By the time I was fifteen, my mother and I had moved at least twelve times. We slipped back and forth from Wilmington, Delaware to my grandparents’ house on the Elk River, ran from bad boyfriends and money troubles, as she struggled to support us and keep herself together. The apartments were in urban neighborhoods, spaces hacked out of rowhouses or flats in once-stately brick apartment buildings with high ceilings and wide central staircases, the paint faded and the carpets worn.
Our stay at the duplex on Lovering Avenue was an especially long run, from 1976 to 1977. This was the house where three cats died – Sheba after she was hit by a car, Regis, who got an infection at his neutering site (“He was too clean,” my mother used to say, implying that his frequent grooming of the incision caused his death), and Amber, who had a form of pernicious anemia. The three crosses in the garden plot out back grew by one after Happy Easter, my hamster, escaped and gorged himself on rat poison in the basement. Regis’s penultimate move ultimately tipped the balance in favor of life: before going under the knife, he impregnated Liz, our little girl cat, who gave birth to five scrawny orange kittens.
The air in that place hummed with thwarted ambition. 1977 was the year before my mother went back to college, before she really thought it was possible to go back. She had gotten pregnant with me in her freshman year at the University of Delaware, had her life interrupted by a new baby and short-lived marriage, dropped out of school to support my father and me. In 1977 she was twenty-seven and a single mother, unhappily coupled with the man who would become my stepfather. Stuck in a dead-end job and close to poverty, my mother was always one step from exploding. She scared me. It was on Lovering Avenue that she hurled a jar of honey in my direction, that she slapped my face at bedtime after an innocent remark, that she refused to let me go out for Halloween one year because I didn’t want to wear a mask.
But Lovering Avenue was home. It was home simply because she was there, providing the context and the love, however filtered it was through depression and quashed dreams. When she wasn’t angry or hopeless, my mother was funny and loving.
I’ve lived apart from my mother since I was fifteen years old, have had homes in an unheated cottage, a group house, studio apartments and solid Victorians. Although there are places that are simply “home” – Washington, DC will always feel like I was born to live there – I’ve found that the things I carry are what really keep me grounded.
The objects that lead me back to my history, that are stories in themselves, aren’t necessarily fancy. Home is the doily my mother mounted on burgundy velvet and framed in toasted mahogany, a piece that has hung over mantles, in living rooms and kitchens, and is now in our guest room. It’s the chair my husband and I bought at a flea market in Manhattan. A gum-smacking lady from Long Island delivered it to our DC apartment in the dark of night; later Nora the dog, insecure and still new to our lives, nibbled on the right armrest.
The recipe box that my grandfather made for my grandmother 35 years ago, that she filled with yellowing newspaper clippings and sugary coleslaw recipes, is home. So is my grandparents’ flatware lying in the kitchen drawer downstairs, a jumble of basic blunt-ended cutlery from the 1960s, forks, spoons and knives that long-dead or missing relatives grasped and put to mouth. Home used to be that huge 1950s window fan with chipped turquoise paint, so powerful that it could draw a breeze from one end of the house to the other. My mother borrowed it from me and then lost it. She left the fan in the ill-fated cottage on Smith Island, or in the basement at Linden Street, or maybe even in the other West Street house she and her long-time boyfriend Kevin had to exit on the quick.
Home is the small set of drawers that currently serves as my husband’s bedside table. My grandfather sawed and hammered and glued the piece together, coated it with honey pine wood stain. This basic piece carries the weight of memory and guilt by association. Looking at it brings back the scent of his woodshop, a tart mix of sawdust and turpentine with soft undercurrents of sweet creamy coffee, cedar-tinged sweat, and wisps of Pall Mall smoke. My mother and I always downplayed his furniture-making skills. His pieces were not to our liking. He gave the stuff that didn’t sell to his family, our worth measured by the value of his gifts.
The only thing left from Lovering Avenue is an old-fashioned wooden fruit crate that my mother used as a bedside table. The wood has darkened to a reddish brown and there are water marks on the slats left by sweating glasses of iced chamomile tea and heavy mugs of hot carob. My mother would rest her journal here, mark her place with a pencil laid over looping script. I’ve had the crate for over twenty years now, have carried it from Washington, DC to Illinois, Ohio, and California (and a few places in between). It’s been beside beds and has supported phones and coffee cups, beer bottles and glasses filled too high with gin and tonic.
Years ago my first husband’s mother, born of Chicago gentry, implied that the time had come to jettison the old box to make way for “real” furniture. What could be more real than that crate, a tangible connection to the past, stains, sadness and all? I ignored her and eventually moved on, taking my crate with me.
Jennifer is a writer and the author of Writing to Survive. She has lived in eight different states. Jennifer moved from the East Coast to Berkeley, California. She has almost completely acclimated to “this strange land of temperate summers, incredible produce, and creative ferment”.