Every day I’m grateful for my son Ben because every morning there are text messages from him waiting for me on WhatsApp. His younger brother Will only communicates with me occasionally, but we’ve begun a little back and forth about what we cooked or good recipes we found; that makes me feel less forlorn.
I’d conjure a theory that copious letter writing (or today, texting) has to do with my love of reading, but my sister and brother both love to read and I never hear back from them. I could try and examine it psychologically: Do I just need so much affirmation? Am I so insecure? Is that why I write? Of course, I know there are people who love to communicate and then there are people you have to force to talk under a bright lamp in a tiny, smoke-filled room. This has been going on all my life.
Growing up, I was inspired by epistolary novels: stories told through people’s correspondence. Daddy Long-Legs, for example, although even as a kid I thought it was a little creepy for the young protagonist’s benefactor, a grown man, to marry her in the end. Then there was Flowers for Algernon, more a series of lab reports, and later The Color Purple. When I was able to sign up for a pen pal program, I thought I’d meet my best friends or love of my life through prose.
In my early teens, I had a pen pal in New Zealand; a girl my age who I soon realized was far too hip and mature to be in any way interested in naïve, bookish me. I also had two pen pals in Germany, a boy and a girl. I was puzzled that they both sent me somber black and white portraits of themselves. Later I’d learn that Germans rarely smile for portraits and that before the Internet, everything that was common in the English-speaking world, like color photos, clothes dryers, fashions and shaving your armpits, took a while to reach Germany.
My Kiwi pal and the German boy did not keep up with my treatises for very long and I lost touch with them. But I ended up meeting my German pen pal Beate the year I lived in Freiburg. We took a walk in the woods and it was awkward since neither of us spoke the other’s language very well.
In spite of it all, I kept trying. I wrote to my best friends when I moved from Pittsburgh to Miami, I wrote to my college friends during summer breaks and after graduation. Although I would hear from a few now and then, none could keep up with my six to ten-page dispatches recounting my joys (less so) and woes (more so, I fear) in stark (now embarrassing) detail.
My college friend, Jim, used to tease me, “If you ever get famous, I’m going to publish all your letters.” God, I hope he’s moved house enough to have finally lost them!
Maybe my letters weren’t so bad. I recently found a little stack of letters from a woman I’d met while in Freiburg. She told me how much she loved hearing from me. She wrote about her joys and woes. I read them again thirty-something years later in disbelief. I kicked myself for losing touch and forgetting about her: the perfect pen pal.
Shy and timid in person, I could let it all out in a letter. It made me feel like the person I wished I was: articulate, witty. And there was nothing more thrilling than hearing the mail carrier clank and clunk a letter or two into the box outside or downstairs, usually just a matter-of-fact one pager. What exactly did I write in response? I don’t remember. I’d rather not ask Jim or anyone else I bared my soul to back in those days of pen and paper.
My sister Kate might have saved some of my letters. She rarely wrote back. And today, she and my brother never answer my WhatsApp texts! Is it the family dynamic? Me, always dancing around the room, blabbering about everything I did, felt, or heard. The rest of my family members holed up silently with a book. My mother smiling at me benevolently (‘aren’t you cute?’), but impatiently. My father constantly ignoring us all behind a book of electronic diagrams. My brother in front of the TV. My sister in her room or out of the house.
So when I text Kate about my painful visit to the doctor, email her a link she requested, send her a photo of one of my kids, and see only the two blue check marks telling me she read my messages, but not a word or emoji in response, I feel like the ignored little sister once again.
When I text Ben about it, he replies, “I’ve never had trouble with people not texting me back. I guess it’s a generational thing? Old folks just don’t, and you behave more like a young person online, frankly.” That’s true. I’ve been online since there was an online, was among the first to join MySpace, then Facebook, all in my search for good non-verbal communication channels. Today, none of my friends or family is on Twitter, where I am anonymously articulate and witty.
Thus I find myself still dancing around the room, blabbering about everything I do, feel, or hear: love me, love me, love me! Always optimistic, I don’t plan to stop.
Say “elementary school” and I’ll cringe. Seven years – kindergarten to sixth grade – of abject misery: the teasing, the mean girls, the stupid boys. But when I saw it lying in a pile of rubble on its hilltop two years ago after being torn down, I realized that in a way, I had liked my elementary school. I liked school, period. It got me out of the house and I learned things there. The main drawback, really, was that there were other kids there. I was always on the side of teachers versus the unruly mob. Why couldn’t they just shut up, sit still, and listen? It drove me nuts.
My mom felt guilty for sending me off a year early, claiming they did it because I was “tall for my age.” (Actually she just wanted to go back to work.) When I entered the kindergarten class at the age of four and half in 1965, though, I was ready. My sister played school with me, so I knew the alphabet, I could count and I could even read a little.
I adored my teacher Miss C. She was young, pretty, wore glasses: what’s not to love? On my annual progress report, she gave me an “S” for Satisfactory, the highest possible kindergarten mark, for all but one attribute. For “I follow directions and obey quickly and cheerfully,” I got an “N” the first half-year (Need for Improvement) and an “I” the second half (Improvement Shown). She assuaged my mother’s qualms by summing up, “She has adjusted very well and will do fine at her own speed – she seems very happy.”
When I returned after summer vacation for the first grade, Miss C was my teacher again, but she was wearing contact lenses and wasn’t as sweet as she used to be. She was married by the end of the school year; that might explain it. One day she and I had a misunderstanding. The class was acting up and, exasperated, she barked, “I don’t want to hear one more peep out of any of you! Read your books! If I hear one peep, I’m getting the paddle!”
I wasn’t acting up! I was a good girl. I never, ever, ever got in trouble. I felt for her that day. So I sat meekly with the rest of them and read my book. Then I made a mistake: I sounded a word out to myself. I did it very quietly – a whisper! – but she heard me. To my horror, she demanded I come to the front and lean over her desk while she went to get the paddle! Kids snickered while she was gone. I stuck my tongue out at a grinning boy in the front row.
It was possibly the worst day of my academic life. It was so unfair! I was trying to learn! I would never trust Miss C ever again and was happy to move on to Mrs. L’s class for second grade.
Mrs. L was also young and wore her black hair in a huge, bouffant do. A little chain with clips on either end kept her cardigan sweater draped neatly over her shoulders. Mrs. L read The Boxcar Children to us. She was always kind. She gave me better grades than Miss C had, too, even in math.
Some teachers noted that I didn’t work up to my ability. I was a B student and would always remain a B student. Although this branded me as the outlier at home – my sister and brother were smart; I was “artistic” – I never had a problem with my B average. Doing better or worse would have earned me unwanted attention. Shy kids don’t want attention.
At my school, siblings rarely had the same teachers, which I find commendable as I never had to live up to my sister’s better grades. Kate was 21 months older than I, and a grade higher. Once we got on the school bus, we never saw each other until we got off it at home in the afternoon, and we never acknowledged one another’s existence at school either. Since Kate now never wanted to play with me, it seemed natural, no big deal.
But one day, I was cornered by some older girls while waiting for the afternoon bus outside of school. “Do you love your sister?” they asked, jeering. Even at six, seven or eight, I knew what I answered didn’t matter: Damned if I say yes, damned if I say no! I tried to duck them, to get away, but they held onto me, “Do you love your sister or not!?” and worse: “Do you pick your nose, too?” I wish I’d done something brave to defend her honor, but it made me so angry at Kate. I felt unpopular enough at school and now this. How dare she get caught picking her nose! I cried, “No, no, no!” maybe even “I hate her!” before running away.
What I loved at my school: the library, music class, watching the board being wiped first with a black felt eraser and later with a damp sponge, Mr. B the gym teacher, playing third flute in the school band. One year, maybe in fourth grade, they introduced a short-lived program that let us learn alone and at our own pace. We’d be handed a little “machine” to put cards in and play learning games. No reading out loud, no going up to the board to publicly fail at arithmetic, no reciting times tables! I also loved it when we did square dancing in gym one year. I don’t have an ounce of farm girl in me, but was doe-see-doeing fun.
School would’ve been better without recess. Even when I had friends to spend it with, I was insecure. “Come here! Stop following me!” Denise once snapped at me on the playground as I tagged behind, unsure whether I was wanted. If I could, I’d go to the library instead of going out to play.
In the sixth grade the unthinkable happened: I was put in a class with lots of kids I’d never been with before! Like going to summer camp, it was a liberating thing. They didn’t know me. The girls whose sisters knew my sister weren’t with me anymore. I could start over. Maybe it emboldened me, maybe I was learning, but I made friends. Their names were Debbie, Joann, Noreen, and Laurie.
Laurie and I were inseparable. We sat together; I visited her house after school. I had to maneuver my bike around dead raccoons along the edge of a busy street and then turn right and carry or push my bike uphill through dirt and muck where her street hadn’t been finished yet, but I loved visiting Laurie and her jolly family.
Laurie and I passed notes a lot in class. Nothing mean; just silly stuff, hangman, drawings, but we drove our mild-mannered teacher, Mrs. K, to a nervous breakdown. No, no, no, it wasn’t Laurie and I passing notes that did it to her: It was the sixth grade after all. Everyone loved sweet Mrs. K. But we were all 11 or 12 years old and bursting at the seams with pre-teenager-ness. There were some very sassy girls in class and some very naughty boys.
The day when members of the class were called to another room for a talk with the principle, Laurie and I, good girls that we were, were among them. Everyone who left that meeting left it in tears. Because of our behavior, Mrs. K would have to leave school for a while and we’d get a new teacher: a male teacher. He would straighten us out!
After Mrs. K left things went on pretty much as they always had for Laurie and me. We may have passed fewer notes. My friends came to my 11th birthday party over Christmas vacation and we used my tape recorder to interview one another in corny voices. We all piled on top of one another on the sofa and took pictures with my instamatic camera.
