The Mortgage Mess
The first time I saw my father cry he was watching "Death of a Salesman" on our black and white TV. I was a small child and, that night, alternating between my mother's lap and the cool black and white linoleum floor tiles at her feet, I heard an unfamiliar sound. Sensing, intuitively, that something in the room had changed, I remember walking up to his chair and slowly peeking around it, then up, at his eyes full, at the new face.
I don't know if he saw me, but I crawled back into my mother's lap and whispered The Great Secret. My mother whispered back a gentle 'shhh' and it all seemed very sacred and mysterious - that well of my father's inner psyche that I was not to be privy to. I was carried off to bed soon after and woke up the next day to a world returned to normal, the moment having passed, once again secure in the tower of the warm and stoic strength my father showed me in those years.
It was Thanksgiving, years later, when we lost our family home. My parents had started an educational filmstrip company and taken out a second mortgage on the house to finance it. Just as they were launching, deep cuts in the school budgets eliminated Curriculum Extras, the Superfluous. And so there we were, working in the rented office space in the next town over, wandering through rooms and rooms of Extras, of Superfluum, piled to the ceilings in cardboard boxes, poised to topple with my father's broken dream.
He didn't let go easily. Advised numerous times of ways to get out from under and save our home, he stubbornly stayed the course, believing against all odds he could turn it around.
The sheriff came to the door the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to repossess the house. I answered. I don't remember his face, but I remember his reluctance, his discomfort, his kindness. He granted us the weekend.
We had an ad in the Pennysaver for a garage sale that weekend. I made price tags for everything. I sat with my mother on their bed, held her hand, told her it was just a house, we'd get another one. I didn't know any better. I was a product of my upbringing. Where Everything always turned out alright. In the face of my innocence, my parents drank from the well of the strength of my unknowingly blind optimism.
When my sister arrived from the city Wednesday evening, I proudly showed her the pricing I had done on everything, on the family flatware, the iron and glass coffee table, my father's armchair, our white Formica dining room table, the ladder back chairs. She burst into tears. I felt confused, even a little betrayed. We were leaving Monday on an adventure cross country to southern California - my parents and I. It was exciting. The whole wide world lay at our feet. We were just shedding a cocoon. I couldn't believe she didn't see it.
Despite all that was changing, or maybe because of it, Thanksgiving dinner was as it usually was. Fun, funny, warm, far from perfect, sometimes a little raucous, my mother attempting to cast everything in the usual pastel glow, my brother irreverently, insistently shattering at her fantasy, my sister bringing us, sharing with us, exotic new discoveries from Greenwich Village, my younger brother and I pouring the peas into our napkins and feeding them to the dog under the table. My grandmother cleared the plates out from under us before we were finished. " Thank God that's over", she exhaled, (her usual family dinner incantation), while we howled with laughter. Her voice, those words, still ring in my ears.
We drove away that Monday with pockets of cash from the tag sale, with a van piled to the rafters with books, the only possessions my parents couldn't, wouldn't let go of, and I waved to my brothers from my seat in the back - a director's chair, roped in between the piles of books. I couldn't have known, looking back at them silhouetted against a background of bared trees, in the late November chill, that we would never all be together again.
It took us two weeks to drive across country. Like my parents' business plan, our travel itinerary probably could have benefited from the gift of foresight. My mother wanted to stop and visit a good friend in Indiana so, rather than driving the southern route, our northern route took us through 13 days of snow and ice. My father insisted on being the sole driver. We drove a full working day each day. I made up songs and sang them to my parents from the back seat. I'm not sure when the Christmas grief started to creep in - maybe somewhere in Arizona, in a drug store off the interstate, buying toiletries, hearing the carols piped in over the sound system, watching the shoppers in line, immersed in their lives, absentmindedly ticking off shopping lists, fingering keys, a short drive back to homes filled with casual comings and goings, with decorated Christmas trees and family dinners they took for granted.
