Four years ago we dropped off our young, urban, British child in the rolling hills of Vermont. We didn’t know what he would make of the countryside, the notorious college, or his peers – it could have been a disaster.
But on the first day he discovered his roommate shared his first initial, his upbringing as an expat in the UK, and an eerie match of parental job titles.
Within a few weeks our kid was in the middle of a robust social group, in bands, in a relationship: in other words thriving, after a lifetime hating school. And he brought the experience back to share with us.
Every winter the college has a mandatory field work term, and our son would arrive with five or six kids for the duration. During the holidays a rotating assortment of undergraduates arrived, piling into all the rooms, occupying beds and sofas and sleeping on the floor when there was no space left.
They sat at my kitchen table and told me about their friends and lovers, heart break and horror. They played the piano in the parlor, and held band practices in the dining room. They helped me throw huge parties, and I helped them drag gear to underground shows. When I came home from the hospital the undergraduates gathered in a circle around my sickbed, eating ice cream and laughing. They listened to my hectic stories after my mother died.
Over four years we saw the whole gamut from failing grades to graduate school applications. We were entertained by sociopathy, sarcasm, and several actual operas. We watched teenagers grow into adults.
Now we’re in Vermont to watch the graduation, celebrate, say goodbye. The weekend was poignant, awkward, hilarious. We talked to people we’ll never see again, and met a few we will probably know for decades. Oh and the roommate with the eerie coincidences? We finally met the other parents, truly delightful and also somehow familiar people. Within moments we figured out that we lived within a few blocks of each other in Portland when the boys were babies.
I assured my son that he will know many of these people for the rest of his life, that endings are always beginnings. This is true, but does not make the experience less poignant. Even the kids who hated the school (or dropped out) understand how special the place is. Good or bad, they have a unique connection just by virtue of living in this place.
It has been an honor to know these people, and I am excited to see what they do next.
Christopher committed suicide on May 6, 2010. He announced his intention to end his life at Mary’s funeral. He said he was following her example. Over the next year he made sure that everyone around him knew his plan: relatives, friends, doctors, his parole officer, probably even the clerk at the liquor store.
There was factually nothing anyone could do to stop him. Or at least, nothing the family could do. His doctor provided the means – the autopsy said he had enough Oxy in his system to kill a dozen men.
He was forty-six when he died, Mary was forty-eight, and they were both old by the standards of my family.
When I was little it seemed obvious that everyone who grew up on the farm was destined to die young: of the seven siblings, only my mother lived to see a fiftieth birthday. They were born and raised in poverty, with all the attendant physical dangers, but that doesn’t entirely explain the early deaths. They were smart and wild, but that doesn’t justify the mayhem.
Suicide is an ugly word. Look at the outline, the shape of the letters, think about what it implies. Death is always difficult but suicide is a choice. I was raised to see it as a basic right, the ultimate grace. But as an adult I view the act as aggressive, violent, ruinous. I have an intellectual and philosophical appreciation of the complexity of the question, but I also know that when Christopher and Mary ended their own pain they guaranteed the surviving family would suffer. Would my mother be alive now if the others had died of natural causes? Probably. Suicide is contagious.
As a child I didn’t have enough experience to understand our family story. The aunts and uncles and cousins were just my kin, the people I belonged to and with. I perceived them as blazing giants bringing joy and destruction. I loved them, and they loved me.
I turned forty-eight this year with a wrenching sense of dislocation: I have outlived most of the people who raised me. I don’t have a script for what comes next.
Mary, Art, Bee, and Christopher – 1971.
On his first day of kindergarten we asked our son how it went. He paused, thought for a second, and said “I don’t think you need to know.”
From that moment until quite recently he remained aloof, preferring to conduct his life without reference to parental authority. Now that he is grownup, we are genuinely amazed to be invited to events and excursions.
And the senior show (an opera) was shockingly good. Congratulations to the whole team!
The Portland house is vacant for the first time since we moved away seventeen years ago. All of us have been homesick to some degree since the day we packed up the Volvo and headed off on what would become the start of the big adventure, so I asked each child in turn if they wanted to move back, offering to rent it for the price of the mortgage (quite a bargain since we bought in 1997).
When we left Portland the children were small, feral, and unschooled. For the next decade or so they clamored to go home again, the word home always pointing at that house and that city. But now they’re grown and launched. They have partners and work and lives elsewhere – the family is scattered between NY, London, and Vermont, everyone busy and occupied. The kids declined the offer; they didn’t even have time to come on the trip, to look at the walls they kissed and cried over on the day we moved away.
Through all the years of tenancy there have been friends living there, but we were hesitant to visit – because we didn’t want to intrude, because the city has changed, but more importantly because we missed it. This week Byron and I wandered through the house, then sat in an empty upstairs dormer. Floods of memories came back to both of us: the good times with the children, the hard times as we both worked endless hours.
We owned the house by virtue of my mad planning skills and ability to navigate bureaucracy, and also because it was cheaper than renting. Middle class people did not want to live in the neighborhood in the 1990’s, nobody could even imagine the gentrification that would consume the whole city in the new century. It was a wretched downtrodden sort of place, not the shiny hipster boulevard it has become.
Back then we were poor people, living a shabby impoverished life, without enough money for basic necessities. But (and this is not nostalgia talking, because I’m famously allergic to sentiment) we did have a grand time. There were stories, songs, friends, hope for the future.
I expected the trip to be brief, a quick expedition to decide if we would sell the house. But as we sat there we both wondered: should we go back? Or should we keep moving forward?
The other day I went to dinner with someone who has been a friend for more than twenty years and at some point toward the end of the conversation it became clear that this person has no idea what I do for a living. Or even that I . . . work.
This wouldn’t be surprising in a recent acquaintance; I resist the NYC social imperative to self-promote. Countless dinner parties have involved me waving away questions, refusing to discuss, changing the subject, twisting in all manner of creative ways to avoid recognition of my achievements in any field. I don’t talk about work. Not the writing, and certainly not running companies. Not with people who do understand, not with people who are curious, not any of it, not with anyone.
I know this is unusual, and, well, I don’t care.
But to have a friend who has known me for so long have literally no clue about my occupation is extraordinary. How did this friend imagine I fed and educated myself, clothed and entertained my children, paid for health insurance, bought my house, moved around the world?
I’ve been paying my own way since age sixteen. I had no support from my parents, no public aid, no partner when I became a teen parent. I worked three jobs in college and graduate school, scrabbling for scholarships to make sure I finished without debts. Once I acquired a partner I worked while he went to grad school and launched a career as an academic.
Yes, we share responsibility for family finances, but the emphasis is on the word share. I’ve worked through life-threatening illness, during school field trips, on family excursions to theme parks, through half a dozen funerals. I sat under a reception table and worked during the wedding of dear friends. I worked in the recovery room after my most recent cancer surgery. I sat on hiring committees, ran board meetings, and took my kid to a sci-fi festival in another country while my surgically reconstructed forehead was held together with stitches and tape. Oh yeah, and I never take any drug stronger than coffee.
I work all the time, ceaselessly, and I truly cannot imagine not working. This is my nature, and also my training: it doesn’t matter how much I earn or own. I was born working class and that means I work.
Do I sound a little defensive? I’m certainly sensitive about the subject. But I wasn’t offended, only mystified. And that is the virtue of friendship.
How many times have I contemplated moving to California? How many times have I decided against?
Eagle’s Next (Vanderbilt Museum)
Presents from the London family!