Monday, April 9, 2007
I hadn't been back to Boston since August 2005 so I was looking forward to heading East for Easter. Every year, my uncle hosts an Easter dinner at his house, where a large and varied group of relatives and family friends gathers. Ev usually accompanies me; her flights home to her parents' are reserved for Christmas.
I flew into Boston on Friday afternoon; I was to stay with Ev in Dorchester Friday and Saturday night, go to my uncle's for Easter, and be dropped at the airport after dinner.
It was great to see Ev and all the changes taking place in the neighborhood: a former dive bar/eyesore had been renovated into a nice neighborhood restaurant (The Ashmont Grill) by a local resident who also owns an upscale restaurant in the South End. Renovation to the Ashmont T station and the construction of the new mixed-use development next to it had begun, transforming that landscape entirely. On our street itself not much had changed, and it was pleasantly familiar to sit in Ev's kitchen, drink tea, and chat as in old times, a cat in each of our laps.
On Saturday we attended a women's tea in Waltham, an annual event hosted by a friend of Ev's. About thirty-five women were crowded into the apartment, sipping tea and eating homemade pastries; it was a good time. One woman, who was in her eighties, had moved from New Jersey as she got more frail, and now lived in Cambridge with her son and his wife. You'd think that many people, after leaving their home of 52 years, complete with a 100-year-old garden, would become discouraged; this woman began a tabletop press out of her kitchen, participates in the poetry slams at Out of The Blue Gallery in Cambridge, and joined the local UU church.
In her youth, she'd gotten an electrical engineering degree, which was unusual for a woman that time. When asked what had attracted her to it, she replied that she'd attended an all-girl boarding school from sixth grade through high school, and wanted a profession where she wouldn't have to be surrounded by women any more. I spoke to her as the tea was breaking up; she was hilarious ("I'm all for equality; if you want to marry someone of your own sex, I don't give a damn, but the idea of spending the rest of my life married to a woman sounds like hell.") She gave me her print-company card and said if I wrote her with my address she'd send me her poetry. Her press is called Warthog Press ("People always say, 'I've heard of that!' -- they haven't.") When asked about the name: "I don't know. I just like them. I saw a program on them and I loved their funny little tails as they run." She also drew her own logo ("I copied it out of the dictionary.")
Saturday night Ev and I ate dinner at the Ashmont Grill and chatted some more. I went to bed and had an anxiety-filled dream about trying to save all these animals that were scattered on the lawn - I was grabbing up seals and rabbits and dogs and who-knew-what, rushing them inside a shelter before they were hurt. Each time I grabbed an armful, more would appear.
"My subconscious knows I'm going home for a visit," I told Ev.
We took the train and my parents picked us up along with a cousin who'd hopped on the train at another stop. On the way to my uncle's my mother told me that the house we used to live in had burned down.
"Right to the ground," my father said. "They have to demolish everything."
This was the home I'd spent my childhood in, a Philly-style three-family where we lived on one floor, a tenant on another, and my great-aunt in the top apartment. When we moved out the summer before I began high school I was so distraught that I'd taken a ball-point pen and written my name in tiny letters on the wallpaper next to door frames and windowsills in a desperate attempt to make sure that some part of me remained there. Now that was gone, along with the basement where we'd had our train set, the living room where we'd watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and where we'd gather to watch Creature Double Feature inside "forts" made of blankets strung from one piece of furniture to the other. My aunt's apartment with its deep storage closets and slanted roofs; the kitchen where I'd played jacks for hours on end or practiced with my Duncan Butterfly yo-yo; the back porch where I'd watch pigeons build nests; the bedroom I shared with my aunt; the apartment where my Italian great-grandmother used to sip B&B each night before bed, and where she passed away. All that, gone. Poof.
We arrived at my uncle's, said our hellos, and my uncle asked,
"So, what are you going to eat?"
Surprised, I looked at him. "Well, what...do you have?"
"I have some green beans, and some yams...." his voice trailed off.
"Um." I looked at the ham on the table.
"I made French onion soup, but it has beef broth. I have ham, but you don't eat that. I have pasta sauce, but it has meat."
I saw some baking dishes. "What's that?"
"That will work."
Now, I love my uncle. He has always been very good to me, to my whole family. But for cripes sake. I've been a vegetarian for over thirteen years, and I'm sick of this shit. Not that there's usually any dish they make that we can all share (even though it would take almost no effor to modify one of the dishes - the lasagna for instance, or the pasta) but I can usually cobble something together from mashed potatoes and carrots and dinner rolls. Sometimes I can convince them to set aside some cooked pasta before they add the meat sauce, so that Ev and I can have pasta with butter, maybe some romano cheese. But apparently this time not even that effort was to be expected. Ev and I often in the past had brought a dish, partly to contribute and partly to have something to eat, but this time I'd been traveling and we'd been busy. Let me also mention that when my uncle went through a diabetes scare and was forbidden to eat meat, suddenly everyone knew how to grill Boca Burgers and make vegetable lasagna.
