You Can’t Go Home Again

(This is the second essay in a three-part series)

A commentary on this series:

I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).

I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.

I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.

Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.

*          *          *

For months after we got rid of the landline, I would lie in my bed late at night with my cell phone and dial the old number: 7195994266. The number had been engrained in my mind, not out of necessity but rather out of habit. My mom used to write it on a sticky note and put it in my backpack in case I needed to call home when I was at a friend’s house or school. Eventually, I didn’t need the sticky note.

I would listen to the dial tone. Telephones are supposed to be there to connect you to people who are not with you at the moment. I was supposed to be able to dial this phone number and home would be on the other line. This phone was supposed to be anchored in this home. If I were to call it, my mother or my father were supposed to be there to pick it up.

Each time that I would call this number, I would listen to these rings and click the phone off before anyone could answer. I would repeat this pattern a few times, each time listening to an additional ring, waiting until I would get too nervous that someone had already claimed the old number before hanging up.

Then the last time I called, I waited too long. One ring too many, and someone answered.

“Hello?” the man who picked up the phone questioned the silence.

What was I expecting? My mom had died a few months before canceling the telephone service. Even if we still had that same number, she wasn’t going to pick up. I knew that, yet I still hoped that maybe she would be on the other line.

“Hello, is anybody there?” The voice questioned again.

No response. I exhaled into the phone.

“Whoever this is, can you please stop calling this number late at night?”

Click. I hung up. That was the last time that I ever called my home phone number. It was no longer mine.

*          *          *

I watched my parents build the house. I was five, and my sister was three. To get to the plot of land they had chosen on Dante Way, my parents had to walk up past where the road ended because we were the first house to be built at the top of the hill.

Sometimes, after kindergarten, my mom would pick me up and drive to the interior decorator’s office. Her name was Joan, and she would send my mom home with tile samples and swatches for window treatments. Even before moving to Colorado, my mother agonized over the smallest design details. For example, she had her grandmother’s couches reupholstered so that they were the right color scheme to match her ideal decor. Nothing was going to be good enough until she had it her way, and that is why the house on Dante Way was my mom’s house. She sat with designers for hours picking the exact shade of cherry wood to finish the kitchen floor with (which, incidentally, would turn out to be a horrible decision seeing as cherry is a very soft wood and not suited for kitchens, children, or dogs for that matter.) She wanted the living room to match the reupholstered furniture. Each detail that she put in was refined, and more than often seemed slightly ridiculous to my father. She insisted that the wall separating the living room and the kitchen should be curved, which was difficult for the builders to accomplish because she also wanted the dust boards to be made from individual panels of real wood. She hated when cabinets in the kitchen didn’t reach to the ceiling because “it just collects dust up there” so her kitchen had cabinets so tall that she couldn’t even reach the top shelf without the help of my dad and a chair, though they were aesthetically pleasing. Instead of plain, one color accent walls, she wanted marble-looking walls with varying teals, golds, and grays. When the walls were being painted, I helped brainstorm how to execute my mom’s vision and suggested painting a scene from the Wizard of Oz on the wall with a rainbow. The painters laughed, and my mom promptly turned down that idea, opting for a more tasteful option. However, she did professionally frame the artwork that I drew in preschool and hung it around the house. The frame was about 100 times more expensive than the artwork that it displayed. The house was hers inside and outside. She picked everything; she signed off on everything; she gave her blessing.

Her requirement of perfection probably stemmed from a desire to emulate her ideal vision of home. Home was not in Colorado for her; she didn’t want to leave Pittsburgh again as she had so many years ago, even before she had met my dad. However, when my dad got a job in Colorado, she begrudgingly packed up her apartment and journeyed out west. Her refusal to leave Pittsburgh and uproot herself is ironic, considering that as a teenager she had decided to do just that. After her father’s death, she would walk home from high school everyday to find her sobbing mother at home. My mom would then leave her house, walk to the convenience store to buy lemon wafers, and spend the rest of her afternoon walking around waiting until she could go home. Eventually, she couldn’t handle her mother crying anymore and decided to move to Honolulu, Hawaii, where her father’s brother lived.

*          *          *

For me, after her death, things at home seemed to stay the same for awhile. We never got rid of our answering machine that my mom had recorded: “Hi you’ve reached the Kellners. We aren’t available to take your call but leave us a message, and we will get back to you as soon as we can. BEEP” I remember we never realized that this was something we had to change, and in fact I rather liked it. The months after she had died I would call the home phone just to listen to her voice on the end of the other line. To me, the answering machine was anchored to the foundation and ideals on which that house was built, and maybe because her voice was on the machine, she would be there when I got home.

For a while, her clothes still hung in her closet. Much like her voice on the answering machine, she remained. This lasted until my dad made my sister and I spend four hours sifting through sweaters, t-shirts, and Bermuda shorts, deciding what to keep and what to give away. Just like her death, she was there one second and gone the next. Empty. Half of her closet disappeared like a time lapse in a movie. We were allowed to keep what we could keep in our closets or what would fit us. Everything else had to be placed in large black plastic bags to be taken to Good Will so that someone could pay two dollars and fifty cents for her knitted sweaters or the long red dress suit she had bought for a wedding. Someone else would slip on her black sandals and wear them out to run errands, never knowing that they had purchased a dead woman’s pair of shoes. Someone would disregard the initials she scribbled on the inside tag of an old t-shirt and have no idea that they were there so that the nursing home she lived in could return them to her. No one would know that.

Our cleaning out of her clothes seemed as if it had come out of nowhere. The house had stayed the same, the pictures remained up, even the answering machine remained for awhile. The fact that these details in the house (the design of the cabinets, the decorations, the fabric on the window treatments) hadn’t changed at all made the emptying of her closet seem wrong. That was when I realized that it wasn’t her house anymore.

