Finding Home

FINDING HOME Once a year I visited my mother on the East End of Long Island. I never relished the visit. It was an obligation to be gotten through. My mother’s house was a modest ranch in Hampton Bays—a beach town, though we rarely visited the beaches. I try to recall if, when our kids were younger, we would go to the beach, mostly the kids played in the woods behind her house. The house was airless. Wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy drapes seemed incongruous in a beach area, especially on bright sunny days when, even then, the drapes remained closed. I longed to throw them open…to breathe…or escape. As Mom got older she stayed in the house more and the subject of the beach never came up. We mostly sat and tried to make conversation. There were many gaps. Some filled with attempts at discussing the weather or the traffic. The silences were the hardest—I tried to search for subjects as I tightroped the uneasy space between us. She had wanted better for me—wanted for me the life she had wanted for herself. But when I achieved that life, she seemed to resent me. Perhaps I was a reminder of her own disappointments. When we talked I avoided anything bad in my life, because it upset her, but anything good seemed to make her jealous. Even our phone conversations were like a bad connection. A typical phone conversation would be: “I went on a bus trip with St. Rosalie’s. We went to the Poconos,” she would say. “That’s nice. Did you have a good time?” “Yeah.” “I took the kids to the zoo. They…” “Well. I’ve got to go. I have a hair appointment/doctor appointment/mah-jongg game.” I would find myself holding a silent phone. Her good-bye always felt like a slap. My mother liked the idea of me, her pretty little daughter. She liked, too, the high school graduation picture of me that sat on her end table—full of dreams she had had for me, a moment of possibility frozen in time. I watched the clock, waiting for a suitable exit. Another hour…half hour…fifteen more minutes…I believe she welcomed the departure as much as I did, though she often protested. “You have to leave already,” she would exclaim as she got up. Only when I got in the car would I realize I was holding my breath. I would take a deep breath and head straight to Westhampton—to the Beach Bakery, to the most decadent desserts and a cup of coffee—rich and pricey. I sat at the copper-topped table, jelly oozing out of a filled croissant, or an éclair bursting with rich custard and topped with dark chocolate—a virtual wall of treats I tried to build between myself and the uncomfortable visit. Now the house is mine. She reluctantly left it to me, her sole heir after my brother died six months before she did. Cutting her hand across the expanse of lawn in front of the house as we said our good-byes on one of my last visits she said begrudgingly, “This will all be yours.” I had never wanted it. I wanted something else from her that I never really got. Now, I looked at it as a burden—something to remind me, something to be cleaned up and sold, something else to be gotten through. On the first visit after the funeral, my husband, Ernie, and I opened the windows and doors, let the air in. Ocean air. Rustling trees. Birds chirping. Fog horn sounding in the distance. We tore down the heavy drapes and ripped up the carpeting, delighted to find golden oak flooring revealed beneath. We took countless boxes to the Salvation Army in Riverhead. The clearing out was slow. Ernie painted the walls a pale aqua, transforming them from dark and dreary to airy and beachy. I went through the “stuff” of my mother’s life. We’d come for a week or two at a time, then we’d head back to Michigan where we then lived. The fact that we were so far away prolonged the process. This wasn’t going to be easy. So much to be gotten through—papers, pictures I hadn’t seen in years. Things squirreled away. I kept thinking I will find … what? Something. Some proof. Of what? A clue. Of why. Of who she really was. Had been. I picked up a picture of my mother taken in the 40s—one of those pictures taken at a photography studio, then touched up with added color. She looked like a movie star, her hair swept up, make-up perfect, dress with maroon and green sequins. I think back to when I was a little girl and she would sit at her dressing table getting ready for an evening out. I would watch her, a glass boudoir lamp on either side of her so she could draw in those perfect eyebrows. She and the boudoir table were like a scene from a movie, out of place in the plain, old house we lived in. She was like a rose in a field of daisies. One night we went to dinner at a restaurant on Noyac Road for a respite. Looked out across Little Peconic Bay, the sun glistening off the water, the sky a sapphire blue. “It’s really beautiful here,” Ernie said. “Yes,” I agreed. Reluctantly. Next time we stayed longer. And longer still the time after that. The ocean air seeped into our souls. We lingered at Ponquogue Beach. Bought beach chairs. Walked across the Ponquogue Bridge, surveying the vast expanse of ocean spread before us as if it were our own private kingdom. Discovered the bay beach where the water lapped instead of crashed. Read the paper at the beach in the evening. Missed the ocean air when we returned to Michigan. We came back. We went for lunch one day at a place on Dune Road that served the freshest fish and chips. Ernie said, “This feels like retirement. Maybe it’s because so many people are on vacation out here. You know, in the two years I’ve been retired, I haven’t really felt retired.” I wasn’t sure what that might mean or how I felt. This wasn’t my dream for retirement. The house didn’t feel like mine, wouldn’t be what I would have chosen. You make plans. Then things change. We got ready to sell our house in Michigan. That had been part of the original plan when Ernie retired. The new plan was to move temporarily into the Hampton Bays house while we looked for a place in Tennessee. After we sold the house in Michigan, we put most of our things in storage and settled in in Hampton Bays. Still referred to it as my mother’s house though. I decorated around her furniture as much as I could. I did find that three prized antique cut-glass decanters that I didn’t trust with the movers looked beautiful on the low wall between the living room and the dining area. But I didn’t really want to buy much since it was temporary. Didn’t even change the phone number. Time passes quickly. We invite friends to visit and show them all the neat places in the area—the small hamlets, the wineries, hidden beaches few know about. We go to Happy Hour on Dune Road. Dance like geriatric teenagers. We collect shells. Listen to music at the beach and at the wineries. Hear visiting authors extolling their books. Time passes quickly; plans change. Slowly I have taken ownership of portions of the house a bit at a time— slipcovers on the couch, lime green pillows, pictures on the wall. It is my house now. I have carved out a place for myself in a community and it is a life I have come to love, even if it isn’t a house that I love. And I wonder sometimes what lessons I have learned. Perhaps it is this: Life isn’t perfect, nor are we. Life gives us a script we haven’t read; sometimes it offers more than we expected, sometimes less. The first full year in the house, I am amazed and surprised at the burst of color I see in the backyard. Irises. Purple irises. My favorite color! Gloriously growing in my backyard. I hadn’t known that my mother grew irises. The sight stirs a forgotten memory. I was a little girl, maybe seven or eight, and my mother and I planted a tea rose bush in our yard in Yonkers—delicate yellow blooms, tinged with orange. It is a fragile memory of two people connecting momentarily. Perhaps that is the thing—to reach out and capture that butterfly moment and let the rest go. I think of a sign I saw that said, “Looking for my mother’s garden, I found my own.” Yes, maybe I have. –Lynn DiGiacomo