The first thing I did when I moved back to the city of my early youth, after an absence of many years, was to drive out to the old neighborhood where I'd once lived with my family, my little sister and my parents. This was where my parents had had their first house, their ``miracle house,'' so named because my father had managed the down payment from resources as tenuous as his very shoestrings. He was a teacher, and money an uphill grind. I wanted to see if the house had stayed the same, or, like the rest of us, all now living in different parts of the country, changed. As I turned the familiar corner of the block and drew near, I saw that it had indeed changed, the old wood-frame house. It was bigger, to begin with. A room, bedroom or study, that looked like a brimless stovepipe hat had been put on top of the garage that adjoined it. The living room and kitchen looked double in size, giving an impression of portly ease. A new roof of smart, thick shingles had sprouted. There were more concrete steps, and less steep, and with a filigreed metal railing, leading up to a larger front door, as if to say that a bigger house needed a bigger introduction. The color of the house had changed, too. Once milk-white, now it was the deep, hardy brown of a chestnut.
Only one thing looked the same, the lithe, freckle-barked birch that stood in one corner of the front yard. It had been many things to me. On windy days it had filled, billowed out, like a sail, making the house seem like a boat. On quiet days it just stood, silent yet intense, like a tall child who'd come to see me, his heart so full he didn't know what to say first.
I had intended just to drive by, slowly, taking everything in with retentive eyes, but then I saw the sign neatly posted on a picket in the front yard. It said, ``For Sale.'' I smiled, thinking what a nice irony it would be if the house came full circle to me. But, heaven knows, I couldn't afford it. And anyway I felt it would always belong, in spirit, to my parents.
I parked my car and went up to the door. I didn't want to impose on the owner, but perhaps if I explained that I'd once lived there, it would be all right for me to have a brief look inside?
A real estate agent's card was taped to the door, saying, ``Gone to another house. Back soon. Please come in and look around.'' It was an invitation. I opened the door and went in. The living room was empty of furniture, and so, I sensed, were the other rooms. A hush fell over me, a hush of house-ness. It was the same hush that had fallen over us all, my parents, my sister and me, when we'd stood for the first time in the house, feeling that this was the one for us.
We had lived for so many years in apartments. We had lived in basement apartments, with low-hanging pipes and spiders and shadows, and the unnerving sounds of upper floors wobbling and bobbling. We had lived in ground-floor apartments, going and coming along narrow hallways among crowds of people holding one another off with their elbows. We had lived in top-floor apartments reachable by rickety, matchstick stairs, and overlooking damp meadows of laundry hanging on clotheslines.
Sometimes, when my mother would pick up my sister and me after school, she would drive home through neighborhoods where people lived in houses. Houses where a light glowed in a window or two drew her most. She would gaze at the homey sight with the tender longing of someone who has traveled a long way to seek something priceless, and sees a sign that tells her she hasn't far to go.
All that longing of hers was in the hush of house-ness those years ago, and now again as I stood there alone. And all my father's almost disbelieving hope that he could provide. And my sister's dream to have a room of her own, and mine to have mine.
Before I left, I walked through the rooms of the house, seeing other changes, all nice. I lingered in the kitchen. Here, peeking around the corner, was where my sister and I sometimes watched our parents standing together in the welcome dark of evening and looking out the window at whatever was astir in the sky. The stars winking at the daisies my mother had planted in the backyard; the moon, its light touching their shoulders softly. My father was very tall, my mother very short, and when they were silent like this and close - in spirit and place - it was as if he invited her up to his height, and she invited him down to hers, and each saw the world from a new, fresh view.
I remembered an evening when a road of clouds, curved as an eagle's claws, wound steeply up to the moon. Partially covered by other clouds, the moon looked like something from one of my old picture books, a Jewish house in a medieval town, its doors and windows bolted, its hidden occupants full of a frightened kindness. I was so glad we didn't live in a house like that, but in one where we were free and happy. That was the evening my father picked my mother up and lifted her high in the air, equating the literal with the figurative, and whirled her round and round the kitchen, singing, ``Ours.''
The Artist and His Mother
This painting was inspired by a 1912 photograph taken in Armenia of Arshile Gorky and his mother. Beginning in l926, and for nearly a decade, Gorky used the photograph as a source for dozens of paintings and drawings, each with transformations and changes, and all exploring his emotional bonds to his mother and youth.
This series of paintings is noted for its display of draftsmanship and simplification of form. The figures present themselves as thoughtful, timeless and isolated. Gorky's palette consists of rich browns and ochres, grays and creamy whites. Some consider his later, less representational work to be a forerunner of Abstract Expressionism.