Saturday, July 17, 2010

Going Home Again...and Again...

Yesterday I was in the neighborhood of my parents' former house and decided to check out what renovations the new owner is doing. I pulled into the driveway and saw this sight.

This reminded me that the first story I ever sold to a national magazine was called "You Can Go Home Again," for the short-lived Newsweek on Campus. It was a somewhat smug piece about my decision after graduating from college not to go to grad school but to move back in with my parents so I could "find myself."

Truth be told, the situation wasn't ideal: I was both crowding my brother Matt during  his senior year of high school, and witnessing my mom coping with some empty-nest midlife issues. To get out of the house I worked at a local farm stand, where several residents regarded me with suspicion, wondering if I was on work-release from prison or rehab.

But living there enabled me to write
my ticket to a national magazine career -- a piece about film director Terrence Malick, who'd gone AWOL after directing two brilliant movies. It took me six months to write, and for my efforts the now-defunct California magazine, edited by legendary Esquire editor Harold Hayes, paid me a paltry $1500. (Xeroxes available on request.)

(It was supposed to run in Esquire itself, but I hadn't secured an interview with Malick, and Esquire was understandably gun-shy about write-arounds only a few years after running a caustic write-around piece on John Lennon, which Mark David Chapman apparently read before deciding to shoot him.)

Using the Malick piece to get other assignments, I secured my first New York apartment and moved out before the familiarity bred too much contempt.

To my surprise, many of my high school classmates couldn't wait to move back. So many ended up raising their kids there that I wrote a piece marveling about it for New York magazine.

Despite my refusal to follow suit, I was the one in my family who went home again the most. My two brothers both settled in the Pacific Northwest, so it was left to me to show up for birthdays, holidays, Mets games, band concerts..... (I also returned to write another story about the town for New York, about the culture clash when a bevy of Japanese businessmen relocated their families there.)

Beneath the groans, I got a lot out of my proximity. I was able to use it as mini-storage for all the things that wouldn't fit in my apartment, and after my kids were born, they were able to have real relationships with my parents (who also provided free babysitting). And when I relocated to L.A. for work, I  was able to bring my kids out there on my trips back east.

I didn't realize how much I took the family home for granted, until my mother died. I devoted as much time as I could to  visiting my Dad in the big, suddenly empty house, which he basically reduced to a small apartment with a lot of other unused (but expensively heated!) rooms and 33 years of maxi-storage. Although he was pragmatic to a fault -- after my mom died, he left a copy of his will on the kitchen table -- he couldn't deal with all the stuff.  So after he died, I spent way too many hours in the house, sifting through and throwing out piles and piles of accumulated detritus, including, my bad, all the back issues of magazines I had written for (and my mother's huge binder of painstaking photocopies of them).

The story that symbolizes the Sisyphean nature of the job is that in a pantry cupboard I discovered a set of dessert goblets wrapped in newspaper from 1960 -- the year my parents had moved into their FIRST house, 16 years before they moved to this house. In other words, they moved the goblets twice without ever using them for 49 years.

The housing market was, as we all know, sluggish. The seasons changed and last October I went back out to install the storm windows -- handmade, heavy wooden ones. When done, I came outside to see this Hitchockian gathering of ravens on my folks' tennis court.
I had one of those spooky feelings I always hear about from other people and never believe. The raven is a mythological symbol -- in the Koran it teaches man how to bury dead bodies, and there's also the theory that they are the mediators between life and death.

After many eventful months -- smoke alarms going off in the middle of the night, water gushing out of the radiators, relocation of a sculpture to Village Hall -- the house finally sold, in January. The guy who bought it was a stickler and forced the next-door neighbor to dig up a patch of driveway that encroached on a far corner of my parents' property.

Two months later, a horrendous Nor'easter ripped through town, knocking out electricity, uprooting hundreds of trees, including three giant ones that had shielded my parents' home from the main road it was situated on. They brought down a fence and cost thousands to remove.
(The neighbor had to be smiling.)

So yesterday when I went back to check it out and saw the ravens perched, vulture-like, on the dumpsters......well, I decided it was too soon to go home again.

And that really, of course, it wasn't home any more.


REBECCA said...

beautiful and true. just lost my uncle to pancreatic cancer and as my cousins stay w his body -according to jewish law he can't be buried on the sabbath and his body cannot be left alone until its buried-i am thinking: where he's going? maybe thats home.

Anonymous said...

David, random thought, but this reminds me of our family station wagon. Long, maroon Pontiac Caprice Classic. Circa 1979 or so. Became our teenage car, driving down to Detroit and across to Canada for various escapades. My older brother took it to college in 83 and returned it back in 87. The engine just wouldn't give in.

Maybe a year later, when I flew home one Holiday break from college, the car service driver that my parents hired to transport me from the airport home was in our Capri Classic. She'd painted it navy blue with white lettering to advertise the taxi business.

David Handelman said...

@Reb -- yes, and sorry.

@Jen -- your story is not only NOT random, it's amazing...

Daniel said...

Interesting how you combine and associate memories of your burgeoning writing career with more adult understandings of your parents too. i hope you don't mean you threw out your mother's binder of your work...

And, I didn't know about the Esquire write-around on John Lennon, which surely compromised his privacy -- sad to think about that.