By lex, on October 10th, 2008
Back from the land of doom, gloom and POM-10 (which is really all the same thing). Wore an actual suit! Twice! On account of proximity to Our Nation’s Capital. Learned a quick lesson on the importance of pre-flighting your gear, prior to cross-country travel: If it wants to wear the blue Brook’s Brother’s shirt with French Cuffs, it has to bring the cufflinks. Or else it will look (superficially) like a Lagerfeld impersonator.
A couple of things surprised me about the conference: 1) It was alarmingly technical, and 2) I actually understood almost all of it. I’d love to tell you what it was about, but it was very highly classified, so if I dished, I’d have to seek out all of you without security clearances. And kill you.
Which would be such a dreadful bother, so: No.
It was neat being back home in the fall, a bit of a snap in the air, and that. Trees hovering over. The change having not yet come, nor yet the season having lived up to its name.
I grew up under the sheltering eaves of graceful oak trees, and when first I went west I was oppressed by the vast, treeless disk of sky pressing down on me in every direction. I felt naked, exposed. Only in a bad way. I guess I’ve been out west too long, since traveling down the lane towards the house I grew up in the trees seemed to crowd in more than shelter me. Things change. We adapt. This is our genius.
Early to a meeting with my surviving sister, I drove around and found myself motoring aimlessly before discovering – to my surprise – that I had landed quite accidentally in front of my childhood home. I sat there in the car for many moments before getting out and just. Staring. For a while. Feeling the memories rush in on me, the sum and difference check. Gone was the rose bush my mother had planted from Jackie Kennedy’s garden. Gone was the conifer my father planted at the house’s southeast corner. The cherry trees that lined the lane had grown up and been trimmed back, rudely. A sapling I had mowed around as a teenager has become a noble tree, if not yet a great one. A fence had been put up in the back yard which I had once ran around in sheer delight. Nothing else had changed but this: The house had grown smaller. It had been so very big, when I was a child.
A Toyota Landcruiser (with an Obama! sticker) sat in the drive, where once my father’s Lincoln had leaked oil. He’d broken an ankle washing that car, sliding down the wet grass there to the left. On a hot summer’s night as a lad of fifteen summers I had dropped first one, then another orange juice bottle to shatter at my feet after they’d sweated through the paper bag, only to face the instant ire of the red-haired Irishwoman that had brought me into the world in hope and pain. She could fly off in an instant, and then come back in a moment, wondering at all the long faces.
The bay window, of which that same woman, my mother, had been so inordinately fond, still looked out upon the street imperiously. Her little dog – Desirée , a horribly spoiled toy miniature French poodle which, being a picky eater that had dined far better than had your correspondent at times (in consequence of which she looked like nothing so much as a sausage on toothpicks) – did not still peer above the love seat through the glass, waiting the arrival of her mistress with a treat.
Desirée was the first of us to go, back in 1980 or ’81. Dad buried her in the back yard, sobbing, shoulders heaving. I was a midshipman then, lean and hard, and I knew absolutely everything. I had never seen him cry before, and I shook my head a little, embarrassed for him: It was just a dog. Their timescales are different than our own. The sand runs out.
The young, having seen little of the world, pity old men, who have seen too much of it. Never dreaming that time wears away at all of us, that it is the fire we all burn in. My father had gone to general war, seen shocking things in his youth, and survived them, not untouched. He lost friends along the way, first to mischance and then later to the weight of the years. Standing over the little hole he’d dug for a little dog that had been around our feet for twelve years, I think he may have seen into the not so very distant future. The outline of it, if not the wholeness.
These things are true: You are born, you live for a time, and then you die. Everything else is in dispute.
They were both gone in a year’s time, mom and dad. We three were left.
When I was seven, my brother-in-law helped my father pour a cement porch behind the house. As it hardened, he stroked my initials and the year into a corner: CFL, 1968. I stood by the car on the lane, hesitating, a part of me wanting to ring the bell, to tell the owners that this had been my house, that I had grown from bairn to boy to manhood here. That my name was carved into the slab on the porch. Ask to come inside, look around. Feel more of it rush in, as though all of it had not already done so. I promised myself that I would safeguard the knowledge of Desirée’s final resting place there against the back fence. Out of respect. For them, or for her, or for what followed after I couldn’t quite say.
But finally I decided, no. It would be too weird for the folks who lived there, this corporeal ghost from an unknown past. And it was better than even odds that I might not have gotten through it with my dignity intact. You really can’t go home again.
Joined my sister for dinner at the place we used to go to afterwards, a very nice Italian restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. We went there back when it was just the three of us, when we were the survivors. Before we grew and grew, and then started to recede again. She feels the loss of our sister more keenly than I do I think, having grown up with her more than I did, still familiar with the same places that we all had been together, there every day, aware of someone missing. We the two of us had a nice meal, a glass of Chianti, a salute to the past, and a prayer for the future.
This has all happened before. It will all happen again. Things change. We adapt. This is our genius.