I pulled up around back just past 5:30. The blanket of pre-dawn darkness concealed virtually everything, except, of course, the ivy-covered stone house of my youth. The one in which my old yet beautiful mom still lives. Nothing could ever conceal it.
That’s where the five of us grew up. Only my brother and I still call our hometown home, and neither one of us moved back until we were well into our thirties. Before that, my siblings and I were spread all over the country. Atlanta, Seattle, New Orleans, Dalton, GA, and Oakland, MN — geographical evidence of an undeniable fact: we were never a very cohesive unit.
Still, we always did the best we could. As my 5:30 arrival would attest.
Growing up, I wasn’t exactly sure what passed as “normal”, though I was certain that our family didn’t qualify. We were a blended bunch created when a widow with a young son and daughter married a widower with two young daughters. I came along three years later when Mom and Dad were both 42. Old, no doubt, to have a child today, but downright ancient in 1969. I was the only family member who was related to everyone else — our common denominator, if you will. But I was much younger than the other four, and as such would never serve as the galvanizing force which you might expect such a common denominator to be. Not that galvanization was ever in the cards for us.
Maybe it was because our professor parents weren’t exactly the nurturing types, but rather the wind-them-up-and-let-them-go types, as their liberal, Laissez-faire approach to child rearing would attest. Honestly? I always thought it was kinda cool. Nowadays, parents cater way too much to their kids. Walk into most homes and you’ll find the children’s media dominating the television, computer, or radio. And it doesn’t stop there. Most families can’t even go for a ten-minute car ride without throwing in an Underdog DVD. And if they do, it’s only because they’ve chosen to crank up Disney XM instead.
Truth be told, all that stuff is a big pet peeve of mine. I’ve always believed that too much catering yields the tail that wags the dog. Not to mention the fact that if you’re not careful, you’ll accidentally create children who mistake privilege for entitlement. No such worries were to be had in the ivy-covered stone house, however. The five of us never considered ourselves privileged, much less entitled.
We seldom vacationed as a family. In fact, I can only remember one such outing, and I’m pretty sure my oldest sibling didn’t even go. Yep. Just one. Unless, of course, you count the times we all piled in the station wagon and embarked upon semi-obligatory jaunts to visit either set of grandparents. Maybe that’s why there were so few pictures of us around the house. Not much sense in taking pictures unless you’re somewhere to take them. That would certainly explain the lack of Kodak moments. Well, except the yearly school photos. There were always plenty of them. Even the outdated ones.
We were light on toys, but heavy on textbooks. Tight on Sesame Street, but wide open on the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. The stereo was never tuned in to our stations, but rather to the one that featured the classical music which constantly emanated from the speakers. Even during dinners. The ones that were served under a canopy of smoke from the Benson and Hedges 100s that had accompanied the pre-meal martinis our parents regularly tossed back. Not a lot of Romper Room going on. The five of us were raised in an adult-centric environment.
The aforementioned are facts, mind you. Not complaints. After all, there was nothing to complain about. I love my mom and dad dearly. They did the best they could, and looking back, they did very well, indeed. We always had a roof over our heads. We had plenty to eat as well as warm clothes, even if mine were flat-out atrocities disguised as prudent, decade-old hand-me-downs. We all attended the same private school. In fact, my parents had a child in that school for eighteen consecutive years. We all have degrees from colleges like Emory, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Yale. Three of us went on to earn graduate degrees, yet not a single one of us were ever asked to contribute even so much as a penny toward any of those degrees. “The education’s on us,” our parents always said. Everyone knows you don’t become rich by being a professor, yet my parents still managed to fork over a small fortune to make good on their offer, thanks, no doubt, to countless sacrifices. Maybe that’s why we never went on fancy vacations.
My parents did well on the intangibles, too. Unlike so many, my siblings and I are immune to the intoxication of wealth. We’ve never confused our net worth with our self worth, nor anyone else’s for that matter. All of which is proof that Mom and Dad did a wonderful job regardless of how nurturing they were. They gave us everything we needed to succeed in this world, and all of us have done just that.
It’s just we did it without each other.
I sometimes wonder why. Happenstance? An unintended result of our upbringing? Or God’s will, maybe? I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Because our very separate lives can’t ever change one simple truth. The five of us are a club. One that my parents founded. And if you don’t get it, then I can’t help you. Because I can’t explain it any better than I already have. We’re a club. There’s no secret handshake, no special knock, but we’re still a club. Even if there aren’t any meetings. Well, except the spontaneous ones that take place every decade or so. The ones that fate calls to order. Like the one that went down in November of 2002.
Looking out the window of my Chevy Tahoe, I couldn’t tell if Mom had made it outside yet or not. All I could see was the florescent, built-in light of her old-school General Electric stove which shone through the back-door window. She eventually emerged from the darkness, making her way up the sidewalk steps and slowly coming into the dim glow of the streetlight as she approached the gate. She looked tired. I wondered if she had gotten any sleep. I had managed an hour. Maybe two. I doubted if she had even done that well.
“Oh damn,” she said just as we pulled away. I knew what she was going to say next. “I hope I didn’t leave the oven on.” She didn’t. She never does, yet she always wonders if she did. It’s nothing more than a defense mechanism, one which takes her mind off of whatever it is that should be causing her anxiety and redirects it instead to a less serious, and, in fact, non-existent scenario.
But I doubt if it worked this time.
For we were off to catch a flight that neither one of us wanted to take. And nothing could ever take her mind off of that. Not even for a second.