It was still Tuesday December 11 and I sat in the front passenger seat of our old Buick Skylark that my mom was driving home from Detroit Metro airport. My brother was in the back seat and my backpack was stowed in the trunk. The car was technically mine, given to me by my grandfather, my mom’s dad, but was now our family’s only car. Her ‘old banger’ of a car finally died a year ago and was sold for parts for fifty bucks and hauled off by a tow truck. She did not have the money to buy even another used one. She at least, while I was gone, was paying the insurance, the gas, and what little maintenance it got.
It was dark already so it was hard to make anything out. I-94 from Detroit to Ann Arbor was familiar to me, having driven into Detroit and back, maybe a dozen times or so in the past few years, mainly to go to the airport or to see a Detroit Tiger baseball game. Particularly when we got near the big auto plant outside Ypsilanti, all lit up just off the freeway, I knew I was getting into familiar territory and close to home. I felt really tired, my day having started fifteen hours ago after little sleep, and since then the four Chivas on the rocks. My mom got a kick out of it when I told her what I had drunk on the plane, commenting that I had become a “sophisticated drinker”, though I did not tell her how much I had drunk.
She had asked me about the various people I had visited that she knew – Madge and Bill, Giselle and Paul, Angelica and Helmut, and Ceil and Ilya. I shared with her the circumstances of my time with each family, and what I could recall of what they were up to in their own lives. I’d conveyed the specific requests from Giselle, Paul, Angelica, Helmut, Madge, and Ceil Kane to send their love to her. She seemed pleased that her European network of friends still thought of her, and had also offered me so much hospitality.
My mom had only exchanged letters and calls with Ceil Kane, but never actually met her or Ilya, so she was doubly interested in what they were like. I told her that they had a two year old daughter Rebecca, who seemed very precocious, “smart as a whip” were the words I used, ones I had heard my mom use often before. Ceil was “seriously pregnant” with number two. Finally, I noted that Ilya was “kind of an ass”, and at her request I proceeded to rattle off some of the anecdotes of his attitude and behavior while I was there.
I related the bit when I was playing with Rebecca in her room and her dad came in and joked that his “little angel” had me “wrapped around her finger”. How she had then glared at him, put her hands defiantly on her hips and said, “Daddy, I do not!” My mom burst out in a big belly laugh at that one, and I enjoyed her being her unvarnished self.
For all her feminism, and accepting my characterization of Ilya Kane, my mom had a thing for interesting guys like I had for interesting women. Though I shared the things I did with Giselle, my mom pressed me on her husband Paul, remembering him fondly. The same with Helmut. I spoke extensively about doing this and that with Angelica, but my mom was particularly interested in what I had learned about Helmut’s backstory, and she quizzed me about him. And even though she and Madge had bonded that summer we lived next door to them three summers ago in Horspath, my mom still recalled her husband Bill as “a doll”.
My mom’s one big relationship with a male partner during her life, my dad, had not gone so well. Her best friends Mary Jane and Carol, my ‘feminist aunts’, had had their own issues with their husbands, leading to divorce as well. Still my mom idealized that perfect male partner who was strong, thoughtful, and “a doll”.
Since both my mom and brother were hardcore artists, her thing being abstract paintings with oil on canvass and his comic book art, I shared with them some of my art museum highlights. When I told them about the Picasso museum in Barcelona – she sighed and just said “mmm”. To Bosch’s surreal ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ at the Prado in Madrid, my brother appreciated Bosch’s “wild imagination”, but my mom, who had studied the work in art history classes, physically shuddered, stuck out her tongue, and said “bleh”. As to the Louvre I noted how small and underwhelming the Mona Lisa was but how awesome the big canvasses of Rubens and David were. My mom lit up at the mention of Jacques-Louis David, as I knew she would, he being one of her favorite painters. Then there was Italy and Michelangelo, and my half hour alone in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, with the ceiling looking like a huge multi-panel comic book. In ‘Firenze’ seeing his sculpture ‘David’, but also the men encased in the stone they were partially carved out of.
Finally, to complete my art highlights tour, I told my tale of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, he being one of my mom’s favorite painters along with Picasso and David. She sighed again with another “mmm”. I told her about actually touching one of his paintings, a tiny ridge of hardened white pigment, a cloud in the painting applied with a palette knife. I even wove Gwendolin into the story and how we looked at Van Gogh’s works together, though not the part about how stoned we were on Butch’s hash when we did, and how much of a thing I had for her. But I did share the whole painting with a palette knife discussion, and my mom’s “art lesson” on the artist’s ‘Wheatfield with a Lark’, and putting the finger over the lark to show how that little bit of black paint that formed the bird was critical to making the painting work. She nodded throughout the story, obviously pleased that her progeny had remembered her art wisdom, and nursing a big grin by the end of the telling.
