Already my eyes burned with tears in the cab from the train station to my childhood home. My heart swelled with grief over the deaths of both parents within the past few years. Such feelings maybe were intensified by sleep deprivation, a mind-numbing ritual I often employed when embarking on emotional journeys. Sleep deprivation along with emotionally distracting and heart-thundering photo finish arrivals to airports, train stations or bus depots.
A white, boxy, oil furnace cleaner’s truck was just pulling into the driveway, aborting my plunge into melancholy and nostalgia. Also, my tired mind had to quickly calculate a tip for the sizable cab ride. The elderly, Black driver turned and offered me a jack-o-lantern smile along with his card for further service since there I was in the middle of suburbia, carless. Licenseless, even, I’d confessed as we’d sped down the highway.
Fortunately, the house was only a few streets away from a large shopping mall. Useful for eating out or for purchasing basic supplies. Though the mall was a modest distance away, walking to it on my recent visits made me feel odd and eccentric as suburban heads from random passing cars craned to examine and identify someone actually on foot. This, a surreal shift from the indifference of New York City’s pedestrian stampedes and bumper to bumper traffic.
Another contrast from the City, mounds of dried leaves strewn across a front lawn. I enjoyed the crunch under my feet, though suspected a cranky neighbor was probably hot and bothered about them. Our leaves blowing onto his yard. They conjured up for me a happy memory of my brothers and I flinging our bodies into such piles.
Actually, such a memory did not apply to this house, but our prior one belonging to our grandmother.
When we’d moved to this street, into this newly constructed six-room ranch (additions to be added) with its optimistic smells of fresh paint and sawdust, it was our parents who had purchased and planted the trees. Tender, baby ones. The trees had been even younger than we were. They hadn’t generated serious amounts of leaves until well beyond that body flinging stage of my youth. My youngest brother probably got to enjoy them.
Now the house, the trees, my brothers and myself were all middle aged and coping as best we could. Bereft of our original caretakers. An intention to do some raking floated into my head, but like a dried leaf easily flitted off again. There were some elderly relatives to be telephoned and/or visited, and they were a priority after this furnace cleaning.
I shifted my attention to the kind looking, uniformed man awaiting me at the front door. He had graying hair with a matching mustache but a boyish face. He could have been close to my age, though the older I become, the less accurate I seem to be estimating ages.
I used to underestimate people’s ages. Now I overestimate them. Makes sense, I guess.
Perhaps we’d attended the town high school within that four-year range. With little effort, we probably could have arrived at the name of a mutual acquaintance or two. But I was too overtired and emotional to try.
He had looked curious when I’d announced I was just arriving from New York City -- that the train had been late. But I neither offered nor pursued any personal information, nor did he.
I was grateful to have this stranger’s company upon entering the house. There had been a rodent problem years ago discovered by my poor uncle. This was after my parents had settled permanently in California to be near my brothers right after my mother’s second stroke. An exterminator had been summoned to clear out the house and had done a thorough job of it. But ever since then, I girded myself upon opening the door, having a nightmarish vision of floors covered with mice. As the door swung open this day, I was relieved to see only the bare, hard wood floor of the hallway and the edges of the living room with its solid, heavy furniture. Beneath it the familiar, well-worn rug, braided long ago by my grandmother’s own two, clever, generous and ambitious hands.
I led the way toward the kitchen and indicated the cellar door. As the furnace man opened it the knob came off in his hands. He smiled over at me and gently replaced it, then disappeared down the cellar steps. The house was even more fragile than it looked after many years of dormancy.
Its walls had been raped of pictures, paintings, mirrors. It was barren except for the heavy furniture, rugs and numerous brown cardboard boxes with alternating names of us, the adult children, scribbled across their sides.
The busiest area, that is, the most cluttered, was the kitchen table. It held numerous ceramic knickknacks and other small, miscellaneous items that remained after the three-day packing marathon of the summer when my brothers and their families had come east.
As I looked at the more childlike, cutesy items now left, hot tears began to rain onto the table, in spite of the potential reappearance of the furnace man. Tenderly I picked up one, then another. Most of these particular items were of “sentimental value” only. Significant sentimental value, I thought wistfully, to my now deceased mother or much earlier deceased grandmother. Sentimental value between them and the particular child-gifter. Some of the items before me had been presented by us back when our grandiose young hearts would burst with pride over the success of our having selected once again the PERFECT gift we were so enthusiastically assured.
We were too naïve to appreciate that it was the gesture that provoked the near hysterical gratitude and joy of these dear women. My dad was not capable of such mendacious enthusiasm. Though even he would soften with our gestures.
We had the particular savvy to recognize that religious items, such as statues of Christ or rosary beads, were particularly ecstasy-provoking to my very Catholic mother.
The fact that all these items were still around after so many decades and in such good shape save a chip here and there, was testimony to the degree of devotion that we had been privileged to enjoy.
There had been sorrow, too. Lots of it in this house. But as I surveyed the table covered with the eclectic, memory-inducing, low-priced treasures my heart pounded with love.
There was a sweet ceramic cocker spaniel on its hind legs beside a tall hamper. A hot plate with the silhouette of maybe the Morton Salt girl with a huge open umbrella pointed at an attacking goose (that one garnered from before my time). A large white ceramic baby shoe with the spotty remainder of blue flowers painted on its side. Originally I think it held a plant, but eventually was used on my mother’s bureau for assorted pins, clips, whatever.
