Crossing the threshold..
Your Way Home
My first home was the Chateau Hotel. Specifically, a one bedroom hotel room shared with my two older brothers and my parents. The front of the building stood separated from the sidewalk by a low stone wall and was shaded by a wide green awning. In its day, the hotel must have been a grand place to spend the night. Across the street, the remains of what was once a fancy nightclub stood lit by the black blinking neon outline of a large top hat and a lobster.
I have only two memories of my three years in the hotel. One is my own recollection, the other, shared. The first, me standing behind the low stone wall as a Great Dane lurched from its leash and lunged dangerously near. My mother pulled me into the safety of her arms and leaped onto the rock ledge. I was terrified of dogs for many years after that one instance. I stuck with goldfish.
The second remembrance is more poignant. My Dad told me that the day my mother announced she was pregnant with me, he walked across the Wabash Avenue bridge, hiked up one leg and prepared to jump. He didn't. He decided to take a chance on me, and with a prayer in his heart, headed for home. It was not until both of my parents passed that I found some old receipts and the stubs of their welfare checks.
When I was four, our situation had improved enough for us to move into our own apartment across town. We took a cab, in the middle of the night, with my goldfish sloshing in a milk carton, held close to my chest. Our new home was a two bedroom, one bath apartment with a kitchen, living room, dining room and a large backyard porch with a pull up and down bamboo shade. I can, at this moment, close my eyes and walk through each and every room as though time has never passed.
There were nine units in all. To our upper right, an Italian immigrant family and to their right, a family from Poland whose grandmother had just arrived from Latvia, a heartbeat before the Iron Curtain slammed shut.
In the farthest corner, an elderly lady lived in the basement unit, her windows level with the alley outside. We all knew one another. With no air conditioning, we sat on our porches side by side. Some nights, the air filled with the aroma of all day simmering meatballs and sauce. We would wait patiently for the small wave, signaling come and get it.
Occasionally, as I passed through the small yard, grandma Latvia would peek out from under her babushka and smile shyly at me. She spent hours on that porch, just standing, staring and smiling. The only English word I ever heard her say was...free.
Often, when the flooding spring rains poured down, we all pulled on our rubber boots, waded through a foot or so of standing water in the little basement apartment, gaping at the torrent rushing through the seams of the casement windows. We would haul out the furniture and rugs, spread them to dry on the sidewalk in the sun, then return it all to its former, though now damp, space. The apartment always wore a soft mildewed fragrance, but what I remember most was the look of peace that would settle over its tenant's face, when all had been restored to its rightful place.
I moved on to college and shared rooms once again. I did not have my own apartment until I graduated and began teaching. Next, marriage and a series of apartments, as we moved across the country. I was in my late twenties when we bought our first house. It was wonderful and scary all at the same time. My parents never lived together in a house of their own, though as children they had. I, on the other hand, had no frame of reference. No landlord to call when the pipes froze. No neighbors making a comforting racket of proximity through a shared wall.
I loved that house. It sheltered us through storms, welcomed us home for the few moments between work and the nightly shuttle off to graduate school. We filled the house with the furniture we bought the first year we were married. Everything, sofas, chairs, tables, beds, we bought at a tiny store in Dallas for $400.
I smile now at the memory, as I can hear the echoes of that house. I think too of how fear nipped at my heels. The frightening awareness that someone could come and take everything away if we missed a payment or lost a job. There were days, when I too, thought of the almost me tugging at my father's sleeve on the edge of the bridge.
Yet, somehow we made it through. That's not to say we were lucky. We worked hard. We were blessed. Not by the four walls that surrounded us, or the knicks and the knacks we acquired along the way. Like my father before me, many hands held us steady...our neighbors, our family, our friends.
Imagine that no matter which hemisphere, continent, or country you or I call home, we are all sitting on the porch, leaning over the railing, ready to offer a hand, a smile, a greeting, as we all look up at the night sky and see our reflections in the twinkling of the stars.
Whether you are married or single, alone or beside, no matter how simple or elaborate the space you hold dear, it is temporary, a rental if you will.
We all have a landlord.
We will always have a home.
You will always be my neighbor.
For a home is where everyone is welcome and the door is always open.
Home is the place, the space
with the needlepoint
on the mantle
Love lives here.
You are the night light on the porch
that leads me home through the dark.