My mom then thanked me for sending so many postcards, pretty consistently every other day throughout the eleven weeks. But she of course had to share the story AGAIN with me about that very discomforting gap in receiving those cards.
“I got that postcard from you saying you were hitchhiking across the Alps the next day, then nothing for TWO WHOLE WEEKS!” Her big eyes rolled upward and she shook her head and shivered her shoulders, she certainly having her own flair for drama, though never a theater person like myself or my brother David, but you could see where we got it from.
“I literally was about to call Interpol when your next postcard arrived postmarked just two days later, and then a number of others that had been delayed somehow”, the dramatic climax to her tale, which I imagine she had told any number of times to all of her friends and anyone else who would listen.
My brother chuckled and scoffed in the back seat.
“Mom, it was only a week really, not two weeks!”
She, like me, did like to embellish her stories. I shared that I had heard it was a postal strike that had delayed the mail.
As we approached Ann Arbor we agreed to save the full debriefing on the trip until tomorrow. She said she had a plan for the three of us to meet Mary Jane at Bicycle Jim’s on campus for lunch. Mary Jane would buy, and all I had to do was talk! She and my brother then filled me in on recent happenings these last eleven weeks in their worlds, though nothing was said at that point about the whole thing with my dad saying he had married Mary, when in fact he had not. What was most notable for me were all the details around the launching of the new Community High School, which my brother was now attending, and particularly the fact that my Youth Theater Unlimited theater group was taking residence as the performing arts department of the new school.
We headed north on US-23 and got off on Washtenaw by Arborland shopping center. The lights of the shopping center and the Flaming Pit restaurant at the Holiday Inn across the street, where we had eaten many times, felt like my home turf. We took the left fork on Stadium Boulevard just before the bluff where Tappan Junior High sat, dark, square and institutional, where I had spent three very difficult years, now nearly five years past but still with many traumatic memories. Finally a right on Ferdon and into our Burns Park neighborhood and, jogging to Baldwin, around the east side of the park to our house.
My mom had left all the lights on and the window shutters open downstairs. The place looked warm and inviting inside, which I think was her plan, but somehow strange as well. The front of the house looked different, including a new wooden picnic table up on an extended stone patio, and I remembered the letter from my mom saying she had worked on it herself with help from my dad. It was cold and dark and all the trees were bare and there were small patches of snow on the ground here and there.
When I entered the house, familiar smells triggered nearly a decade of memories, the subtle scent of the linseed oiled furniture and the faint odor of cat urine. Our female cat, Ra, sphinxlike with her long golden hair, looked at me quizzically from her perch on top of the tall pie cabinet in the living room, as if to say, “You look vaguely familiar somehow, human!” It felt warm inside, and I remembered how hot my mom liked to keep the house in the winter, though she would crack open her bedroom windows at night, even in the cold, for the “fresh air”.
I unshouldered my pack and leaned it against the wrought iron banister of the stairs. I plopped down in the big overstuffed rocking chair that I had spent so many hours reading books and contemplating the state of things over the last eight or so years. My parents had bought it at a yard sale, worse for wear, for a couple bucks, its frame repaired by my dad, and reupholstered by the two of them. My brother sat at our round linseed oiled dining room table that my mom had bought at yet another yard sale for maybe five dollars soon after we had moved to this house. My dad had done the carpentry to reattach the round top to the pedestal base. My mom had painted the base and the underside of the top white to hide all the scars in the wood, but had devoted hours to sanding the table top and then rubbing in linseed oil to bring out the grain of the wood. They had splurged at the time and bought the four Herman Miller metal mesh chairs that surrounded it, though also used, for significantly more than the cost of the table. Repairing and refinishing old pieces was the only way they could afford to have nice furniture in the house.
My mom asked if I was hungry and I nodded and said I could eat something. She suggested that we order a pizza, and asked me what I’d like on it. I used to get pepperoni, but I knew her favorite was green pepper and mushrooms, so that’s what I suggested. She smiled and confirmed that that certainly was HER favorite. She went into the kitchen to make the call and ordered the pizza from Dominos. I then heard her opening the refrigerator and the sound of dishes clinking and various things rattling as she was busying herself with something in there.
She reappeared from the kitchen with a bowl full of big jumbo shrimp and another bowl with red cocktail sauce. She knew it was my favorite, though truth be told it was her favorite too. She set the bowls in the middle of the round table and then made another foray into the refrigerator to bring out a six pack of Heineken beer and a box of candy, chocolate covered cherries, another favorite of mine. She rummaged for three mismatched glasses in the pie cabinet, our household glassware was not much. She said that on Saturday she had gotten my aerogram with my flight details, and just yesterday the postcard with those same details and a mention that I’d taken the Heineken brewery tour, thus the beer. To be safe, she had called BOAC and confirmed that I was on the flight, before she and my brother took the forty minute drive to the airport.
