Around the same time my father graduated from high school, my uncle Kevin moved across the country with Lilly, his Girlfriend of the Moment (in this case, she would turn out to be Girlfriend of Three Years). He had sprung the news on my grandparents at the very last minute, knowing that Grandma, who somehow got the impression that Kevin was moving to California to live in a colony of surfer nuns, would do everything within her power to stop it. Afterreceiving consolation from my grandfather, my aunt, my father, and a Catholic priest, my grandmother finally resigned herself to the fact that she had to let her eldest child go. "And it's not like I'm going to be lying on the beach all day," Uncle Kevin reassured her. "I'm going to take some courses at Berkeley. Isn't that what you always wanted? For me to go to college, get my life together?"
My father was heading for MIT, and though my aunt Joan had been attending University of Maryland, which was only a couple hours away and close enough for her to unload her dirty laundry into her mother's outstretched arms every weekend, she was thinking of transferring to Northeastern. This would allow her to be nearer to her brother and her friends, but aggravating my grandmother's Empty Nest Syndrome was going to be an inevitable side effect.
In less than three weeks, my grandparents had gone from three kids in the house to no kids in the house. With Adam Rove in New York City and my mother already in Massachusetts, there was a dire lack of protegees within a 10-mile radius of Grandma, who consequently catapulted headfirst into a mid-life crisis.
To ward off her loneliness, my grandmother contemplated returning to art school, before realizing that she and her husband had recently shelled out their entire lifesavings for their children's post-secondary endeavors. So she decided to take up smaller, less expensive interests. She did volunteer work at the community center, practiced tai chi, joined several book clubs, and went on weekend trips to the spa, basically doing everything short of auditioning for a role on Desperate Housewives.
When she grew tired of being massaged and exfoliated, she tried to convince my grandfather to travel. Grandpa Will was not interested in going anywhere, unless it was to someplace where he could play golf in peace. He passed his time by protecting and serving Arcadia (his day job) and cooking elaborate meals when he was free (his true passion). He often cooked so much food that he and my grandmother ended up eating leftovers for day. Once, looking at meatloaf that had been lunch, dinner, and lunch again, my grandmother broke down, pushing the plate away from her and sobbing into the mahogany tabletop. She understood that it was her children's job to grow up and she respected that, but this heartache, brought on by nothing other than the regular passage of time, was too great for her to bear.
Eventually, as my uncle majored in journalism and my parents broke up for the second or third time, my grandmother discovered the joy of redecorating. It was one of the few interests she shared with her husband, who had been lukewarm to the idea at first, but soon perked up when he was inspired to make a golf museum in the attic room of their house.
The attic room used to be my father's bedroom. I like to imagine that my grandparents had deliberated over which room to renovate, and finally decided on my father's only because they had no other choice. (Even now, it is difficult to entertain the thought that there are actual people in this world who don't regard my dad as the center of the universe, the proton in Bohr's model of the atom. My mother discredits my theory due to my inability to form an objective opinion.)
"Well, we need the guest room, so that's out of the question," I picture my grandmother saying.
My grandfather would nod in agreement. "Joan still visits from time to time, and she hates it when we move anything of hers."
"And we can't touch Kevin's room," Grandma would continue. "I guess that leaves Luke's. He never visits anyway, and he can stay with Grace if he does."
So the decision was made, and for months, my grandparents surrounded themselves with paint swatches and wallpaper samples, making regular excursions to Home Depot. They transformed my father's bedroom into half a studio for my grandmother's artwork, and half a showroom for my grandfather's assortment of golf memorabilia. One could find few pictures of my father as a child, but the renovation process was carefully documented in several photograph albums. (I exaggerate --- my grandparents are lovely, considerate people who are more than happy to stuff me full of lasagna.)
It was during those years that my father made semi-annual phone calls home, preferring to celebrate the holidays with his research rather than his parents. In the few times they actually exchanged words, my grandparents had failed to inform my father that his bedroom was now completely refurnished and repainted, and all his previous belongings were in the garage. And so my dad did not find out about any of this until almost a year later, when he returned home for a short visit and was asked to stay in the guest room.
It is a tribute to my father that he handled this with more grace that I could ever. When I first heard the details of this incident, I was furious. "How could they do that?" I stomped my foot in twelve-year-old rage. "And how could you just let them?" I warned my parents that if they ever even thought about doing the same to my room when I left for college, I'd never forgive them. They assured me that in order to renovate my room, first they'd have to be able to enter it, which I suppose was a sarcastic attempt to ask me to clean my room that, as usual, backfired.
The spring I was four, my father called my grandparents and told them that he and my mother were planning to return with me to Arcadia for Passover and Easter. "I hope the guest room's not taken," deadpanned my father, only to be met with an awkward silence.
"Actually, Joan's coming back and so is Kevin, with his new girlfriend. Adam's in an argument with his wife so he's here for a few days. Do you think you can stay with Grace's family?"
Given a choice between staying with my mother's parents and pitching a tent in the Girardi backyard, my mother would choose the Girardi backyard every time. But I was not an outdoors kind of girl, and so my mom called up the Rabbi and gave him her list of demands.
