I was driving home from the gym this afternoon, when this unfolded.
As I was trying to decide which route to take -- whether I wanted my usual post-gym cup of coffee, or to go directly to Home Despot -- I was also thinking, of course, of the ultimate destination: home. Home -- such a profoundly simple, human commonality, and yet what a complex concept it is for me.
It may be that, basically, I don't really believe in the classic sense of 'home', at least for myself. I remember, years ago, when the older of my two half-sisters was getting married, and I was back in McKeesport for the event -- I stood in the kitchen of the house my sister grew up in, and looked at the back door, and thought of the thousands of times she'd come in and gone out of that door, during her growing up, without giving that doorway a thought. But I can't help believing that somehow, there was a kind of mutual impact, of the hasty living being, and the placid, inert passageway, that had left neither one quite the same, as if those many entrances and exits had never taken place.
And of course, I thought of my own doorways -- how many there had been, in places I'm not sure I can even remember. We lived in so many towns and states -- two in Alabama, another in Texas, four in Illinois, and five more in Pennsylvania, before I was seventeen and enlisted in the Air Force. How can I tell what impact this mobility had on me, since it was the only normality I knew? I joke now, that I learned to make friends quickly, but that after eighteen months or so, I don't know how to relate to these people, because usually I would have moved by then. I think there must have been some bit of sadness, though -- even now (and much to the chagrin of some of my fellow humans) the sight of a really clean and neat house sends me into a bit of a panic attack -- I think the only time my 'homes' were that clean was when we were about to leave one place, or had just arrived at another.
So, impermanence was already laced into my basic expectations when the orphanage experience took place -- and this was a home I was only too glad to leave behind me. And because I was only ten when this happened, I think the shock of the abandonment sank far deeper, far more quickly, than it might have done, had I been a little older. And this terrible transition really wasn't that much of a surprise, though I only realize now just how much I'd known ahead of time, without really understanding what those bits of foreshadowing knowledge really meant. My father, for instance, taking me into the bathroom in the last house we lived in, in Illinois, and looking at me sternly and telling me, "You kids will never live in an orphanage." Hadn't I learned by then that when I heard the word 'never', I should replace it with 'inevitably'?
There was one relatively care-free year, when I was in sixth grade, during which I think I did feel an unusual degree of security. My father and stepmother had found a little one-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth PA. It was the second story of a building used mainly as a garage for our landlord; he parked downstairs, and we lived upstairs. I slept on a bed in the living room. I gained weight. I think I was dizzy with relief, not to be under the care of Mrs. Hunter any more; I felt guilty that, when my dad and stepmother went to visit my brothers, who were still in that terrible place, I begged them not to make me go along. I was frightened that I would be left there. And I continue to be surprised, all these years later, that they let me stay at my Aunt Marie's house until it was time to make the drive from Butler, back to McKeesport.
It was after this year's respite that the real attack upon my concept of 'home' began. I've talked, already, about the toxic home life my brothers and I endured, and how debilitating it was, to know, every day, that I was unwanted and resented -- that the very mouthfuls of food I swallowed were begrudged, and that, at any moment, I might be jettisoned -- as my brothers had been, over and over again -- and left to sleep and eat and dress and bathe in yet another building. Would it ever be home?
So I learned to keep up my guard -- to be braced for the inevitable uprooting, to be ready to start gathering things and putting them in bags and boxes. I learned to expect that any communication from a landlord would be an eviction notice. And, because some of these expectations were the result of actual events in my life, they seemed perfectly natural, if uncomfortable, and I suppose I acclimated myself to them, the way one might, if one had a stone in one's shoe, and was not permitted to take it out. You make allowances. You change your gait. You get by.
Now, of course, my name is on the deed of a house. And has been on that deed, for over ten years now -- the longest time I've ever lived in one building in my entire life. But this doesn't at all mean that I haven't been holding my breath, in a sense, since the day we began to shift boxes and bags from the big apartment in Jersey City, and I decided that the way to make this building my own, was to go around, taking down all the curtain rods, and smearing wood putty into all the various holes I found in the otherwise immaculate chestnut trim -- putty which, I'm embarrassed to admit, is still in place, unsanded and unstained. Maybe the house was just too nice for someone like me?
I also expect, I think, that I'll have to leave -- that I'll commit some horrible crime, or finally bring in the back-breaking straw that will prompt John to order me out. I also think that one reason I collect and disperse so much -- I think it's called crap in polite company -- is to lodge myself more firmly in place -- to stake a visible, tangible claim to a stability I don't believe I'll actually enjoy -- to make it that much more difficult to get rid of me.
Home. I'm on my way home. That's what I caught myself thinking today. (Incidentally, I opted for both the coffee and the Home Despot visit -- a triumph of ambition, for me) And, now that death is so very much on my mind, it seems that something else, something inescapable, with which there is no reasoning, is sliding a new thin wedge of insecurity between the unfaithful physical frame I inhabit, and a true sense of comfort and belonging, of security and assurance, that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to allow myself to enjoy.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman