For my first 18 years, plus summers during college, I lived in the family house on Laurel Avenue. Today, nothing else in the world feels more like it’s mine, even though I neither live in it anymore, nor own any part of it.
I love the siding made of redwood — a nearly indestructible evergreen harvested in California before species protection laws; to replace it with something artificial would be a complete waste. I love the worn pine and oak floors. I love the thick, textured plaster walls. I even love the asbestos in the garage and the dank, cedar-smelling, dusty basement.
As a kid, I called it “my” house, but it never called to me as it does now. I finally appreciate that I belong there.
My home life was at its most torturous when I was 18. I was a well-honed jerk, a black hole eating away at family contentment. My parents were mean (I thought) and often divided on how to punish me. My brothers were 15 and perpetually on my nerves. I had some decent friends at school, but we mostly smoked cigarettes and acted feral. I wrestled (got pinned a lot) through my junior year, until I quit to focus more of my energy on smoking.
As soon as I went to college, my parents and brothers flew off for a two-week trip to Bermuda. They made no secret about the timing, but I was perfectly happy trying to reenact “Animal House.” I achieved a remarkable 1.99 GPA freshman year. I talked to my parents maybe every other month.
Years passed. I surprised everyone, especially my early professors, when I graduated. I had worked my GPA up to a 3.0 — no easy task for someone who’d begun so stupidly. I’d quit smoking. I’d even quit drinking for four months. My parents were proud. I’d begun to realize what I’d intentionally forgotten upon becoming a teenager: I needed them.
For two more years and four months, I lived with my parents while my brothers finished college. I felt like the walls in the empty house, and I missed my brothers more than the teenage me could’ve imagined. Feeling a little too dependent, I moved into a beehive apartment complex down the street. Just a few weeks later, my brothers graduated with honors from their respective colleges.
My parents are in their middle 50s. The house is the same age as my mother. Our dog Penny is God-knows-how-old. My brothers are grown up. And so am I — astonishingly.
When I was 14, my mother flew to California at Christmas and left my father, brothers, and me alone to celebrate in the house’s cold, unfinished addition. The drywall had not yet been installed. The only decoration was the still-naked tree that I’d begrudgingly helped to cut, and next to which I’d begrudgingly posed for our yearly three-boys-photo. My grandmother, a World War II vet, was very sick.
Life happened. Grandma lived. I embraced more destructive activities. I slowly forgot that I liked the outdoors. I got a subscription to Rolling Stone. Over the years, I crashed a car (or three).
Sometimes when a little kid is caught doing something obviously wrong, like cutting the phone cord with scissors, a parent will beg, “What were you thinking?!” and the kid will reply sheepishly, “I don’t know.” That’s how I feel about my youth: I know I was thinking something, but I also know it was as good as thinking nothing at all.
I began to love my family again. And after years of acting as a wedge between my parents, I tried to be the glue when they argued and fought. I sometimes still worry that, all those years ago, I helped to create an irreparable crack in the dam that is their marriage.
I was once like a lot of teenagers: I thought I’d learned everything about myself and the world, and I went off in search of something new. In the end, I’d only created an artificial identity to maintain the state of constant change that I’d known since birth. The most welcome change did not come until I finally dropped the façade and returned home to what I first knew and loved — the original, the durable, the now endangered.
That’s where we are. It’s another Christmas. We just went out, like every Sunday after Thanksgiving, and cut the evergreen. My lovely girlfriend came along. She’s part of it now, like it or not. (I think she likes it, but we can be really weird — like when I imitate Hyman Roth, or when my brother imitates Ted Haggard.) I eat dinner at home a few nights each week. I squeeze my family when I arrive, and I squeeze them when I leave. I chase the new dog around the house, and I pick up the crippled old dog, letting her know I’m still there.
I’m looking forward to coming home this week, smelling the cut fir and watching its blinking lights in the long-finished addition, and then driving home in the cold darkness — another winter warmed by thoughts.