The van broke down in Flagstaff, 13 days into our trip. We were still haunted by the relentless snow. My father looked grey with defeat. We took a bus the rest of the way and slept. I opened my eyes somewhere in California and reached to the seat in front of me to shake my father awake. "Palm trees!" I told him excitedly, and we stared together at them, watching them pass by the bus windows, like sentries standing guard at the promised land. We had finally made it to California, where everything would be alright again.
My father was the one who never really recovered. He had many more years of living, filled with love and punctuated by laughter, but never seemed strong again and slipped, over the years, into a slow quicksand of creeping despair.
A few years later I moved back to the East Coast and took a ride to see my family home. A new family lived in it, had repainted it, put new shutters on, cut down one of the Christmas trees we planted in the yard. There were different cars in the driveway but the willow in the back still swayed in the summer wind, lifting and falling, like the slow, deep breathing of dreams I remembered from another time. It felt a little strange, but life moves forward. I rolled the car window back up. We pulled away and went back to the city.
I didn't see it coming.
I went to sleep that night and woke up the next day, walked into my living room and sat down on the floor. It started. Like a movie, in slo mo, scene after scene of all of us, my father, my mother, my sister, my brothers, in and out the front door of our family home, our cars in and out the driveway, all the different years, different ages, a thousand of us, all young, beautiful, full of love, promise, complication, housed together in the cocoon of an intact family.
I started to weep and the weeping came from a place so deep and unmined it caught me off guard. My then husband came out and sat on the floor with me. He lifted me into his arms and started to rock me. I don't know how long I cried, with those visions of my family's time together running a reel through my head, but it seemed all day. He never lost patience or kindness and for that day I will always be grateful to him.
In retrospect, I admire my parents who dared to dream. I admire the innocence in me that saw them through those first days. I wish my father could have recovered, could have ultimately triumphed over the forces outside him that burned his dreams to dust and the inner gravity that pulled him the rest of the way down. I wish for him he could have found that for himself, and led the way for us.
It was not to be. But we grow forward from a seed. I think I've lived my whole life so far, since those days of inherited ruin, finding my own way back.
When I was growing up, and well past growing up, my mother had a habit of announcing, like the whistle, that “Life is Not A Dress Rehearsal’. She might wake me in the morning with it, sing song into my ear, or later, when I was on my own, I’d answer the phone and there she’d be, like an alarm clock set down too close on the bedside table, startling me from dreaming. Some days I still hear that voice, following me through the day, snapping at my heels.
Maybe, at the end of it all, looking back, it’ll be the day to stake that claim, like a big yellow signpost for the next traveler, but for me, for today, it’s too unforgiving. Then again my mother, despite her good qualities, was kind of a tough crowd.
The first time I played football was a beautiful summer evening in June on the Carroll’s front lawn. I was seven years old. I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about, but I wanted to be a part of it anyway. I did get that the object of the game was to get the ball and run it across the goal line. So I stood ready, like a little soldier, awaiting The Mission, sometimes attentive, sometimes distracted by and drawn into the hum of the summer around me. We played for a little while, or rather they played, while I tried to determine what all the running and tumbling was about, wanting in but too shy to stake a claim. Just as my interest was waning and I was turning my attention to the fireflies in the growing dusk, I felt a shove in my belly and looked down. The ball was in my hands. For a split second, time stood still, then, in another second, I saw bodies running toward me. I knew what they wanted. They wanted that ball and I had it. I was the carrier, I was assigned the mission of getting it across the goal line. The thrill was unbearable.
I ran like I’d never run in my seven long years of endless days and I heard the cheering behind me. It swelled around me while I ran through the thick sweet evening air. I ran and ran, propelled by the growing inevitability of my triumph as I realized I was outrunning them all and I crossed the finish line, holding the ball high into the thrill of victory.
I turned to share the moment with my team mates and they were far away, too far away. They were still yelling, but their yells weren’t cheers. Arms were flailing, fists pounding on the ground. The other team was rolling in the aisles of the great expanse of lawn, laughing.
