Plaster, chipped paint and dust particles that linger in overheated air before settling onto the plastic sheets covering every surface – for the past two weeks this has been my home, the first place that’s ever had my name on the title. I have to apologize to every person who has shared his or her renovation story with me and glimpsed in return my almost undetectably impatient sigh. I truly never imagined how disruptive remodeling could be.
It’s not only the physical discomfort that had me running to a hotel, which I finally did last week after fumes left my eyes watering and my lungs gasping for clean air. Or to South Florida, where I am now, on vacation with my family. As the construction workers yelled a combination of Romanian and Spanish to each other and stripped decades of tired old paint off the walls of my condo, I found myself consumed with the concept of home.
Home as a child was a place where dad was the earth, wind and sky, while mother and sibling were to be avoided. Then dad disappeared. When he finally did return, his presence was intermittent and just plain awful. In the years that followed my parents’ nasty divorce, home came to mean sorrow, fear, abuse, and rage, so much rage it spilled out into the yard for all the neighbors to see, merging with the garbage piled high in the driveway. Home meant hearing things like “You are my dog,” “If you don’t like it here, leave” and “we took you in out of charity.” Home meant being discarded by the two people who created me.
Fortunately, I found temporary shelter in the loving homes of two kind friends and their generous families. These were havens filled with people who wanted me around and were concerened about my wellbeing. But every so often then and for years afterwards, I would wake up in the middle of the night or stop dead in my tracks during the day, overcome with feelings of panic and emptiness. Sometimes I could predict that “the feeling” was coming and prepare for the pain. At other times, the knowledge that no one who shared my DNA gave a shit about me and that I had no safety net quite literally took my breath away.
But that life is behind me. Time to move on and forget about it, right? That’s what I told myself yesterday, as I got into my mother-in-law’s car and headed to North Lauderdale, to the funeral of a dear friend’s grandmother. She'd passed away suddenly a few days ago, and my friend had flown down from Long Island. Though I'd never met her grandma, I knew I had to be there.
Tears spilled down my cheeks as I listened to my friend eulogize a woman who had provided unconditional love and comfort to countless family members and friends. I watched the family hold each other tight for support as the rabbi read a letter Grandma had written before she died, telling them to be strong. I marveled at their adoration of a person who made a huge impact in their lives simply by loving them.
Sometimes I find it’s not easy being estranged from my family, even though it was my choice (not that my phone has rung once, though my mother did try adding me to her network on LinkedIn two Thanksgivings ago). When we imagine a person’s motives for cutting off her family, we picture bitterness and a need for revenge. We think pitifully of an angry woman who is wallowing in the past, a past in which everyone suffered, not just her.
But what happens when being estranged is less about being bitter and more about self-preservation? What happens when you know your family will never treat you kindly or respectfully? My father, mother and sibling will never acknowledge or alter the destructive dynamics of our relationships. And they will always resent that not only did I leave, I now thrive without them.
So I stay away. Except on a day when condo renovations and the funeral of a best friend’s grandmother have me thinking about how short life is. That’s when my car takes a detour, and thanks to a little help from Google maps, I wind up idling in a guest spot in front of the address listed on whitepages.com for my father. His building looks so much dingier than I remember from the last time I was there. His neighbors’ faces seem hardened and sad, despite the blinding bursts of sunshine all around them.
I cut off the car and sit there, wondering if he will come out and what I would say to him after all these years if he did. Part of me wants to knock on the door and scream at him for being such a terrible father. Part of me wants to brag about how far I’ve come and say an incredibly satisfying “ha ha” followed by an even more satisfying “F*ck You.” Instead, I sit in the 85 degree Florida heat, thinking about nothing except how I’m really craving an iced tea.
After about 10 minutes and a few puzzled looks from passersby, I turn the car back on and head to Dunkin' Donuts. With a cool drink in my hand, I crank on satellite radio and spend the next half hour listening to tunes from the 80’s and 90’s as I cruise north on the Florida Turnpike. Along the way, I revisit happy memories of rollerskating, college, Peace Corps and the many joy-filled moments that came after I escaped my family. Eventually, I pull onto my in-laws' street, where I hear a gleeful “MAAMAA!” I open the door and race into my daughter’s arms, knowing I am home.
(photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net)
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