All My Life I’ve Been Slowly Losing Home
My hometown sits in the Southeastern Greene School district of Greene County, itself the very southwest corner of Pennsylvania. And therein, I believe, is born my perennial confusion of east and west. When I lived in Kansas, my hometown nevertheless often seemed to the west of me – because Greene County is in the west (of Pennsylvania), right? When I think of driving home from Philadelphia, I know I am going to southeastern Greene, hence I must be traveling east. It’s always a fun time, that moment when you have to choose which direction on the turnpike.
These days, with distance driving being a migraine trigger, Mr. Zuska most often does the driving, and I am spared the difficulty of decision, if not the momentary internal confusion. Whatever direction, we headed to Mom’s house for Memorial Day weekend. I stayed on past the weekend to take Mom to some doctor appointments. The weather was exquisite, and we participated in requisite Memorial Day traditions. There was, of course, the cookout, with various family members. My sister and I cleaned up the yard and she planted annuals and tended to the rosebush in Mom’s front yard garden bed.
And I took Mom to the cemetery.
We cut peonies from the heartbreakingly beautiful white and wine-red bushes in the front yard. Mom waited in the car alongside the cemetery road and said her prayers there while I tended to the graves, clearing away overgrown turf, and digging a little hole to sink our makeshift flower vases – soda pop cans. Visiting the graves is an early childhood memory, associated with Christmas and Easter and Memorial Day. First it was just Mom’s mother’s grave, with Mom and Dad and Pappap and most of us six children visiting. Then Pappap died and I discovered loss (for the first time) at age seven. There are five graves in all now. My Dad’s parents died within six months of each other in the year I went off to college, and, in a betrayal of time, Dad himself was lost to us at age 57, in my first year of grad school. It is just Mom and I now on this visit.
When we were little, Dad would take us very young ones to the stand of pine trees along the edge of the field of graves to look for pinecones. We were easily amused in those pre-Wii days; searching for and finding pine cones – especially if you got one opened up – was always a thrill. Nowadays when I go, I find a pine cone to leave on Dad’s tombstone. On this visit, I also found a piece of mountain laurel on Dad’s grave, so I knew that Aunt Betty had been to the cemetery before us. The mountain laurel comes from the magnificent bush growing in her back yard, courtesy of Dad and Uncle Jimmy who famously – and illegally – dug it up in the wild many years ago, when it was just a little thing. Uncle Jimmy’s grave now lies not far from Dad’s, and Aunt Betty’s son Johnny is the one who accompanies her to the cemetery these days.
Loss accumulates and accelerates in one’s lifetime. Last January, we moved Mom to assisted living. I have taken over her finances and so have all her mail forwarded to me. Last week, I had to turn in her post office box key. We’ve had that post office box since forever, probably since the town was built in 1928 and the first post office boxes were opened. My nephew was the one who actually took the key over, and he got back the one dollar deposit my parents had put down whenever they got the P. O. Box key a hundred zillion years ago. Before there were keys; we had boxes with combination lock dials on them, in the old P. O. building. Similarly today I wrote to the little local bank where Mom has done her banking, also since forever, to close out the account. They have no branches here in the Philly area, of course. And, if you will believe this, the bureaucrats who send my mom the black lung checks (my dad was a coal miner) will not do direct deposit, so I have to physically take the checks to a bank.
So, getting rid of the P. O. box and the local bank account are just two more steps on the long road that is the end of “home” for me. We still have the house, which my mother was born in. We hope to hold onto it till after she is gone. I can’t imagine what it will be like one day when I no longer have that house to go “home” to. I remember my father going through this when his parents both died and he had to sell their house. He said to his brother and sisters “the old home place won’t be there anymore, but I hope you will think of my house as your old home place now.” But they never came to visit us there. Everything was different when the house was gone. I imagine my siblings and I scattering once the house is gone and while I am not close with all of them, it will still be a sad thing, the passing of something that, when I was little, I just believed would always be there.
In my mind, the map (and world) centers around that house in that small little town in western Pennsylvania. I don’t know what will happen to my sense of direction – or to me – when I shut the door behind me for the last time.