concern for me, for Andrew, for her grandson, for her own health, for her cats, her home… and finally it seemed all of that fell away and she was transported to a time in her life which she had clearly enjoyed.
On we went into the early years, to the home in which mom lived with her mother and father and brother Paul, the home which she left at eleven – Elihu’s current age – the only home in which she lived with her family as one unit. It seems strange to me that she seems to recall so little of it – of her father, in particular. I can’t know if she’s repressed it, or if she truly doesn’t remember. Whichever the reason, she recalled only names of childhood friends, lanes she’d walked down to go to school, the first place she learned to ride a two-wheeler… Even a place where she remembered her older brother defending her against the neighborhood bullies. All these things she recalled for us, but when I pressed her for domestic details about her life, she remembered next to nothing. Even the house itself didn’t stand out as familiar, and on our second passing I had to insist we pull over. She even began to get angry when I asked her for some details we might use to identify the house – finally, as it seemed the only option, I got out of the car and hailed the woman who had just pulled up into the driveway. Again, the angel of serendipity stepped in to assist, and before long we had met this woman’s husband and daughter too, and we were standing inside the house sharing stories and being shown an old photograph of the place when it had been the carriage house for the local farm. This was the way mom had known it – as the only house in a vast expanse of fields and orchards that swept down to the water. I can understand how strange and disorienting it must have been to see the place so transformed, but to finally have found her house – and to be inside it now – I think that must have given her some sense of closure and satisfaction. I know it did me. After a few more photos and exchanging of contact information, we said our goodbyes and headed out. After a last brief look at the sea, we began our drive back home to upstate New York.
It was raining heavily when we arrived home long after dark, my seventy-nine year old mother having just concluded some 600 miles behind the wheel. The late hour had finally brought to light our very different driving styles and our patience with one another was eroding fast. Elihu was suffering from some strange rash all over his body, my concern for his comfort was growing more urgent (much to the chagrin of my mother who felt I was coddling him with my sympathies) plus my mother was experiencing a good deal of discomfort on the tops of her badly sunburned feet, having been out in the sun for the first time in decades. We were all sore, short of patience and very weary. It had been a short trip, but we’d done and seen a lot, the car was covered in sand and smelled of some sea creature inadvertently taken along for the ride. We were more than ready for our own beds.
There was no internet working on our return, and my computer wasn’t well either. There was nothing to be done but crawl into bed and marvel over all the images swirling about in our heads. The weather was loud, the rain beat hard on the house, and I felt a mixture of satisfaction and strangely, loneliness. I was aware that my mother, at the end of the day, was going home alone. What must it feel like to have seen all those old, familiar places and the to return here, to a house empty of people? I was glad she had the cats, and I was grateful that she had the new memories now too. I hoped they’d be restorative to her in some way. It was an important trip for me to be sure, and now Elihu had a new appreciation and understanding of his grandmother and his own roots, too. As visits back home go, this was a good one I think. Yet here we were again, right back in the middle of our everyday life, in our humble country home, far from the road… it almost felt as if we’d never left. On we were to go from here, our lives yet to become new and strange, meandering adventures heading off into the unknown landscape of our future. And in the light of all that unknown yet ahead of us, it was comforting to know that sometimes, just sometimes, it is still possible to go home again.