You can't go home again

The last glimpse I took, quite intentionally, was from the window of the living room, looking down at back garden, stretching beyond the fence, narrowing to a point on the other side of the small creek where, although it was hidden from sight, I knew an old Adirondack chair sat. Even though the seasons were different, the grass tired and matted and preparing for the winter ahead, it wasn’t hard to envision us five years before. In the lush of May, amidst early humidity and bursting sprays of Dogwood, Chris and I were married in my parents backyard in Louisville. This week, I returned to that house to help my father pack up the last of his belongings before moving out. I never lived in that house but my parents had for 15 years. My family crushed around the long farm table in the kitchen for Christmas dinners and I spent countless summer weekends lounging by the pool. My littlest nieces learned to swim in the chlorinated water. And in the master bedroom, at the end of a narrow hallway, my mother died of a heart attack two years ago.

After two years of rattling around the place, taking comfort – and sometimes feeling pain – in the constant reminders of my mother, my father is moving out. The house is too much for him, and it’s time. He’s ready to leave but, I realized, I may not have been ready to see him do so. Fortunately, there was plenty to be done – decisions to be made about what to keep and what to store, piles of items to be set aside for my sister and brothers and I to sift through later. There were myriad reminders of my mother, not just in every paint color and curtain fabric, but in the tins of golden syrup on the baking shelf in the pantry, in the half-finished crossword puzzle book found tucked away on a cupboard shelf and in her young, curling handwriting on a jotter from a poetry class at teacher’s college. My brother and I dismantled the display her colleagues had made for the memorial service at the pre-school where she taught. We laughed at the battered remains of our childhood stuffed animals, missing limbs and spilling stuffing, a set of black plastic eyeballs painted over with White Out. We grabbed onto miscellaneous pieces of silver in which my father saw no value, if only because we remembered them from our childhood.

Stepping out for a bite to eat, we stopped by the dry cleaners to pick up some of my father’s clothing. The owner greeted my father warmly, by name, and I was struck by how unusual it is to see such a thing anymore. “Are you Thomson’s daughter?” the man asked, when my father stepped outside for a moment. I nodded. “How fantastic for you!” he said and his enthusiasm dissuaded me from arguing the point. “Of course,” he continued. “We knew your mother too. She taught with my mother-in-law. We miss her something terrible.” I nodded again, I think. I mumbled something, perhaps thanks, stunned at how quickly the sadness still bursts in at unexpected moments. Amazed at how moving it is to have the dry cleaner have known your mother. At the door, I stopped and I turned back to the man for a moment. “Thanks for your kindness to my dad,” I said. “It’s the little stuff, you know?” The man nodded. He knew. I managed not to fall apart. Again.

The saving grace of the entire trip, the thing that stopped it from being unbearable, was the magnitude of the task at hand, the sheer volume of stuff that needed to be worked through and so, it wasn’t until 48 hours had passed and the movers were on the van and my own bag was in hand, ready for my return to Ann Arbor that the sadness really presented itself. For the first time in 34 years, there was no family home, no central place my mother and father had created among them. Again, we were all sent reeling, casting about in the absence of my mother to find our own places and our own ways. And we would. We will. That much I know.


By the time I returned to Ann Arbor on Friday night, after flying through Chicago, I was exhausted in every sense of the word. I’d picked up the cold that everyone on earth seems to be passing around. My limbs ached from lifting and sorting and running around. My head ached constantly and my fibromyalgia was nagging at me incessantly, warning me of an impending reappearance. When my husband was waiting for me at the airport with a bouquet of white roses, I melted, folded into their fragrance and asked to be taken home.

Unfortunately, our car wasn’t havin’ it. We replaced the alternator on the Saturn last week (our fourth, thank you, very much) and we noticed the power waning as we left the airport. Fortunately, we made it to a car rental place before the car died, although we were very helpfully informed by the rental car place that we couldn’t park our car there for more than 30 minutes, even if we were renting from them. We tried to explain the difference between parking our car and having it die on us, but their approach to customer service did not accommodate such distinctions. Yet, we were able to call for a tow and ply Budget with some of our dough despite their overall lack of helpfulness.

Saturday, Chris, Vanessa Bauza and I attended a short story workshop as part of the 826 Fundraiser. Entitled “Where Good Story Ideas Come From” and taught by writer Julie Orringer it was a really great energizer, sparking again that flame I fed this summer at Iowa. I used to think I was relatively lucky in that writing often comes to me easily. Especially the business stuff, the pieces I write for clients. It rolls out of me, in complete sentences and paragraphs, with little rewrite required.

Now I’m not so sure that’s a blessing. It means that I’ve never had to really develop the discipline of a really good writer. And I’ve always sort of thought that rule didn’t apply to me, that somehow I could produce great bodies of work without, well, working at it. Finally, at this point in my life, I’m getting it. It ain’t gonna happen. I’m simply going to have to get disciplined, develop an ethic and work hard if I want to write this book or, frankly, anything of meaning.

This may seem obvious to some, but my ability to delude myself and my desire to take the easy road are dazzlingly powerful. I don’t want to write. I want to have written. I want that feeling where I’ve produced something. I want my book to pour out of me with the ease of the rote marketing texts I churned out for years. I want beautiful, breathtaking sentences to arrive in my mind complete, requiring only transcribing.

And then there is the fear that stands in front of me. Even if I manage to become disciplined, to apply my ass to the seat, what if nothing comes out? What if it turns out I’m no good? Or what if it turns out I have one good piece in me and I’m done? What if the ideas that seem genuine and fascinating in my head don’t translate to the paper? Amazing how I can avoid the moment in front of me by seizing on those that have yet to materialize. Kind of my specialty, I think.


Sunday, Chris and I took a long walk in the morning, followed by another lovely brunch at Wallace House. I was surprised how much I was eager to see everyone again after being away for a few days. We’ve heard tell of previous Fellowship classes that just didn’t gel and it’s hard to imagine. Maybe we’re just lucky, but this is truly a great group of folks and I think we genuinely like each other. It was a dipping day, centering around some wondrous fondue whipped up by Lisa and complemented with some other items, some of them even bordering on healthful. The kids came out in their Halloween costumes, so we enjoyed the company of Tweety Bird, a fierce lion and a raucous young vampire.

A special treat to us, our friend Kathy O’Connor was in town visiting family nearby and she came by the Wallace House with her daughter Keira, who we had yet to meet. It was so wonderful to see old friends again and, frankly, to have them see what a terrific experience this is for us. We wandered around Ann Arbor a bit with them and then Chris and I walked around campus a bit in the late afternoon. I can’t get over how vibrant the fall colors are here. It’s like relentless beauty, just amazing shades of yellow, orange and red. The perfect colors for Sunday.