"Ok. I guess we're having yams and green beans, then."
I took Ev (who also does not eat meat) aside, first to apologize to her, and then to get her level-headed opinion. "Ok, is it me, or is this ridiculous? I have no objectivity here, because I can't separate old, deep shit from this stuff."
"No, this is odd. They KNOW you're a vegetarian. I don't think it's malicious, it's just really thoughtless."
"Yeah. I almost wish it WERE malicious, because malice would mean that he actually gave me some consideration. It's this... disregard that does my head in."
I wanted to see the remains of my childhood home, so I agreed to pick my sister up from work so that I could swing by on the way back. Taking my dad's car, Ev and I drove to the supermarket where she works, and it was great to see her. I really miss my sister. Of everyone, I think she's the one I could have the most real relationship with.
I suggested getting some food we could eat, so with my sister's expert guidance we got some hummus, pita, tomatoes, and baby carrots.
On the way back I stopped by the old neighborhood. The house wasn't completely gone but it was a total loss, and a dumpster stood in the driveway. I took some photos and stood there, trying to feel something. But so much has changed since we lived there; the garage I'd once thought would be a good idea to climb and then sat upon, paralyzed with fright, for a half-hour, had been replaced with a small prefabricated storage shed. The house had been sided after we left and was no longer the same color. The old iron house numbers remained; only they looked familiar, although someone had long since painted over them -- I'd had at them with red, white, and blue paint in 1976 (remember 'A Bicentennial Moment'?). I considered taking them, but had no tools.
I stood there waiting to feel something, but couldn't reconcile this house, this ruin, with the childhood images in my head: summer birthday parties on picnic tables in the driveway; hose fights; building teepees in the yard; my cat, Friskie, snoozing underneath the rose bush by the back porch.
We returned to my uncle's house where we ate our hummus, green beans, and the canned potatoes my uncle had boiled (Ev said that he'd mentioned it was the best he could do on last-minute notice. I was astounded. I'd told them we were coming weeks ago.)
We had a birthday cake for my mother. I had gotten her a card weeks ago but had left it in Chicago; when I explained, I could tell she didn't believe me. As we ate the cake Ev suddenly realized that it was 3:30; I had to be at the airport at around 4pm. This meant several things: 1. I had to leave right then; 2. I had had no chance to have a conversation with my own mother; 3. I hadn't been able to give my dad a decent heads up. My dad, the person who drives me to the airport, drinks.
I felt awful. The time had flown by and I'd barely spoken to anyone, although in retrospect that's not really anything new; I guess the distance and time away just made it feel more stark. I felt as though I'd visited a long-distance boyfriend and we realized that our relationship was based on memories and old associations, that now we really don't have anything to say to one another and would each rather be out with our friends. I would have spent one of the nights at my parents' house, talked with them and watched a video with Jill, but my parents smoke and won't agree to smoke outside while I'm there, and my asthma gets bad around cigarette smoke. It's their house, so it's their call.
So I hugged my mother, promised I'd call her, gave hugs and kisses goodbye, and Ev and I got into the car with my dad, who yes had been drinking but what's new. His driving was steady although, true to form when he drinks, he subjected us to his litany of ills and complaints and ethnic slurs, so that by the time he dropped us off, told me he loved me and drove away, I was apologizing to Ev and thanking her for being such a good sport. She really is.
Ev headed for the Silver Line and I headed for my gate. On my flight home I realized that it had been a productive trip: any thoughts of homesickness had been put to rest. It had been great to see Ev and hang out with her; indeed, it had been the best part of the trip. I'd traveled a thousand miles, paid for a plane ticket, and my own family didn't care whether my friend and I had something to eat. My dad had mentioned that they were thinking about visiting my brother and his family (again) in Colorado, never thinking to be embarassed to admit this to the daughter they never visit. I love my sister most of all, but we didn't get any real time together, and I always end up with a sense that I am failing her somehow. I want her to see an orthopedist for her back, show her how to keep her hands from getting so chapped, but until I get custody of her it won't happen, and my parents are very much in charge there.
I sat on the plane and thought about my dream of rescuing all of the animals, of frantically and futilely trying to pick up a seemingly endless number of creatures who were looking to me to save them. It would be easy to say that the animals represented the members of my family, but I learned long ago that in dreams everything we dream is ourselves. I thought about my meager meal, how little I ended up speaking to my parents, how I look forward to seeing my family each time and each time feeling like a distant family friend. Perhaps in my dream the only one I am trying to save is myself. Perhaps, looking at the ruins of my childhood home, what I felt was not indifference, but the bittersweet acceptance that it's time to let go of the dream of this family, this home, and embrace the ones I make for myself.