"Look, if a drop of wine touches her lips while my kid's there --- I don't care if it's only that Manischewitz stuff --- if she drinks in front of my daughter, we're gone. That quick. And then you two can hang onto your Baby Einstein videos because you aren't coming near any of us again, do you hear me?" My mother's hands were still shaking when she hung up the phone. She tried to laugh it off, and I remember her saying to my father, "I forgot. She doesn't drink in front of other people's kids. She just drinks in front of her own."
The actual seder I don't recall very well, just that there could have been less damage done at a demolition derby. I did not appreciate the unleavening of the house, especially since we had been over at the Girardi house the night before, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the commercialist accomplishments of Cadbury. Told to ask the Four Questions, I openly wept at having to speak in public, and the next morning, when my mom washed the breakfast dishes, she discovered that there was more than just Minute Maid in my grandmother's glass.
My mother had us out the door in ten minutes.
Over at my other set of grandparents', we were once again swept into the background as people bustled about. My aunt Joan had arrived with a new friend, Hugo, and fortunately for all of us Hugo had not been found on the streets or in the outpatient clinic of a psychiatric facility. My grandmother spent most of the long weekend chatting up Uncle Kevin's girlfriend ("I think she's the one," Grandma said afterward, even though she could barely remember the woman's name), and my grandfather's eyes glazed over when he asked my dad what kind of research he was doing at the moment, prompting Dad to delve into detailed explanation.
My father, as he always did, stopped to visit his former bedroom before we left. He marveled at how it had been utterly transformed into something he could not recognize. Gone were the fish tank, the posters, the racks of test tubes and graduated cylinders. "It's like I've never even lived here before," he said, with a slightly resentful admiration.
I look back and realize how strange it must be for my parents to return to a place they could no longer call home. Our bi-annual trips to Arcadia were always considered as physically and emotionally exhausting as Odysseus' forty-year trek, but for whatever reason, we still took them. My aunt Joan used to tease, claiming that my parents were too attached to the biology closet to stay way from it for too long (another inside joke I do not want to know about), while Iwas of the belief that my parents were masochists.
Now that I am older and have gone through that painful, frustrating period of adolescence wherein I regarded my parents as gigantic albatrosses around my neck, I understand that to love somebody is to know that the person you love may disappoint you, yet you risk it anyway. Because you have no other choice, because it's necessary for Darwinistic evolution, because there is something thicker than blood and water that ties you to each other, an invisible umbilical cord of feeling that keeps you from straying too far.
With the Girardis and the Polonskys, that is quite often the case, yet for reasons unknown, we continue to give them the benefit of doubt. To do the same thing again and again, hoping to see different results --- Freud once defined this as insanity. My parents, however, call it family.
The same year the university sent my father on an exchange program to London, my mother quit her job at the firm. The two events were entirely unrelated, and my mother wanted to wring the necks of whoever thought she'd given up her career to follow her husband across the Atlantic. "I don't follow anybody anywhere," she would tell them (it should be noted that she said the same thing to the zealous converts who knocked on our door and asked us to join them on the path toward Jesus Christ). The truth is, after years of wrangling the corrupt justice system, she had had enough. She decided she would simply sit back and wait for it to self-destruct.
My father, on the other hand, was as dedicated to his work as ever, even when half of his students showed up to class hungover or high. For every one of these students, there was another who understood the beauty of quantum mechanics, and my father was never the one to deny them the pleasure of talking non-stop about it for an hour and a half.
My dad was used to traveling to various places around the world to deliver lectures or attend conferences. These trips usually lasted for no more than a week or two and my mother and I would accompany him, if the timing was right and the meeting not in one of the red states. But never before had my father been posted overseas for such a long stretch of time, and we were suddenly faced with a choice: should my mother and I follow him to England, or should we observe the Newton's First Law and stay where we were?
I voted to go, as I was in love with the way the British spoke. British slang, as I saw it, sounded a lot more elegant than American colloquialisms, and I spent hours practicing it. "Derrick O'Connor was being a real tosser today," I'd announce as I came home from school. "Do I have to start saying 'bloke' instead of 'dude?'"
My mother did not share my enthusiasm. My father had to help her compose a list of pros and cons of moving to England for a year. It read:
Cons: monarchy, long, bloody history of imperialism, Hugh Grant
Pros:Guy Fawkes Day
In the end, we decided to go, because once, when he had to give a speech on non-dissociative algebra at Caltech, my father had missed us with a pang so physical that he almost threw up in front of his audience. My mother had laughed at him, and afterwards, whenever he took another trip, she would remind him to pack a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. There was no question: those Greek sisters had used our fates for a game of cat's cradle, and we would spend our remaining lives in a tangle, squabbling over our differences.
So we handed our house keys to Joan, pleaded her not to destroy anything while we were gone, and hopped on a plane, heading toward the foggiest, dampest year in our lives.
My father taught an advanced course with some unpronounceable mathematical name, which meant for three days a week, he sat cross-legged on a desk, solving 5000-year-old math puzzles that had been scratched on the walls of Egyptian tombs in the company of younger but equally compulsive geeks.