“We wanted you to have a few treats on your return, Coop”, she said with a big grin on her face, “We missed you and we wanted to celebrate your return a little tonight. More of that celebrating tomorrow!”
I opened a bottle of beer with my Swiss Army knife and asked the two of them if they wanted to try some. My brother looked at my mom wondering if it was okay. She nodded and said, “Your father and I always thought it was best to let you kids try alcohol at home so you knew how to drink it before you encountered it out in the world. Though just a bit for me.”
I grabbed and tilted a glass, as I had seen the bartenders do, and poured in a little of the amber liquid. Then a little bit more than that for my brother and the rest of the bottle in my glass. I decided that I should lead a toast.
“To the adventures of life”, I said, and leveraging the lyric from the little ditty I had thought up leaving Rome, “and the mellowness of home!”
“Hear, hear”, my brother chimed in as he took a sip and then grimaced at the bitter taste. My mom did the same with the same result, saying, “I’m sure it’s good stuff but not my thing. When I drink, and I don’t do it very often, I like good Scotch or a nice Bloody Mary!” I took a big swig and held back a grimace as well. It tasted much different than the stuff I had had on tap at the brewery.
She then said she was going to start a load of laundry and did I want to take my dirty clothes out and add them to the wash. I looked at my backpack, stuffed to the gills, and realized I was not quite ready, psychologically, to actually unpack it, disembowel my inanimate comrade that had stuck with me through my odyssey every day for the past eleven weeks. If I had been coming back from a weekend at dad’s then sure, empty the suitcase, but I had to process these bits of closure more seriously. I couldn’t just pull out my three shirts and other pairs of pants and just unceremoniously toss them in the laundry bin! They had adorned my travel avatar for the past eleven weeks, each item doing yeoman’s duty with way too little care. So I told her I did not feel like unpacking tonight and would do my own wash tomorrow.
Before sitting down at the table to enjoy the array of treats, I excused myself and went upstairs to use the bathroom. That same poster of military uniforms through history was on the wall where the stairway doubled back up to the upstairs hallway. I peeked in my mom’s bedroom to the right then my brother’s to the left, and they both looked the same as when I had left. But that felt discomforting somehow, like they should have been transformed somehow. The same went for the bathroom, there still was my old toothbrush in the toothbrush holder.
Coming out of the bathroom I just naturally crossed the hall as I had done so many times and walked into my bedroom. It indeed looked transformed. All my mom’s papers, bills and such were neatly organized in a vertical tray of bins on the table, our little JC Penny electric typewriter sat on the middle of the table. More of her stuff was neatly arrayed on top of my dresser, and some of her clothing hung in my closet next to mine. She had put several art posters up on the wall. I couldn’t even remember what I had had on the walls. My bed was still there but it had a fitted comforter over it and colorful throw pillows that made it look more like a divan than a bed. It was the same bed I had slept in at home all my life, metal framed and narrow, half of a bunk bed, the other half my brother’s now in his room.
I finally returned downstairs and joined the two of them at the dining table where my mom and brother were sitting waiting for me.
“We waited for the guest of honor to start!” she noted. The shrimp and cocktail sauce tasted good, and we all ate quietly and greedily for five minutes or so but then focused on each other rather than the remnants of the shrimp. I opened another Heineken, pouring it in just my own glass this time. She ran her fingers over the table top’s smooth linseed oiled patina, examining the wood grain, obviously composing her thoughts.
“So Coop,” she asked, “Did you look in your room?” I nodded.
She launched into her thought. “All last year while you were away at school I started using the table in your room as a desk of sorts. I would clean up and put away my stuff whenever I knew you were coming home.” Her bedroom was just big enough for her queen sized bed, a couple dressers and the wood rocking chair, which was where I sat when we had all our conversations while she sat on her bed, paying bills or doing whatever. No space really for a desk unless she got a narrower bed like mine or my brother’s.
“While you’ve been overseas”, she continued, me chuckling to myself at her highfalutin word choice, “I have kind of taken over your room as my office. Now that you’re back for a while before you head off to school in the fall again, I’m not sure what to do!”
It was the typical dynamic between us, me sitting, though usually not at the table here but in the rocking chair up in her room, and listening to her share the issues of her life with me. Usually just trying to be a good listener, but in this case directly impacted by the issue. She was suggesting commandeering or at least sharing my room with me. I scrunched up my face obviously realizing this and pondering the implications and possible paths forward. Yeah it was my room, but I didn’t want it to all be about me. I had overcome larger challenges, I could work through this one too.
Noting my face and body language she quickly said, “Well, think about it for now and we can work something out later this week.” I agreed to do so and she seemed relieved that I hadn’t freaked out.
