I moved out of my mother's house when I was seventeen years old. Which is not to say I left. I found this out twenty years later when she put the house up for sale.
Life began, for me, on 52nd street between 7th and 8th avenues in Brooklyn. I have memories of our apartment there in spite of the fact that we left when I was only four years old. It was a six-ish unit apartment building and we lived on, probably, the second or third floor. My friend Bobby lived on the first floor in the back and I loved going to play at his place because he had one of those big plastic horses propped up on springs that you could bounce up and down on and pretend to be the Lone Ranger, or Tonto, or just some girl riding a horse which, in Brooklyn, is equivalent to being an astronaut or a surfer. I was afraid of Bobby's father so I rarely played there anytime near 5pm when he would come home from work. I'm not sure why he scared me but I vaguely remember him being big, and dark and quiet. Too quiet.
My best friend at the time, John Ratazzi, lived in the building next door. His mother would take us on excursions to the bakery across the street for sugar cookies every now and again. John and I walked to our first day of school together, with our mothers, and he cried really hard when they separated us from our moms and took us in to the auditorium. I was on the girls line holding back the tears and John was on the boys line sobbing and heaving and snotting. I wanted to hug him, give him a sugar cookie and comfort him with the story being told to all of us frightened children that our mothers were waiting for us right outside the doors of the school - even though I knew it was the first of many big, fat lies.
I also vividly remember flushing my goldfish down the toilet in a moment's panic when my father came banging on the bathroom door because it was locked (I was not supposed to lock myself in there - ever). I thought I'd surprise everyone and clean the goldfish bowl so I put them in the toilet to swim while I scrubbed away at the scum hugging the walls of the bowl using my parent's toothbrushes. For months afterwards I couldn't sit on the toilet because I was sure the fish would come back and take revenge on my tiny behind. I used a wooden potty chair for weeks because I knew there'd be no unpleasant surprises swimming up from the scary unknown world deep in the recesses of the bathroom toilet. I'd probably still be using it today if my father hadn't forced the issue and thrown the potty chair out one late night while I slept.
My sister was born while we were living there and I remember missing my mother a lot. Every day that she was in the hospital felt like a Sunday. Eerily quiet and just not right. She'd delivered all three of us by c-section so she was in the hospital for, what felt like, a very long time. My grandmothers took turns watching my brother and I while my Dad worked and went to the hospital. It was right around Christmas time and our scrawny tree (fake) was up. My Scottish grandmother, Mary Adam, would sit with us and sing Lutheran hymns (she would sing - my brother and I would listen) and all I wanted to do, the entire time, was plug in the lights on the tree. I was told over and over and over again not to touch the plug and not to turn on the lights.
"Gram, can I put the lights on?"
(scottish accent) "No ya will nawt touch the tree. Gawd won't like that!"
"Don't touch the lights my wee bairn."
"Ya heard me know - "
My Dad wanted us to wait for Christmas Eve when my mother came home. I held out until just a few days before my mother's arrival with the new baby but I couldn't stand it any longer. I crept behind the tree and layed on the floor commando-style and shoved the plug in to the socket and, literally, got the shock of my life! Electricity coursed through my body and, although it obviously didn't kill me, it scared the shit out of me and hurt like hell. My grandmother came running in to find the tree lit and me wailing and screeching on the sofa. Unfortunately, for me, my father came home right at that moment and I had to confess my wrongdoing. I don't remember exactly what happened (I've handily blocked it out) but I'm sure he spanked me and put me to bed.
We moved to 63rd street between 4th and 5th avenues the Spring after my sister was born. My Dad's parents lived four doors down from us. His brother lived in an apartment on my grandparent's top floor and his sister, Jean, lived in the house directly across the street. This was an area of Brooklyn that Scottish immigrants heavily populated. Afternoon tea, Robert Burns poetry and brogues were all I knew - until that first day of school I mentioned earlier. So, I thought, wait just a minute, we're not in Scotland!!??
The more "socialized" I became, the more I pondered the possibility that my family was a bunch of freaks. Maybe even witches! No one else's family sat down for tea evey afternoon - and used a silver teapot and loose tea (as opposed to tea bags). No one else's grandmother read them poetry about toothaches and farting and all other manner of things.
My parents divorced when I was 12 and at this point we had moved, the year before, to a big house on 68th street. This house was next door to my father's sister Anna and her husband Albert and, in the same house but on the top floor, my mother's sister Dorothy and her husband Mike. When my Dad left, that house became even bigger. My brother and sister and I would huddle, at the end of the day, in the living room together watching TV - something we weren't allowed to do when my Dad lived home. It was never spoken but I know that we just wanted, and needed, to be close to each other. So, there we were, sprawled out on the sofa, the floor - wherever. In those days, TV used to go off the air at a certain hour. The national anthem would play to an image of the flag waving in the American breeze and then the station would sign off for the night. Even if all three of us were sound asleep, the minute the anthem started playing, someone would wake up and walk over to the TV and change the channel. To anything. What was on didn't matter - having our electronic fireplace did.
My mother had over a hundred thousand dollars worth of remodeling done on the house and then decided that she needed to sell. It was, according to her, an "albatross" around her neck. She was in debt and stressed and ready to move on, finally. When she told me she had a buyer I had the first twinge of - well, for lack of a better word, fear. I was the one who'd left home at 17. How could I be having these feelings over a home I couldn't wait to leave?
Once I acknowledged the fact that this was, in fact, really emotional for me I began to see even more clearly and realized that I had never really left. As independent as I'd been my whole life, somewhere in the back of my head, and heart, I always knew that if anything went wrong, I could always come "home". I felt the need to ritualize my emotional exit from this time and place in my life, once and for all. I planted the garden in front of the house that year before my Dad took off and I tended it and replanted it every year so it seemed the most logical place to "pull up roots", so to speak.
I went early one morning and chose a plant to dig up. My plan was to go to the ocean and let the plant, roots and all, go in to the vast expanse of water that would nourish it and possibly give it a chance to reroot itself. I took the bus to Coney Island. When I got to the beach, I sat for awhile and held on to the memories, both good and terrible, and I knew that they were in me and safe and so was I. When I felt like the time was right I walked in to the waves a bit and then hurled the plant over the crest of the biggest wave I could find. I stood there for a moment, filling up with emotion - when this really big, Brooklyn kind-of-guy walked up to me and said "'scuse me - would you like to go out with me?" I looked him right in the eye and said - "listen, I don't want to sound rude but I'd like to be alone right now." His reply was, "so, is that a yes?"
When he walked away I felt something at my feet that made me jump up out of the water - thinking it was a fish or a killer whale or something - I looked down to see - the plant. The plant that I had unleashed in to the great and mighty Atlantic Ocean had found it's way back to me. I was freaked out. So, I took a deep breath - renewed my heartfelt vow to honor the memory blah blah blah and threw the thing as far and as hard as I could. Less than a minute later, it came back again.
I was stunned. So, is this what my mother meant about the albatross?? Would I never, ever be able to leave this house, after all?
I decided to give it one last effort. I walked a bit further in to the water and said, out loud, right before I let it go again, "if you need to come back, come back but I'm going to stay here if it takes all night..." and then, I realized that in order to truly leave, I needed to say goodbye. Goodbye to the fight my parents had right before my dad left for good - goodbye to Babe and Dog the two beautiful animals that loved us - goodbye to the nights without heat and the days without my mom who was lost to her own sadness.
I threw and this time I felt like I really let go. I stood there for close to an hour - waiting for it to come back, and it never did. Even if it had washed up on shore right next to me, I don't think I would have seen it. I was changed. Things were beginning to look different.