In the 1950’s, home for my husband was in Worcester, MA, in a neighborhood with yards bounded by sidewalks where kids walked to school though drifts of leaves or snow. He grew up in a neighborhood where cars drove slowly because kids were apt to be in the road playing baseball. He grew up in a neighborhood where kids scoured the surrounding woods for detritus treasures left by the tornado of ‘53. And he grew up with Italian grandparents who spoke little English, but whose garden flourished with the eggplant, tomatoes, onions and garlic that when stewed and simmered, made a rich red sauce for Sunday dinner.
But in September, when he goes back to Worcester for his 40th high school reunion, he’ll have to stay in a hotel.
It wasn’t until Dave mentioned this for the third time that I thought to stop what I was doing and look at him. His eyes were soft and wistful; he was sad. We haven’t been to Worcester since 2003, when his father, Colombo, and Colombo’s older sister, Cam, moved to a senior community in Southbury, Connecticut. Twelve years before, his mother had moved south to be closer to Dave and his brother. And while Dave has many wonderful memories of his childhood, my sense was that when the senior Sylvestros left town, he’d moved on too, with barely a backward glance.
Apparently, I was wrong about that.
The topic had come up because of my plans to visit my parents in Bryn Mawr last weekend. I am supremely spoiled because my mother and father are alive, still married, and living in the house they purchased when I was ten. Both of my sisters live with their families only minutes away. When I go home, my parents burst from the front door at my arrival, waving their hands and blowing kisses. When I go home, it is to the same green carpet in the living room that has always been there, to the bedspreads that covered my Mom’s twin beds as she grew up in St. Louis, to the 1938 Roper kitchen range that was in the house when Dad bought it, and to the same tricky toilets that take ages to refill after a flush. When I go home, I feel secure as my little-girl-self in the stone Pennsylvania house shaded by the two-hundred-years-old copper beech tree.
I can still go home. I can drive down I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, shed the skin of wife, mother and grown-up, and slip gleefully into my old roles of big sister and daughter. It feels comfortable, easy, and familiar.
This particular trip south held an added bonus: my childhood friend Edie, now a resident of Washington state, was coming to visit her father who lives in the house that Edie grew up in, a house where I spent many nights talking about boys, dancing to Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and sneaking tastes of Edie’s mother’s home-made chocolate sauce, too tempting in the pot on the stove.
“I’m envious,” said Dave. “You’re lucky to be able to go home to your parents, your house, your sisters and Edie.”
I know this well; I cherish each visit home. Like some kind of crazy person, I caress the stair railing, pat the walls and even hug the copper beech to the extent that my arms can reach around its massive girth. At night, I lie in bed knowing my parents are just down the hall. I hear their voices and tense my jaw, my fists, my closed eyes in a prayer or incantation that all might remain as it is. Home is part of me, part of my footing, as it is for most people, I imagine. As it was for Dave.
During our years as a young couple, Dave and I split holidays and visits equally between Worcester and Bryn Mawr. While in Massachusetts, we would drive past playing fields where as a youth, Dave had thrown touchdown passes, hit homeruns, and pitched as if throwing strikes were easy. We ate mocha chip ice cream cones at Pinecroft Dairy, shopped for deals at Spags and in winter, skated on the pond at Elm Park. And of course, we would have Sunday lunch at Nanny’s, which became Cam’s house when her mother passed away.
Jack, Cam and Colombo’s brother, was the gardener and while he was alive, the lettuce in the smooth wooden salad bowl came straight from the garden outside the back door. Cam would add some olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, maybe a little salt and pepper, and that was the best dressing you could ask for. She would make peppers stuffed with black olives, anchovies, capers and breadcrumbs. She made pasta with slow-cooked sauce that she topped with a sprinkle of crushed nuts. “Adds a nice crunch,” she would say.
Cam once said, “You are always welcome here,” and while she didn’t need to say it for us to feel it, I remember thinking how much it meant that there were still grown-ups to take care of me.
And Dave doesn’t have that anymore.
While I am still my parents’ child, seeking approval, occasionally hissing, “Don’t tell Mom!” to one of my sisters, Dave’s relationship with his parents changed years ago. We were married a year after Dave graduated from college and his parents divorced three years after that. We had thought them the ideal couple and it was a bolt out of nowhere when they separated. Visits to Worcester, for a time, were a balancing act as we tried to give equal attention to his mom and dad, avoid ruffling any feathers, and play it straight down the middle.
Dave’s mom moved to Connecticut while his father took an apartment on Harley Drive, literally a stone’s throw from Dave’s childhood backyard. Small as it was, Colombo’s new “pad” was cozy and, along with Cam’s yellow house at #3 Stratfield Street, felt like home.
When Dave and I dropped our daughter Casey off for her freshman year of college, I worried about my life without kids to care for. As we drove away, leaving Casey to four years of independence, fun and hopefully, learning, I was envious of the open field before her. You have an open field too, I told myself as we drove to Worcester for a night with Colombo. This is every bit a new life phase for you as it is for Casey. What do you want to do now?
What did I want to do? I’m still trying to figure that out, but at that point, holding myself together was the more immediate goal and staying with Colombo eased my yearning for the end of my hands-on mother years. For me, Colombo whipped up a strong White Russian – a tasty concoction of vodka, Kahlua and cream. He and Dave sipped Sapphire Blue martinis and watched the Red Sox on T.V. I felt soothed and cheerfully foggy in my spot on the mustard yellow couch that had been a staple in Sylvestro world for as long as I had been. While Dave’s anguish over our new status as empty-nesters was not as overt as mine, it was a comfort for us both to have a parent to retreat to.
Cam and Colombo have both passed away, but I know my husband is thinking of them when the Red Sox do something great or stupid and he’s itching to call them to hoot or grouse. And whenever Dave makes stuffed peppers or stuffed squid, there’s no question Cam’s looking over his shoulder.
“Honey? Forget the hotel. Why don’t we find a nice bed & breakfast and make a weekend of it when you go up for reunion?” I suggest. But Dave shakes his head. That isn’t the answer. It’s not so much the missing bed, roof, walls and place to stay, it’s the void where the smells of red sauce, the tang of Sapphire Blue, and Colombo and Cam used to be.