Looking back now, I understand my father’s urgency in the removal of her clothes. It probably wasn’t as abrupt as I had imagined at the time. I realize he had probably been thinking about it for weeks, maybe even months. I found comfort in living in my mother’s house, but I didn’t realize that maybe he didn’t. Her six-year-long fight with cancer changed who my mother was and slowly destroyed her over a drawn out period. As a child, I didn’t fully understand the severity of her illness and therefore didn’t say goodbye until she left our house for the nursing home two months before her death. However, my dad understood that my mother shouldn’t have lived as long as she should have. He understood words like “prognosis” and therefore he began saying goodbye shortly after she was diagnosed. He started grieving long before my sister and I did, and so even though his grieving seemed rushed in my eyes, it really had been going on for many years. Grief changes you, and everyone reacts to it in a different way. Although it is one disease process, it manifests itself very differently in each person. It can bring one daughter to cling to remnants of a home, while another flees 4662 miles. It can bring one spouse to stay in the house sobbing in an armchair, while another tries to find a way to allow room for the new.

Although it was realistically a few weeks after we got rid of her clothes before my dad’s sickeningly spunky thirty-year-old girlfriend moved in the house, it seemed like it happened overnight. Another precipitous and hurried change. Within the blink of an eye, the void in my mom’s closet refilled with a slew of clothing from popular stores and “trendy” boutiques. She (along with her clothes and tastes) didn’t fit the motif of our home. She attempted to cover up my mother’s designs by placing seasonally themed decorations around the house: wrapping ribbons around the stairs for Christmas and putting “decorative” bunnies on the porch for Easter. My mother would have denounced these decorations as tacky and distasteful. I was beside myself when his girlfriend hired the same painter who had painted the intricate walls for my mother twelve years ago to come in and paint over her bedroom in baby blue.

What none of us realized at the time was that removing my mother’s items wouldn’t remove her from home. That house would always be hers, regardless of my insistence on staying, my father’s hopes to move on, and his girlfriend’s attempts to disguise the house as her own.

*          *          *

A year after I had left for college, my dad told me that he was going to be selling the house. I struggled with this. All my friends had homes to go to when they came back for the summer; all of their childhood memories would be in the same place, and the posters on the wall wouldn’t have been moved. When I came home, everything was in boxes and my dad had hired a realtor to make the house “sellable.” This meant taking down pictures of our family, which he explained would allow the buyer to picture themselves in the house, and covering the vibrant yellow walls in my room with an indifferent matte eggshell.

The whole process seemed to have happened overnight, leaving me the little time to process. All of a sudden my father announced we would be moving, and the house was sold within a week of the realtor being hired. It’s what every person is trying to sell a house dreams of  – a quick and easy selling process. However, I secretly wanted it to go on for longer. The seemingly precipitous nature of the house sale was most likely due to my inability and unacceptance to leave. I had accepted that she had died. I understood that, but I still hadn’t let go of her home yet. I had already lost my mother, and I didn’t understand the reasoning behind letting go of physical reminders of her. I didn’t want to let him leave my mother and her house to a family who knew nothing of the minute considerations that went into every painted wall and detail in that home.

After we had moved to the rental house, while we waited for the new house to be built, I struggled to find somewhere to call home. My mom was where home was, and that house was where she was. I had anticipated grieving her death, I had grieved her death, and now I had to grieve the loss of the home which in so many ways embodied her. With both of them now gone, I felt as if I couldn’t go home, let alone find a new one. Traveling scared me, and packing caused me anxiety. I was reluctant to travel for fear that without having myself rooted in one place, I would be like a balloon being released from a child’s grasp; floating away aimlessly and never come back. I wanted somewhere to be anchored, somewhere that I could always go back to, but I couldn’t find that. Apartments in college aren’t home, and rental homes in the city you were born in aren’t home either. I had always imagined that even as I changed, my home would remain the same.

Like my mother did when she moved to Hawaii, I searched for home when I moved to college. As a young adult, I traveled across the country and felt for roots, but also like her I would realize after a few years that home hadn’t gone anywhere. She went back to Pittsburgh, and I went back to Colorado: these places were home. It took my father moving into a new home alone (without my mother or his now ex- girlfriend) for me to accept that he now had his own house, independent of my mom, and that was okay. His house was new, modern and very different than our previous house on Dante Way. It wasn’t my mom: there were no accent walls with gold and teal, no framed pictures of drawings that I made as a child and no patterned drapery, but it was my dad: sharp modern lines, LED lighting and reclaimed wood. Now, as I look back, I realize home wasn’t any of these individual aspects. These were mere adornments which decorated the idea of what I thought was home.

I have been able to take pieces of my mother, which she had taken from her old homes, which are especially cherished because they move from place to place. My favorite is my grandfather’s dark, reddish brown leather stool which I imagine at some point had a chair that matched it. It has little wheels on the bottom that squeak every time you try to move it, and the leather on top is ripped and torn so badly that you can see the yellow stuffing inside. Unlike the old furniture that my mother had reupholstered, she never had the stool fixed. It wasn’t in her nature to leave something broken and falling apart, but I think she wanted to keep it in it’s original form as best as she could. She didn’t want to change any part of her relationship with her dad, and that stool, the physical manifestation of her relationship with her dad and her relationship with her childhood home, didn’t need to change either.

Throughout the years I have learned that houses change, but home exists on a continuum. This continuum exists as long as memories are moved from house to house. The home doesn’t change entirely, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t disappear, but it evolves, and because of that, you can go home again.