A few months later, when I returned to school after Easter and greeted my friends, they turned their backs on me and walked away. Laurie was no longer sitting next to me in class. When I tried to near or speak to her, she averted her eyes and ignored me. I never learned why; I never got up the nerve to ask. My only consolation was that while most of the kids at my elementary school would go on to the same junior high after summer vacation, because of the location of my house, I would go to a different junior high and not see them again until high school.
I liked junior high school. No one teased me there. I made new friends. I made D’s in math, C’s in gym, but A’s and B’s in every other class.
At the start of ninth grade, heading off to high school for the first time, I saw Laurie on the bus. She’d had her teeth straightened. I looked at her, and then I looked out the window. A month later my family moved away.
When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, our house was surrounded by woods. We’d make little forays into them now and then, always on the lookout for copperheads (which we never saw) and poison ivy. Those were little adventures; it was play. Home was always, at most, twenty minutes away. We never got very far. Our move south to Florida when I was fourteen years old put an end to my days outdoors. I was a teenager and it was just too darn hot.
Not much later, I spent my junior year of college abroad in the city of Freiburg nestled in the Black Forest of Germany. Frau Wulf was the vigorous matron who oversaw the motley group of American exchange students taking part in the program. The very first activity she planned for us was to go on a “Wanderung,” a hike in the woods in the hills above the town. Gamely, I put on the sturdy new walking shoes I’d bought for European sightseeing trips and headed off with the group.
Aside from getting to know my new companions, I hated every single minute of that hike. I was never athletic, ridiculously out of shape, and the new shoes, of course, gave me painful blisters. No one wants to be the spoilsport, but all I wanted was for that hike to end. For most of it, I had no idea how far we’d gone, how far we were still expected to go, and there was certainly no way to, say, call an Uber to take me back to my dorm.
For the rest of that year, I made sure I knew exactly where I was going, how long I’d have to walk – and I carried plenty of Band-Aids along.
Germans are passionate hikers. They worship the outdoors and the forests and many spend every free moment on Wanderungen in their practical shoes on the well-maintained trails that ribbon every mile of nature in the country.
I’m more of a city-hiker. Show me an old city, hand me a map, and I’ll go sightseeing all day. In the city, you can stop for local delicacies and coffee. There are magnificent works of art around every corner, lovely squares and churches. You can soothe your aching feet in a fountain. Museums are ideal for cooling off after a hot few hours on the streets.
Not only is there not much to see in the woods besides trees, but you can get lost in them! I later returned to Germany and my boyfriend, being German, loved to hike and to bike through the woods and countryside. Being the kind of person who aims to please, I vowed to keep up, to learn to like it. The very thought of the countless times we stood at a crossing of forest trails scratching our heads, trying to gauge directions, or to decipher the tiny lines on a map makes me want to lay down and weep.
Not only did Bo love hiking in the wilderness, he also actually thought getting lost was no big deal. I suppose it made him feel adventurous, manly. Soon enough I set down some rules: #1: We will plan each hike in advance, #2: The route must get us there and back again, preferably in a circle, and #3: If I am already tired or hungry, it’s long time to turn around and head back.
It took me years to stop trying to please him (or anyone else) by doing things I hated and to instead go back to the pleasures I’d given up. I’d pack him a sandwich and a thermos of tea, kiss him goodbye and stretch out on the sofa to devour a good book while he braved the elements, the blisters, and mosquitoes on his own.
Now, living in Philadelphia, when I drive from Mt. Airy to Roxborough the sight of the lush, tree-covered hills makes me giddy. It reminds me of the hills and trees of Pittsburgh. Or glancing about me while driving along treacherous Lincoln Drive, I’m intrigued by the stone bridges and gurgling waters of Wissahickon Creek below. I walk all over the neighborhood to do errands and buy groceries, but never as far as the nearby parks.
The woods are calling. It seems incredible, but I bought a map of the Wissahickon Valley Park. It looks daunting. There are no circular pathways. “Terrain is varied, and sections of the trail are rugged and may be difficult for inexperienced trail users,” the website cautions. But compared to the distances I’ve begrudgingly trudged in the past, it seems manageable. I’ll start slow: park my car and walk a few miles of the easy trail, Forbidden Drive, at a time. Take a snack and make one or two Points of Interest listed on the rear of the map my goal for each trip.
There’s the map, here are my sneakers. We’ll see! There’s always a good book on my shelf.
Yesterday, before he left to go back home, I took my 27-year-old son Ben, a doctoral student at the University of Cologne, out to his favorite local eating place for lunch. He ordered their fried chicken and waffles. His cousin’s wife Naomi had made some last year when he visited them in Virginia and he looked forward to trying it again. He’s a vegetarian, but will occasionally indulge in meat.
The server brought him a plate of waffles and a bowl of three big, crispy fried chicken wings. And I watched Ben slowly freak out. Naomi had served boned chicken meat on the waffles; he couldn’t bear the sight of the wings, wouldn’t touch them, and finally just ate his waffles and side of hash browns.
We walked home and he talked, we sat on the couch and he talked, getting more and more agitated.