In the movies, you often see geniuses scribbling Xs and Ys madly on a chalkboard, filling walls and walls with formulas and equations, never stopping for a drink of water or a sojourn to the bathroom. Reality, however, is nothing like Good Will Hunting. My father's classrooms were equipped with white boards, the smell of dry-erase markers gave my dad a headache, and he paused occasionally for a drink of coffee or a round of whatever role-playing game he had on his laptop.
At the end of the day, he would return to our apartment ("Flat!") and while my mother and I tried to watch television ("The telly!"), he would prattle on about the progress he had made in class. If Mom and I could be arsed to do so, we would listen in bemusement, fully appreciating that he was of a complete different species from us. My father had a way of talking about science did not make him annoying, just himself; his psychobabble was so much a part of him that we accepted it the way we accepted Joan's inherent quirkiness.
Living in the country that had birthed William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and J. K. Rowling, my father was convinced that he, too, could write a book. He was inspired to write a biography on Dietrich Steinholz, his mentor, a forgotten and unacknowledged forefather of string theory.
"You want to write something long and boring that nobody will ever read?" my mother asked. "What do you know, you've already done that. It's called your dissertation."
"I could make it interesting," my father defended. "Hell, even Friedman wrote a book."
My father's best friend had, several years earlier, written a detailed history of electrical engineering that was about as interesting as a VCR manual, and made just about as little sense.
Directly telling my father this was a terrible idea had failed to register any sense into him, so my mother took to snickering as he agonized over the writing process. "Tell James Joyce it's his turn to empty the dishwasher," she would tell me snidely.
My father gave up after several weeks and decided to leave writing to my mother. "Grocery lists and physics labs I can handle," he said. "The rest is up to you."
My mother was the writer in the family, but we were never allowed to talk about it. She did her writing in spiral notebooks she kept locked away, and if we ever tried to read any of it, she made it clear that she would personally remove our corneas. The only poem I've ever read of hers is Sewer Walking, and that happened only because my third-grade teacher had deemed my poetry assignment unacceptable. My poem did not rhyme. When she heard this, my mother stormed into my teacher's office and accused her of restricting my creativity. "So Seuss is a better poet than Wordsworth?" she demanded.
Later, she showed me the poem she had written in high school, which did very little to make me feel better, considering that it rhymed. "That's not the point," my mom told me. "The point is, you are better than this sorry excuse of a public school system."
During the first few months in England, my mother found so much to snark about that she wrote a series of essays and rants. They caught the interest of one of her former professors, who referred her to an agent, who, in turn, wanted to publish them. My mother ignored the agent's calls for several weeks, insisting that the publishing world was just as corrupt and capitalist as the legal system.
"But that would be so cool," my aunt Joan enthused over the phone. "It'd probably be a New York Times bestseller. You'd be like Dan Brown, except you'd actually be good!"
"Any idiot can write a book these days and sell it," said my mom. Which, judging from the books that lined the shelves of Barnes and Nobles and its European equivalents, had some degree of truth in it.
Perhaps out of boredom, or perhaps because the agent had sworn in blood that he would not sell her out to corporate conglomerates, my mother eventually relented. She went back and edited a collection of her old writings, an exercise that made her want to hurl everything into a bonfire. She was most underwhelmed about the whole ordeal. "For God's sake, half of it is a bunch of pissed-off rants about the evils of grad school," she would say, and people thought she was being modest when she meant every word of it. "You guys are making way too big a deal out of this, and no, you can't read it until I'm finished. I don't care who the hell you think you are."
Not even my father and I were allowed a preview, and if we dared to ask, the response was, "Write your own damn book." (I tried, but at the age of nine, I was more interested in the sharpening my pencils than in the actual writing itself.) Writing, you see, is an intensely private matter, and to show it to the world with your name attached to it means taking a giant leap of faith, something which my mother was wary of doing.
One evening in January, I lay on the living room floor, watching the DVD of the timeless classic, Mean Girls ("Brutally accurate portrayal of the high school socio-political system," my mother endorsed). My father was sitting on one end of the couch, chewing on the cap of an orange highlighter as he read through the latest issue of one of his scientific journals, and my mother was curled up on the other, crossing out and rearranging the words on her fifth or sixth or seventeenth draft.
A third of the way through the movie, my concentration was disrupted as my mother let out a chuckle. I wasn't sure if she had caught an awkward typo, or if what was written had brought back a ridiculous memory. She leaned over, and against all expectation, showed my father what she had been working on. She rested her chin on his shoulder, and waited until he got to the right part and started laughing as well. My father carried on reading, reaching up with one hand to touch the side of my mother's face. She shifted closer until they were pressed cheek to cheek, and I was suddenly aware that this was one of those small, unhurried moments of affection that go so easily unnoticed, a split second so intimate that it could end wars.
I felt like an intruder for simply being in the same room as they were, so I turned off the television and went into my bedroom. I picked up my pen and began to write.
end notes: and so it ends not with a bang but a whimper. I figured I needed to stop before living in the bowels of Asia renders me incapable of forming coherent sentences in English. Also, I'm bored.
Again, thank you for reading and sticking with me through this. It's over; go home.