My grandmother had received from my middle brother the lovely green, brown and purple mallard now with the tiny chip on the tip of its wing. It was in mid-takeoff from a grassy marsh. About six inches away a tiny khaki plastic soldier took aim at it with a silver, over-the-shoulder weapon.
There was a familiar, elongated glass dessert plate especially designed for banana splits. My grandmother expertly made them with Neapolitan ice cream, raspberry jam, bananas and whipped cream. On very special occasions. Those and root beer floats were memorable treats. Not to mention all the cakes, cookies, breads and pies that generation of women so frequently and lovingly produced.
In the center of the table was maybe a shaving travel kit. With reverence and curiosity I picked it up. It represented the mysterious, masculine world of my father. Not much on the table had belonged to him. It felt too light. I unzipped it. It now held only three nail clippers of varying sizes.
On the far side of the table was a drawing I had done long ago of my grandmother. It wasn’t bad.
I looked in one of the kitchen drawers and was relieved to find some rubber bands. I rolled up the portrait into a tube and wrapped a band around it but the band snapped, brittle with age. I tried another band and that one snapped, too. A third one held, but I wondered for how long. Negotiating the paper on the train would get difficult if it unraveled on me. I would put it in my wheeling carry-on. It would be nice to have the portrait for my apartment.
When my grandmother had died, long before my parents, I remember having a curious reaction of dismay and betrayal -- surreality, even -- when one afternoon I came across her favorite soap opera -- her “program” -- on TV. How could it just continue on as it was in total indifference to its most decades-long, committed fan? .
This had not been our original kitchen table. This one had been purchased much later, as my parents refurnished somewhat their empty nest after the children had grown. It had blonde wood and far more comfortable chairs. But sitting there, I felt the history. The kitchen was the heart of the home. Of the family. The center.
More so than the living room dominated by the television, where communication happened pretty much as asides during commercials.
The table was where we sat and related -- or tried to. Where my mother prepared abundant meals. Where we watched carefully to see what mood our overworked and alcoholic father was in, which determined a meal’s longevity as well as tone. Where we got to actually catch some quality time with or at least attention from each other.
My youngest brother had the dubious honor of sitting beside our mercurial father. My brother’s dread of spilling milk and being dramatically chastised by my father often led to that very spillage.
I thought of all the meals we had shared there.
Except breakfast. Not seriously.
All the milli-second breakfast nibbles, near indigestible with our pre-school day anxiety enhanced by our mother’s hysterical pronouncements that we were going to be late. In fact, those were always her wake-up words to us on school days.
In maybe my pre-teens I remember one summertime breakfast I had cajoled the entire family to come to the table for -- a big, hearty, functional family breakfast, a la Donna Reed or Leave it to Beaver. I probably prepared blueberry pancakes (not sure, but I definitely remember stirring TANG in tall glasses!!!) and thought I was launching a wholesome new family pattern. I soon realized I was indulged for this ONE occasion only, that it wasn’t going to catch on. One of my brothers even returned to bed and sleep after the breakfast. A failed dream, but I did appreciate the effort made by them.
We were so not a 50’s tv show family. Back then I didn’t know that no one else’s family was, either. Though admittedly some came far closer than ours.
This table was where my father on rare occasions late at night would regale me with tales of his war and life experiences -- Pearl Harbor (yes, the attack), New Guinea, the Philippines, Germany, and oppressive job situations post-war -- often long after my bedtime. My mother often clucked in disapproval over my being up, but also maybe gratified for the bonding or my father’s good mood.
Sometimes his tales were nightmare-inducing. My father was not terribly age- or topic-sensitive with his communications to a young daughter. Launching into memories of old girl friends, especially with my mother in ear shot, made me crazed but I sat there in my usual, deer before the headlights posture with him. I remember hearing of how his buddies had gotten their limbs shot off before his eyes. Once he shared about being trapped in a foxhole with a snake and had to stay still and wary the rest of the night or be killed by an enemy sniper.
I particularly enjoyed the times he shared about rebelling against authority. In the military or in the workplace. He would put up with a lot but when he got pushed to the limit he pushed back.
My father could frustrate and intimidate me at times. Was never a good listener. But I admired his honesty, courage, curiosity with people. I underestimated his powerful impact on me for a very long time.
Not so appreciatively, I suddenly remembered how one of my dad’s favorite topics, weirdly, was nuclear fallout. How it impacted the human body. To this day hearing of nuclear fallout sends me into a literal faint. I tried to sit through the movie Silkwood twice, a decade apart, and could not make it either time without running into the bathroom to douse my face with cold water and sit for a bit with my head between my knees trying to rally. I credit Dad’s odd obsession to that particular phobia of mine.
Suddenly there was a ferocious groan from the bowels of the house. The furnace, no doubt.
I reached over and pulled at a stack of yellowed newspaper and began wrapping the cocker spaniel with hamper figurine. Was I really going to take even more of this stuff back to my small, New York City apartment? Ridiculous, yes, but I yearned to be connected to home and family.
To be warmed once again by that furnace of family togetherness.