“My mind gets, like, stuck in these circular thoughts and I get sorta obsessive and I can’t make it stop. I just keep worrying about, you know, um, that it’ll all be ruined and even though it’s none of my fault, it won’t work out, and I’ll end up nowhere…or broke.”
He’s been hiding it, but has been upset ever since his Skype interview on Monday with people he hoped would hire him at another university’s linguistics department. He’s certain he flubbed the interview.
This afternoon he Skyped with me from his apartment in Cologne, near tears, as I tried to just listen and not give advice, which he’d once told me was the best thing to do with people suffering from depression.
“But I will be alright, I’ll go for a walk, I’ll make some tea, I’ll breathe, watch some silly YouTube videos, it’ll be alright. This feeling just really sucks. I’ll drop in at the doc’s Monday morning and ask them to renew my prescription. Everything’ll be alright.”
He went off his SSRI about two months ago. As my sister said, “They think they’re fine. Everyone around them can see they’re not, but they don’t. Until a crisis.” I guess this is the crisis. She knows because her son, Ben’s cousin Sam, is also bipolar and also suffers from PTSD from his time on active duty in the military.
For me, the worst part is seeing my boy near tears and not being able to help him.
One Sunday when he was between one and two years old, we were visiting his grandmother for the afternoon, sitting outside on lawn chairs enjoying the spring weather. Benny suddenly got very flushed. He laid himself on top of me in his little overalls and sweatshirt, just laid on my tummy, and fell fast asleep. We had already learned that when he got sick, he’d get a little feverish, then sleep all day and all night, and wake up feeling fine. I spent that entire afternoon with a hot little ball of a boy on my tummy as his father and grandmother brought me snacks and drinks and we sat and talked. We finally carried him to the car, put him in his car seat, drove home, and got him into bed. The next morning, he was up playing with his dinosaurs again.
Of all the grown-up tummies he could choose on which to sleep his fever off, he chose mine, and of all the friends and family he could choose to send WhatsApp messages to or Skype with to vent, he chooses me. I feel honored yet highly unqualified.
Transition to a phone call this morning with my sweetheart Jimmy in Queens, New York:
Him: “I’m feelin’ a little better now. Just a little constipated. I never used to be. I wonder if it’s…”
Me: “You’ve gotta try eating a handful of prunes everyday. The Celexa constipates you. We know that.”
“Yeah, you knew that.”
“Sharon told us it’s a common side-effect, remember?”
“No, I guess I forgot, I thought maybe it was the weed…”
“That’s what makes you forgetful, not constipated,” I laugh.
“Well, I don’t know what the Celexa is good for. You’re the only one who thinks it’s helping me.”
“Duh! Because you wanna keep me!” I pause, then say, “It keeps you from frightening me.”
“Ah, really? I dunno…”
I think to myself, why doesn’t he remember the way he gets … got … before he started taking the anti-depressant? Is it shame, denial?
When he began having anxiety attacks we searched for a doctor I could finally convince that the charming little old man talking his ear off was actually Dr. Jekyll. Every few months he would turn into Mr. Hyde; viciously turn on his colleagues, family, friends, and me. He was finally put on Celexa in December of 2017 and since then only went full-Mister-Hyde on me once, a month later. Since then – for over a year – he’s been Jekyll and we’re back together, but I’d long moved out.
Jimmy would still rather live with me. He would give up his rent-stabilized apartment in New York – where he’s been for 45 years – and move to Philadelphia, the city he loves to hate. But I can’t let him. Celexa may help now, but his doctor could stop the prescription, or he could decide he doesn’t need it, and then I’ll have let a monster into my home.
If he moved in with me, I’d wake up every morning hoping he’ll say, “Hey, honey!” from his perch in front of the TV. And if he doesn’t, there’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s started again and he won’t be speaking to me, or he will be speaking to me, but slapping the sofa and telling me how no one listens to him, or how he hates his deceased ex-wife, or that his brother is an idiot. And I’ll listen and try not to give advice because, depending on his mood, it might just turn his anger on me and then there will be days of icy, stony silence, and glares, or muttered accusations of things I’ve never felt or thought or done that he imagines me feeling or thinking or doing.
Transition to circa 1966:
I’m in the living room after school, in my coat, waiting for my daddy to open the door of his study and drive me somewhere. I’m quiet. I prefer to wait. I’m sure not gonna knock. Goliath is there, a toy poodle we recently got. Goliath brings me a chewed up rubber ball and drops it in front of me in anticipation. I pick it up, throw it across the room, and watch him frantically run to fetch it and bring it back. We play a game of fetch for a while.
Goliath can’t reach the ball that’s rolled under the bookcase. I reach under it while Goliath pants and barks and gets in my way. I try to push him aside to get his ball for him. I grab his tail and he squeals. I get the ball and run to the other side of the room to resume our game when a door slams down the hall and I hear my daddy’s footsteps.
“What are you doing?” he bellows.
“Um,” I gasp, “I was jus…”
“Is that the way you treat your pets?”
Goliath is dancing around his feet, unaware.