I walked toward them all in slow motion, slowing more the closer I got. Then I was there and they were up in my little girl face, my team mates yelling, their faces flushed with the heat of the late day and their own white hot rage, the other team jeering, all telling me in a moment, in every possible way, the terrible error of my run. I had run the wrong way with the ball and crossed over the finish line of the other team. There lay the truth that shattered my shining moment.
I never forgot the rage and ridicule that run inspired. Or the feeling in me.
So, which one of us always gets it right? It wasn’t the last time I ran the wrong way across some one else’s goal line. It was just the first.
After the glory of my football day, I took to writing. My imaginings spilled onto paper and years of my childhood were spent sitting in my room on the blue dresser my mother handpainted. I cleared all the knick knacks she placed on top of it and used it as a window seat, soaking in the sun, face against the screen in summer, fogging the panes in winter, writing stories, little books, mysteries, epics and poems, all delicious escape from a world I already struggled to fit into. When I wasn’t writing I was reading, into the night, flashlight under covers, or crouched in the bedroom doorway, reading by the hall light.
I’ve needed music for as long as I can remember. My grandmother bought us a piano that football summer. To my mother it was furniture to polish and lessons to assign to a chosen child, my brother. To me, it was magic. They pronounced to me that my fingers were too small, so lessons were not offered. A teacher came weekly and gave structured lessons to my brother and I sat at the top of the staircase, listening to each note. When the lesson was over, I would run down the stairs and pick out notes, sometimes from the numbers in the little book she left, sometimes from what my brother showed me, more and more from what my ear wanted to hear. I figured out quickly how to play an arpeggio and I’d play and sing for hours. I loved the feel of the cool, smooth keys under my skin, the way my fingers somehow found, without me asking, without knowing how, just where I wanted to go, what I wanted to hear. I loved the vibration of voice in my body.
Not much thrilled me more than that. A close second were the adventures pouring through my pencils and the stories I created and acted out with playmates in the lawns, the fields, the woods, stretching on for days, into evening, waking up into the next chapter, living out another day of it, falling asleep dreaming of it. In between were the hours in the magic corner of the playroom, where the piano waited for me.
My parents were friends at the time with an editor from the New York Times and his wife, a novelist. They were warm, wonderful people and invited me over often to play with their daughters. They told my mother I was a writer. Impressed, I think mostly by them, for a while after that, my mother excused me from dinner downstairs if I was working on a story and brought me mine on a tray, to my dresser turned window seat, so I could write, the flow uninterrupted. Apparently no such angel whispered in her ear about me and music. I don’t know exactly what happened to my brother’s lessons, but they stopped and not long after, the piano was gone.
I found another way for music to transport me.
I was sleeping one night when my parents were out and my sister babysitting. I woke slowly, being mystically, mysteriously transmigrated to another dimension of perception, floating on waves and waves of indescribably delicious sound. I lay there in bed for a minute, drinking it in, shivering in the ecstasy of this rich new experience, then crawled out of bed and looked down the hall at the miracle that was happening to my eyes and ears.
At the end of the hall, through an open doorway, my sister was balanced on the side of the bathroom vanity, expertly rolling her hair onto big pink plastic rollers, a cigarette dangling from her lips, bathed in light, in riveting nonchalance, in incandescent beauty. On the shelf above her head, music poured from the blue plastic radio. It was Buddy Holly singing "Everyday", followed immediately by the Beatles "Love Me Do". I sat on the floor in the doorway of my bedroom. I had never heard anything so beautiful. No, more than that. I had never felt anything so beautiful. Somehow every fiber of my being thrummed with every note. After a steady diet of fine art, classical music, classic poetry, classic folk, this new sound, this new look, rocked my world. Whatever other direction my life might have gone in all changed in that moment.
That was the beginning of my life in music. I had no idea in those slow, dreamy days of childhood, what a long, ragged road it would be.