Then it struck me that I wanted to show them all the various coins I had collected from all the different countries. I told them very theatrically that I had something to show them, and I went to my pack and dug around inside to find a small plastic bag full of coins, which I then opened, and as I had rehearsed it in my mind, spilled out on the dining room table. The cacophony of coinage clunking against the wood table top and clinking against other coins was spectacular. A few of the coins threatened to roll off the table but my brother and mom dexterously stopped them.
“Look at all of it”, I marvelled, “Marks, guilders, lira, pesadas, pence, centimes, cents and pfennigs; plus three nationalities of francs – French, Swiss and Belgian.” I pointed at different specimens, some silver, others various shades of gold, at least in color if not content. “Some of the smaller denominations of francs and lira are a very light metal, maybe aluminum”, I continued, “My favorites are the Dutch small cents coins, they have a nice density and clink nicely against each other”. I found several of them and rattled them in my cupped hand and then gave them to my brother to do the same, he passing them on to my mom. The two of them commented on various coins, my mom remembering the older British shilling coins from 1970, before they converted from 240 pence in a pound to the more standard 100. The totality of it spilled across the table top was like my ‘booty’ from my odyssey.
The three of us still fingering and playing with the coins, the two of them filled me in on their week ahead. David had another week and a half of school at Community High before winter vacation, including school tomorrow morning. She had an interview Friday for a job working for ISR, the University of Michigan Institute of Survey Research, as a phone canvasser. I told her that I thought that was a great job for her, as much of a people person as she was. I told them that my only plan at the moment was to join her, Mary Jane and whoever for lunch at the restaurant tomorrow and then go to the Alice Cooper concert tomorrow night with my friends. I was really looking forward to both parts of my day tomorrow. Then a wave of fatigue came over me and the two of them could see it, and we agreed to adjourn our discussion for now.
The doorbell rang with the pizza delivery. The hot gooey cheese, tomato sauce and soft crust was such a familiar comfort food for all three of us. We ate quietly in the thrall of that cheesy comfort, back together again, loot from my adventure duly shared, all of us still seemingly in one piece. “Coping”, as my mom would say.
Most of the pizza eaten, all of the shrimp, a few chocolate covered cherries, and two bottles of Heineken drunk, mostly by me, the three of us were all spent from our various versions of this day. But I could tell they were looking to me to call it, not wanting to end this little celebration before I was ready for it to end.
“You know”, I said, “I’m exhausted, I can barely keep my eyes open”.
“We should let you sleep”, my mom seconded. My brother waved his hands in front of him like he was casting a spell, “Sleep!”
I helped the two of them clear the table of the remaining food, dishes and beer. We agreed to leave the coins on the table until tomorrow. Shouldering my pack one final time, I headed up stairs, the two of them following. In my transformed room I rested my pack against the wall opposite my bed. My mom pulled off the new cover on my bed to reveal the more familiar sheets and blue wool blanket. She hugged me again and said, “Great to have you back, Sweetie!” And then before she exited the room, “Nite nite!”
My brother peeked in one last time as well, waved his arms in mock fear and said like an overwrought radio horror show narrator, “He’s back!” I nodded and grinned.
Finally I was alone. I took off my heels and surveyed them one last time, noting each smudge of dirt and stain. I set them neatly at the bottom of my pack. Next my bell-bottom jeans, noting a couple stains on the seat of them that had not come out in the last wash. I contemplated whether to go out in the hall and send them down the laundry shoot to the plastic hamper under it in the basement, presuming it was still there. But I draped them over my pack instead, as I did with my t-shirt after pulling it off over my head. The room was warm. I slid in between the sheets and laid there pondering as I could feel fatigue engulfing me. I rolled over on my right side and looked at my backpack and my two-inch heels. In this now strangeish guest room slash office, it was like I was still journeying, still on the road, availing myself of the latest person’s hospitality.
I turned on my radio and listened quietly to some music on CKLW. I heard a new Elton John song, ‘Benny and the Jets’, for the first time…
Hey kids, shake it loose together
The spotlight’s hitting something
That’s been known to change the weather
We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight
So stick around
You’re gonna hear electric music
Solid walls of sound
I could not figure out the lyrics, but it seemed to be about the music industry and sounded satirical. The second verse made a bit more sense along those lines…
Hey kids, plug into the faithless
Maybe they’re blinded
But Bennie makes them ageless
We shall survive, let us take ourselves along
Where we fight our parents out in the streets
To find who’s right and who’s wrong
So if Godspell had turned the whole hippie ethos into quaint nostalgia, was challenging the older generation and their order of things now passe as well? It was all too much for my fatigued mind to process. One thing at a time. First I would have to figure out how to reinvent this place as my home.