“Is it?” he demands an answer.
“Is this the way you treat your pets?” he shouts, and in slow motion it seems, he picks up little Goliath, raises him, and throws the dog through the air. Goliath bangs against the bookcase, yelps and darts from the room.
Transition to me today, thinking about the past:
Most of my life I avoided my father. We rarely spoke – never after I left home. My memory is poor, but I do remember the few times he showed me affection. I remember pretending to be asleep in the back seat of the car because I wanted him to put his arms around me and carry me upstairs. I remember him putting on a record of an orchestra playing a symphony and asking me to tell him what I saw. I remember him stroking my hand and teasing me about the tiny blond hairs on the backs of my fingers the day he took me to a doctor and was told I had scoliosis but since I’d stopped growing already, they couldn’t do anything, and I’d get used to the pain.
I also remember that Sundays were just about the only good days because we’d all go to church and he’d be up front conducting the service or preaching a wonderful sermon, everyone loved him, and he was serene and calm.
But I mostly remember a closed door and my fear of the man behind it and the anger boiling inside of him. Much later, my mom admitted to us that he was long ago diagnosed as manic-depressive, maybe schizophrenic. I don’t know if ever took medication. He mellowed with age, but I was far away and uninterested in his attempts to make amends. When he died, I didn’t feel anything but relief and a little pity. He’d hurt or alienated so many people in his seventy years, the attendance at his memorial service was very small and no one had much to say about him. We went through the motions for my mom’s sake.
If you were to ask me what my father taught me, I’d tell you he taught me how to read a room, an eyebrow, an exhalation. He taught me to know how people around me feel. I can say hello to a smiling couple I’m friends with and know they’re going to break up soon. I can listen to music I love, but hear how jarring it sounds to someone who doesn’t, and ask that it please be turned down.
My brother is bipolar, my nephew is, my first-born son, but none of them are abusive except, perhaps, to themselves – in their thoughts. They’re also all three certified geniuses like my dad was. I get depressed too, but a ray of sunshine through the clouds, the sound of children laughing, or a job well done is enough to cheer me up. It helps that I learned my empathy is my strength and that I can be a rock for people in pain to grab onto. More recently, it helps that I’m learning to set boundaries.
It also really helps if they stay on their meds.
We’ve stayed after school today to practice for the German competition. I’ve chosen not to take a written or oral test or enter any of the contests I know I’ll fail, but to recite a German poem from memory. Mrs. Olson calls me to the front of the near-empty classroom. I stand there, look at the kind faces of my three classmates and freeze.
“In meine…,” Mrs. Olson prompts.
“In meine Heimat kam ich wieder…”
“Not kaaam, kam, the A is short.”
I’m blank again.
“Go on, I von’t interrupt you anymore.”
I rattle it off:
In meine Heimat kam ich wieder,
Es war die alte Heimat noch,
Dieselbe Luft, dieselben Lieder,
Und alles war ein andres doch.
Die Welle rauschte wie vorzeiten,
Am Waldweg sprang wie sonst das Reh,
Von Fern erklang ein Abendläuten,
Die Berge glänzten aus dem See.
Doch vor dem Haus, wo uns vor Jahren
Die Mutter stets empfing, dort sah
Ich fremde Menschen, sah ein fremd Gebaren;
Wie weh, wie weh mir da geschah!
Mir war, als rief es aus den Wogen:
Flieh, flieh, und ohne Wiederkehr!
Die du geliebt, sind alle fortgezogen
Und kehren nimmer, nimmermehr.
I can’t believe I remembered every line! I grin at my little audience. Mrs. Olson frowns.
“Slower, slower! That was much too fast.”
“Try it again, but slow down, calm down, there is time. Think of the meaning.”
I recite it again, concentrating on speaking slowly. I finish.
Mrs. Olson smiles, but looks at me sadly and says, “You’ve never known loss, have you? You have never lost a loved one.”
“Um, I guess not…,” I stutter. I search my memory, but the only funeral I can remember was a great uncle’s and I was very young and frightened. But I didn’t miss him: I barely knew him.
Of course, Mrs. Olson has known loss. We all know her story. How she, a German speaker living in Alsace-Lorraine, then part of France, lived through the war, was forced to work as an interpreter for the Nazis, how she survived but lost everything, then met Mr. Olson and came to the United States. In that moment, I feel stupid and too young and lucky all rolled into one.
I’m really not good at learning languages, not like Paul, a lanky boy in my class who not only takes German and French, but is teaching himself Gaelic and puts Elvish lines from Tolkien on the chalkboard in the back of the room in his beautiful handwriting. He will go on to win quite a few prizes at our upcoming competition and I, although I recite too quickly and softly and have never known loss, will win the poetry recital contest. When we emerge from the coolness of the building on the college campus where the competition is held and into the heat outside, I let out a whoop, then hop down a grassy knoll in my skirt and high-heeled sandals. My classmates have never seen me act so effusively. They laugh and will later tell the class about it. Mrs. Olson will explain that I probably won because the judges were so tired of hearing “Die Lorelei” over and over and over again. I know she’s right.
