No Place Like Home
Growing up, home was 117 Orchard Lane or Ivy Bend or Cooie’s Corner—one home with several names. On a leafy elbow, we lived next door to Admiral and Mrs. Todd, who let us ride their chair elevator up the stairs and play baseball in their back yard. We were five: Mom and Dad, my older sister, Lili, my older brother, Rod. By the time I was nine, my sister had left home for boarding school; my brother followed two years later. Home was lonely.
Home, Sweet Home
I wanted to embroider a “Home is where the heart is” sampler. Mother pronounced them tacky, unless antique.
Home is Where the Heart Is
We were in the basement after supper. I was perched on a high stool. Mom was standing. The cluttered workbench, lit by a low-hanging naked bulb, was a bright island in the shadowy cellar. I smelled sawdust and WD40. Mom shook the small can and pried the lid off with a screwdriver. The paint reminded me of a bowl of cream for a kitten.
“This way,” Mom instructed, dipping a narrow paintbrush a third of the way into the paint. “Paint with the grain; that makes the finish smoother. You try.”
I tucked my teeth over my bottom lip, clasping the brush. I felt nervous, trusted. Mom had built a Valentine’s Day box for me, and in a few days, I would take it to school, to hold all the first grade Valentines. Other moms made fancy cookies or ruffled Valentines with doilies and glitter. My mom had made the mailbox!
“That’s the girl. Smooth strokes. Good job.” Mom’s praise was sweet as a conversational heart. Be Mine. At six, I knew already that reading was my superpower.
Once the paint dried, Mom helped me trace the outline of a red Cupid on the top with a bright red magic marker.
Mom was a carpenter. She showed her love with sandpaper, wood glue, drills and jigsaws. No surprise that my husband loves to make things, too. He is happiest among tools and clamps and sawdust. Hardware store smells remind me of home.
Visits to my father’s parents’ home required an overnight stay—perhaps that’s why my memories are vivid: cabbage roses climbing the walls; my father’s boyhood room a ship’s berth; a bleeding heart bush, its profusion of pink hearts, each split by a white blaze, multiplying each spring in the backyard.
Grammie had died that spring. Raised in Alabama, she had a soft drawl to her speech. She taught me to sprinkle salt on cantaloupe and taught me how to sew. We pinned trim onto hand towels, and with laborious stitches; I learned to affix ribbons sprinkled with red hearts onto blue terrycloth.
Too Close to Home
We were in Grammie’s kitchen in New Jersey when the phone rang, and our housekeeper told my mother that my brother had been killed. I saw my mother’s slender form go rigid, the long phone cord dipping to the ground. At fourteen, I wondered how there could still be sun. In a crisis, WASP women straighten their spines, stiffen their upper lips and stay calm; it’s in the rule book they forgot to give me. I’ve always been too full of feelings.
That afternoon, when we arrived home, the molecules shifted—dust motes in shafts of light reminding me all had changed. In the weeks that followed, some mornings I’d wake up, forgetting that my brother would never come home again. Then, I’d remember.
A month later, object of curiosity, I returned to school. Mrs. Goppelt handed me a notebook, no pity in her eyes. “Creative writing didn’t fit in your schedule. We’ll do it independently. Write whatever you want. Go audition for the play at the boys’ school; it’s called Our Town.”
Thornton Wilder and my journal were all the therapy I had for a long time. Grief was worse at home. I imagined my brother still in his room, waiting for me to play pirate ship under his covers on a Saturday morning as we had when we were young. He was everywhere and he was gone. Grief wrecked us.
Home Away from Home
College in New England replete with Gothic buildings—where no one knew my brother had died, where I could lose myself in play after play. My roommate and I lived together for four years, four dorm rooms we made homey.
After graduation, I headed to a New England boarding school to teach English and theatre. In the dormitory, I made a tiny home: my Morris chair, a loveseat, books, armfuls of purple gladiolas. I was becoming myself: a teacher.
I studied the boys for whom I served as housemother, seeking clues about my brother. He’d been away at prep school before he died.
Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat
In Manhattan, my boyfriend and I moved into a four-story walk-up co-op, near my new school, where I worried about teaching rich girls. But in English class or play practice, no one cared about money.
Though we were not yet married, we hung a mezuzah. We made a home.
Nothing to Write Home About
We went to plays, we started a summer theatre, we worked and ate out and made friends. No babies came. And when the first miscarriage happened, it was as if all the grief I had tucked away surged up again. I did not write. I moved, wooden, through my days, thinking bitterly that all of my students had once been babies…
Two baby daughters finally came. We moved from one apartment to another around the corner, a new home, the long Turkish carpet—a gift from my husband’s mother—on the living room floor. Our girls rode a Crazy Coupe up and down the hall; the sellers had left it for us. In the girls’ room at night, a light with fish on the shade slowly whirled round and round, projecting colors on the wall like liquid stained glass. My husband played the guitar for them most nights to help them fall asleep. We were home. I pushed away the fear about what it would mean to lose either of these much-wanted children. How did my mother go on? Love, I know, is not for the faint of heart.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer, teacher and mother from Shaker Heights, OH where she follows the lives and laughter of 540 girls as Head of Laurel School. Her work has appeared in the Brevity Blog, Under the Gum Tree, Literary Mama and other journals. Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and piles of books, both read and unread.
© 2021, Ann V. Klotz