Going Home Again

Going Home Again

I went back to Chicago at the beginning of the month for the funeral of my dear friend Posy and on my way to the beach for a swim, I discovered that the Henricks house, which they sold a couple of years back, had been torn down! These poor worker guys were a little bewildered when I came flying into the driveway in my rental car, and leaped out, aghast.

This is what the house looked like before:

One part of growing up with a lot of social capital and zero money is that you largely grow up in the houses of other people. This house belonged to two of my mother’s friends, John and Bonnie Henricks, and for most of my 20s and 30s, if I went home for Christmas, we stayed at the Henricks. They went to California to visit Bonnie’s mother, and since my mother lived in a small apartment, they had her to “housesit” for the holidays. I cooked countless Christmas dinners there. If I was home other times of year, the Henricks put me up as well — I remember coming home one night in my mid-30s, after going out to dinner with friends, and John and Bonnie calling out from their bedroom to come say goodnight. There they were, in their PJs, watching TV and I stopped in to give them both a kiss and tell them about my evening. As I went down the hall to “Debbie’s room” (Debbie had been married and the mother of 3 for at least 15 years at that point) I thought that that must be what it’s like to have parents, “normal” parents, the kind who wait up and want to say goodnight. It was lovely.

They sold the house because they’re in California full time now, and only one of their kids lives in the area and didn’t want the house. It was a lovely 1920s house that I’m sure needed some work — the bathrooms were old-fashioned by today’s standards, and the kitchen could have used an uplift, but like I said, I cooked many many holiday meals there and it was absolutely fine. But it’s on the bluff above the beach, on a prime piece of property, and it looks like someone had it torn down so they can build something bigger, with whatever ridiculous great rooms and double kitchens people are building now. I’m still a little sick about it. The waste if nothing else.

But if there’s anything that going home for the funeral of an octogenarian will remind you, is that we’re all on a one-way journey. Nick Cave’s recent Red Hand Files posted while I was home, and it seems apt:

It seems to me that the common agent that binds us all together is loss, and so the point in life must be measured in relation to that loss.  … These losses are many-faceted and chronic, both monstrous and trivial. They are losses of dignity, losses of agency, losses of trust, losses of spirit, losses of direction or faith, and, of course, losses of the ones we love. …We are capable of the greatest atrocities and the deepest sufferings, all culminating in a vast, collective grief. This is our shared condition.

It was a privilege to be included in what was a very intimate service for our friend. As her kids said, it had to be either 100 people or 1000, and they chose the smaller number. Gathered under that tent were people of great wealth and privilege, along with Posy’s staff who built that garden with her, ran her house, and did the caretaking at the end. It was probably about half and half numbers-wise. But what bound us together was that our grief was collective. We all knew one another’s losses. We’d walked together through most of them. To know and be known like that, to have been there for one another’s joys and babies and weddings as well as for the divorces, and the rehabs and the inevitable decline of our parents, it is a privilege to know people for so long. There were people in that tent I’d known since we were in playpens together, and some, like Posy’s daughter, and her nephew, who I remember mostly as babies, although they are grown people now with their own children.

I’m no longer much of a practicing Catholic, but I believe in ritual, especially when it comes to death. Like the firemen who drove three days up from California for my brother’s funeral, calling often along the way to tell me where they are, and then turned around to drive back, I believe in going to the funeral. This funeral was lovely, and I got to spend time with my cousin Elizabeth, who I spent a lot of my 20s with in Taiwan and then Telluride. She brought her mother, Genvieve, who was one of the people who told me, in no uncertain terms at a time I really needed to hear it, that I was not to waste any more of my life trying to save my mother from her own disasters. Genvieve is a little scatty these days, but very much herself. Like the zen koan, she is her original face all the time now, even if some of the details are a little off. I’m deeply grateful I got to see her one more time.

And so, I suppose there’s something iconic about losing the Henricks’ house as well. I never had the kind of family home to mourn. I can’t even count how many houses I lived in before I left home for good, between divorced parents, it’s in the double digits. To see that house gone, reduced to rubble like that, was heartbreaking. But so is losing Posy. So is knowing we’re going to lose Genvieve soon, and my mother, and my Aunt Daphne. When you start to bump up against your 60s, you’re going to lose the entire generation above you. Which leaves just us as “the grown ups.” And we’re all in agreement, that we’re not sure we’re up to the task.

But then again, neither were they. We have their example (for better and worse), and all of our kids are getting old enough now to need different kinds of advice. We’re past the days when a scoop and a snuggle and a kiss and a bandaid could stop the tears, when a shouted warning could keep them from jumping off a high rock. We’ve got the next generation falling in love and trying to figure out what their talents are and how they’ll use them and up against the terrifying reality that there are people out there who would hurt them.

That we have one another is the key. That’s why you buy the plane ticket, rent the car, get an AirBnB and show up to mourn together. That’s why you go to the wedding (and kids, this is why your parents friends who don’t really know you want to come to the wedding — because it’s a collective joy, when too often we’re just going to funerals). That’s why despite everything, and how weird it was to be the poor one, to grow up as a sort of foundling in other people’s houses, that’s why I’m grateful for this intimacy. We know one another. And that is a gift.

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