I always remembered the look on Mrs. Olson’s face and my shame at not reading this lovely poem to her with enough feeling. Then, two years ago, I was reading a novel called What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. The book is loosely autobiographical and tells of her mother’s illness and death. The story wrenched my heart not because I knew how the writer felt, but because I’d never felt that kind of love from or for my own mother.
Suddenly, Mrs. Olson and that day in our German classroom came back and this time, I didn’t feel any shame, but anger at her presumptuousness. She knew nothing about me. She made me feel stupid and shallow and I wasn’t. I’m not. I was nervous and shy; uncertain how to pronounce these words in this foreign language.
Naturally, I chose “Heimkehr” by Heinrich Heine because it spoke to me. The poem was about returning home to find “it was still my old home: the same air, the same songs, yet all was different.” But, of course, the final lines of the poem imply that Heine not only lost his home; that his mother and the people he loved “moved away” to never, ever return. They are dead.
I admit my losses weren’t shattering like Heine’s or Mrs. Olson’s. I was just homesick. It had been four years since we left Pittsburgh and moved to Florida and I had only slowly found my footing in my new environment. Yet this longing for what I wish I’d had – a loving, stable home, self-assurance to express what I felt without fear – will always taunt me and, consciously or intuitively, inform everything I do: the men I love, the way I raise my children, the poems I read, the stories that touch me.
Can we lose what we never had?
We’re in the back yard of our second neighbors’ house. Beyond the narrow patch of lawn, we crouch in the bushes overlooking Three Degree Road with long sticks in our hands, shooting at the cars passing by, shouting, “bang, bang!”
Like our house, this house has its garage doors facing the only access up a sloped driveway, but their garage fits two cars. The redbrick house belongs to the oldest daughter of the Nowaks, our next-door neighbors, and her husband. Their children are younger than us, not even in school yet.
The Nowaks’ youngest daughter is named Carol. She’s very tall and my mother calls her a tomboy. It’s Carol who I’m shooting at cars with because my sister is at summer camp and Carol has to make do by playing with me. She’s older than my sister, but her parents are much, much older than mine. To me, they look like grandparents (and, well, they are) and live in an older, stone-clad, one-story house between our house and their daughter’s.
We’d moved to this house at the end of the long, limestone gravel driveway in 1965, when I was four. It was built of yellow brick, like our old house in Ford City, but it was more modern, with a garage in the basement and a huge backyard. On one side, actually behind the house, a hill rose steeply up, and in front of the house, opposite the front door and the big picture window in the living room, a hill dropped steeply down. We were surrounded by woods on three sides.
In the summer, we’re awakened in the morning by an almost deafening chorus of birds. If we’re not sent to our grandparents in Ohio for vacation church school and until we’re old enough to go to summer camp, my sister and I are on our own most of the day. If Carol comes over, I’m usually left out of the play because I’m a little sissy. If she doesn’t, Kate and I might go out and pick wild blackberries from the bushes on the hill heading up from our yard. Or just take turns flying on our tall old swing made of iron pipes. Its seat is hard rubber and the chains it hangs from are thick and can really hurt your fingers if you don’t forget to keep them out of the way when you wind around and around and around and then let go to swing in circles. We also have a small, new swing set next to the old swing, but it’s for babies.
One day, Kate shows me the way up the hill. We walk through our backyard, past the little apple tree to a spot where some rocks are stacked in a makeshift wall. We climb over that and there’s a pathway worn into the ground, heading straight up. I have to grab hold of branches, it’s so steep. Then the slope ends and there’s a cleared pathway on a terrace running the length of the hillside back towards our house. We follow that all the way until we could almost jump from it to the roof of our patio – well, Batman and Robin could – and Kate finds another worn climbing track and begins the ascent.
“Are you sure?” I ask timidly.
“I do it all the time.”
“If you’re too chicken, go back.”
I’m too insulted and curious and follow her up and up, gaining my footing where she had, grabbing onto roots and weeds, hoping there’s no poison ivy.
In no time we’re at the edge of a backyard. Kate scoots through the yard, me behind her and we reach a street. A lady’s street, I think since the sign says Lillian Road. We turn right and walk past a few houses, it bends to the left and we can hear traffic. We slip through a hedge and are in the parking lot of Pines Plaza! I’ve only ever been here with my parents in the car. We head straight to Sun Drug to look at the pets department and the comic books.
Summer vacations are very long when you’re young. There’s a four square-feet patch of earth close to the house where the grass won’t grow: That’s home plate. The left pole of the swing set is first base, the lilac bush is second and the apple tree is third. But you can’t always play softball or hide-and-seek in the back yard, so sometimes, in spite of warnings about copperheads, we slip down the hill from a place behind our daddy’s shed – literally slip if it had rained – all the way to the creek. (It’s actually called Girty’s Run, but we didn’t know that then and just called it “the crick.”) The terrain levels out in one spot a few yards from the water and the earth is stomped smooth from our feet and there are stumps we can sit on and I wish we’d brought along a picnic. Vines hang from the tall trees and we can swing on them like Tarzan until we show it to our cousins and they swing too much and there aren’t any more vines.
There are bugs with long legs that hop across the water. We try to build a dam and almost succeed but the water always finds a way through it. There are tadpoles and tiny fish in the creek. I put some tadpoles in a jar, wanting to raise them until they transform into frogs, but don’t know what to feed them. I set them free again.
Across the creek and running parallel to it is a large paved loop of the drive behind the car wash. Early evenings and Saturdays, cars fill it up waiting to drive through the automated car wash. But when the car wash closes, it’s ours. My sister rides her bike down our bumpy driveway while I walk mine behind her, crying, “Wait up!” We turn left at the end, walk over a little bridge, past the apartment building where we get our hair cut short in the downstairs beauty parlor once a year, and then turn into the car wash drive.
It took a long time and lots of skinned knees before I could ride a bicycle without training wheels. From then on, I was wobbly, but free. I’d go around and around and around that smooth, oval drive, flying like the wind.
At the back of the car wash drive a path led into the woods. It was worn and wide enough for us to bike on it; at least it gave me practice on an unpaved surface. A few times we biked or walked it to see how far we could go before we got too hungry or scared of where we’d end up. It seemed to go on forever. Much later, I learned that was because it used to be the bed of a trolley line that went all the way to Butler.
When our cousins come to visit, a badminton net is put up and a wading pool filled. My daddy only once takes a pile of kids for a ride around the backyard on a little trailer hitched to his tiller. On summer evenings, the yard is lit up by lightning bugs that we catch in jars. From our bedroom, we hear the squeaky-wheel cry of pheasants and the screeches of the blue jays. Groundhogs and rabbits amble or hop away when we go out to play. In the fall, on a good day, daddy rakes all the leaves – ALL the leaves – in the backyard into huge piles we can jump in. In the winter, we can sled down the hill from our front yard to the top section of the driveway. One very cold winter, the sleds don’t stop but carry us all the way across the wide turnaround, past the red Ford van, down the driveway and almost into the street. I don’t know how to brake, so throw myself off.
* * *
Two years ago, I took my son with me on a weekend trip to Pittsburgh. On our last day, I rented a car and we drove first up Federal Street to our old church, which stood gray and abandoned in a now shabby, run-down neighborhood looking over the city. We drove further on along Perry Highway. I stayed in the right lane so I could drive slowly and see familiar sights. We turned right on Three Degree Road and past the three mailboxes at the end of our old driveway. Not the same mailboxes, but set up in the same spot. We passed the intersection and drove on to my elementary school to find a heap of rubble. They had only recently torn it down.
I turned the car around and drove back to the three mailboxes and this time, I turned onto the drive, for the first time steering a car up its slope, past the two houses on the left. I parked where our visitors had always parked and we got out of the car. A young man came towards me from my old front yard.
“Hey, lady, you can’t park there, you’re blocking me.”
And, yes, they now had extended the drive up our sledding hill and there were two cars parked right by the front door, where the oak tree stood that once dropped a branch on my dad’s head.
“Hi! Sorry, we won’t be long. I just wanted…well…I grew up in this house and just wanted to show it to my son here.”
“Oh, wow. Sure. When was that?”
We conversed and he motioned for us to come closer. I asked him about the Nowaks, barely listening to his reply as I gazed at the front of my old house and peered past his cars into the back yard. It was landscaped. The hill my sister and I scrambled up was now was bare of wild bushes and brambles and planted with ferns. There was a swimming pool, there were two decks. The hill on the other side that we slid down to the creek was blocked by a tall wooden fence. A little boy peered curiously out the big front window. The man’s wife had joined him and we chitchatted awhile.
“Would you like to see inside?” she asked.
My heart leaped in my ribcage. I knew if I did, I would cry. And it was a long drive back to our AirBnB in the city.
“Oh, no, I don’t want to be a bother. Just wanted to see the place. Thanks so much. You all have a nice day.”
My father was the pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church on East Street on the North Side of Pittsburgh. In the early 1970s, our church and most of the houses on that stretch of East Street were torn down to make way for the I-279 Parkway. As a result, Memorial Lutheran Church merged with St. Luke’s, which was located up the hill on Federal Street Extension, and together they would be called St. Luke’s Memorial Lutheran Church. And there, in the fifth grade Sunday school class, I first encountered Sue, the first kid in Sunday school who ever knew as much about the Bible as I did. And her dad wasn’t even a pastor! He was a mailman!
Sue was my first best friend. And in spite of being bright and always raising her hand to answer questions, she was coooooooooool. She used slang I’d never heard (and rarely understood), she snorted when she laughed and was always chewing a stick of cinnamon gum. Sitting up in the balcony together during church services, she’d give me the other half of her stick of gum when she decided I “needed” it. In my eyes, she was cool, self-confident, self-possessed; all I wished I could be. When she joked or kidded with me, which she did a lot, she’d poke me and say, “Psych!” I had no idea what that meant. She spelled it S-I-K-E in the notes she passed me on that balcony, so maybe she didn’t know either. But she knew her Bible and she knew her way around the North Side and downtown Pittsburgh, too, places I’d never gone without my parents.
In the sixth grade, I was five foot one, weighed 71 pounds, and was pale and redheaded. The year before, I was allowed to let my hair grow long for the first time. Sue was tiny and had long brown hair. My mom used to call us Mutt & Jeff. By the seventh grade I was five foot five and a half, but Sue stayed little. In a home movie of the two of us dancing around my living room, dressed up and pretending we were Janis Joplin, she comes up to my shoulder.
Back when my parents moved from Ford City to Pittsburgh in 1965, they decided they didn’t want to live on the North Side but preferred the more suburban North Hills where the public schools were said to be the best in the state. The drive to church every Sunday took 45 minutes. We still didn’t live in regular suburbia though. Our house was located in what seemed like utter seclusion at the end of a long, gravel driveway on a busy street. I couldn’t walk to my friends’ houses, and I don’t recall there being any busses.
When I would visit Sue for the weekend, I was in a different world. Her house was in the hilly part of the North Side, so there was a long, concrete stairway from the street to the front porch of the old brick house her family lived in. Sue’s mother was a homemaker, very pretty, kind and devout. Sue’s teenage older sister looked like their mom and Sue looked more like her dad, with an upturned nose and impish face. She also had an adult brother who’d long moved out.
In the seventh grade, we started junior high. Sue and I still sat together on the balcony in church and she would tell me about the boys at school who had crushes on her. I visited her more often because we were in Catechism class on Saturdays, and I’d simply go home with her afterwards and then my parents would take me home after church on Sunday.
When we weren’t in her bedroom playing records or going through her big sister’s makeup and nail polish, we’d get on a PAT Transit bus, which would wind its way through the narrow streets and around the frightening curves of the hills down toward the river. We’d get off near a new shopping mall not far from the brand new Three Rivers Stadium and wander around the department stores, where we’d pick out the appliances at Sears for our future shared apartment. Or we’d spend hours exploring the zany items on the shelves at Spencer Gifts.
And although I was the brainier one of the two of us, I was always enthralled by Sue. She had “street” knowledge and skills I would never acquire. She went to a school where you had to know how to fight, and she could! Most of all, I was grateful that she accepted me – as uncool as I was – and that she assumed that one day we’d both graduate high school, get jobs and be roommates.
We had our first communion together and then, during the monthly communion services, Sue and I would be silly and take our emptied little glasses of Manischewitz wine back up to the balcony and lick them clean.
Then came eighth grade. Now we were almost teenagers with our little bras holding up nothing and thinking more and more about boys and even jobs, since we started babysitting for the first time. I was also old enough to have a proper teenager’s birthday party in the basement! I planned my own party, the cake, the snacks, the soft drinks, I chose the records we’d dance to, decorated the basement and tried my hardest to make it look like a cool teen hangout.
Two of my girlfriends at junior high, Linda and Nancy, were also a Mutt & Jeff. Linda was the willowy, smart, hilariously funny one, Nancy was the little, impish, tough one. They came to my thirteenth birthday party. So did, I see in the old silent home movie documenting the day, most of my little clique of nerdy, nice girlfriends from junior high. And so did Sue. The old 8 mm movie rolls faded terribly years later in a damp closet in Florida, and being copied onto videocassette and then later onto DVD didn’t improve the quality. But there is a group of longhaired girls in bell-bottom pants in a paneled basement room. The camera is focused on me, opening my presents: Three 45s! A Snoopy poster! My sister and brother come downstairs with a birthday cake. Then there are girls dancing. Then there are only two dancing. They are the same height and build, both have long brown hair and they are doing a complicated line dance. The camera doesn’t show their feet. They dance and dance while we all watch.
That was the day my best friend was stolen from me. Nancy and Sue, who had so much in common, were now best friends. I’d hear about Sue from Nancy at school and hear about Nancy from Sue at church and feel left out and sad. It confirmed my deepest fears: I would never be cool, not enough. In my autograph book at the end of that year, the last in junior high, Nancy wrote: “Because of YOU, I met SUE!”
Just after I started ninth grade, we moved to Florida. Sue wasn’t a good pen pal, but she did send me pictures of herself in a new winter coat, of her pet parakeet, the little boy she babysat, and the snow outside her house, to show me what I was missing.
In the summer of 1976, we went back north during summer vacation and Sue and I went downtown together. I have four black and white snapshots of views by the river, one of her by the water with a bridge and the fountain at Point Park behind her. And then we lost touch. Later, when I was in college, her mother was in touch with my mother and sent her Sue’s address. She was married and living in Texas. I wrote to her, but we soon slipped apart again. Many, many years later, she found me again, via email or MySpace. This time, I was the one who didn’t keep in touch. I’d long cut myself off from any church, but she’d gone the other way and was now evangelical. In my eyes, at least, we’d swapped places: She was backward; I was cool.