Sigh of relief. After negotiating five airports successfully, I am at Red Gate Farm. And after an intensely hot and sunny day spent unpacking and weeding the terrace, the skies have opened and the rain is pattering gently down in the great upside-down bell of the side meadow, pooling in the gutters that want clearing out, and dripping from the roof of the big red barn. I am home.
John and Avery picked me up last evening, one of those golden-blue Connecticut evenings when there seem to be more orange lilies waving in the breeze than you knew had grown on earth, when the hour’s journey from the airport sees the skies turn to pink and purple, making everything look misty and perfect. Our own garden boasts one last perfect lily.
This was an intelligent strategic decision on the part of our little farmhouse: to appear first in a dim, dim light. Because poor thing, it’s suffered over the long snowy winter. We have arrived to discover the ceiling of the laundry room falling down, mold in the rafters and pathetically stained walls in the living room. Repairs are in order.
It’s a small price to pay for the luxury of having this lovely oasis to come to twice a year. Poor thing, abandoned all winter while we cavorted in London, all spring while we moved into our new house. But now it’s Red Gate Farm’s turn for some tender loving care.
First up on the agenda was to switch out the gorgeous winter glass doors for the clever screens made by our clever carpenter. “Avery, because you are a city child, this is your first experience living with a screened-door. DO NOT, EVER, open or close them by the screens!” John warns. It takes awhile.
Never mind, it will all come right in time. Meanwhile, we can turn our attention to the important things in life: weeding the terrace, ridding the wide lawns of a spring’s worth of fallen sticks and branches, visiting the supermarket and the farmstand and filling the fridge with American food and drink: sweetcorn, American cheese, limeade, enormous kosher dill pickles. It’s important to take time to appreciate the July buds of the hydrangea tree, whose seasonal blossoming marks the transition from beginning of summer, to time to say goodbye, every year. Thank goodness today it was “hello, hydrangea.” We have a whole summer to enjoy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In between leaving London and arriving at Red Gate Farm, I have been “home.” How many places can one call home, anyway? Well, three, if you’re me. The third, but by no means least important, is my childhood home in Indiana. And that’s where I spent the last five days, with my mother and brother.
It breaks my heart not to include my adored father in this list of loved ones, because while I was able to visit him, he wasn’t at home.
In February, our family was forced to the conclusion that my brilliant dad, lifelong sharpest brain — and tongue to match — in the Midwest and beyond, must be moved to another stage of his life, in a home where he could be properly cared for. Alzheimer’s spares no one. The disease has taken my precious father into another dimension, a place where we cannot follow. How sharply I felt his absence when I emerged from the walkway from the plane, how keenly I missed his sharp gaze, his tight and encircling hug. “Here’s the Kreeper, then, whaddya know, safe and sound,” he would say, using my childhood nickname with no embarrassment, effortlessly shouldering my heaviest bag, “What the dickens do you have in here, rocks?” In the old, dear days, how I loved his dash to grab little toddler Avery from rushing into the crowds, “Hey, you little monkey…”
My dad, who relished the hot days of summer that would bring me home for a visit, who adored discovering the tracking software that would help him follow my flight in the skies, who couldn’t wait to show me the tallest tomato plants in his garden, the plumpest specimens, brandishing without eco-obsessed shame his spray can of Miracle-Gro… who abandoned any family discussion when it was time for his evening roller-blading session, who single-handedly (my little self thought) kept all of Central Indiana in its right mind (“I’m out spreading mental health,” he’d say with irony as he went off to work)… he is another person now.
That dad has been replaced by another, quieter, more puzzled man. I approached him at his home, surrounded as he was by warm, loving ladies holding his arm, coaxing him to eat. They were not expecting me.
“Hey, here comes somebody who means something to the Doctor!” one nurse said, watching my dad stand up straighter, take his hands out of his pockets. His eyes stared magnetically into mine as I greeted him, pressing a framed photo of Avery into his hands. He clutched it tightly, I asked if I could hug him, and after a few seconds his arms came around me tightly, the framed photo in one hand. We stood a bit apart, he staring intently at me. Was he looking for something, I wondered, or was he trying to tell me something, or both? I could only look back, trying both to give and to receive, whatever the important messages might be.
“Want to take him for a spin around the porch?” a nurse asked. “Hold tight, don’t let the Doctor wander, because he will,” she warned. I took him around the shoulders and we descended in the elevator, workable only with a code to be punched in, on his safe, safe floor. We went out the front doors of the home, for my dad the first time in the fresh air since February. He lifted his face to the sun. “I know you love to be hot and sweaty,” I said, “so let’s take a little walk.”
We walked around the porch, greeting fellow residents with the hesitant smile he he has now — by no means shy, just reserved — and emerged into the parking lot, where he identified cars as German, and I reminded him of his German car when I was a little girl, asking, “Do you remember your license plate said ‘PSYCH”? And Mom’s said “PSYCHE.’ Because you were a brilliant psychologist.”
“Was I really,” he marvelled. “Unbelievable.”
A lot of things are unbelievable.
We had our walk, and I held him around the shoulders, so diminished now, so far removed from the broad, beefy swimmer’s shoulders that accomplished the fastest butterfly stroke in his Wisconsin high school, the shoulders that carried my suitcases, planted tomatoes, cradled my daughter. “Do you remember tarring the driveway together every summer, Dad?” “Did I do that this summer?” he asked. “Of course,” I lied stoutly. “Every summer, getting so hot.” “Sometimes too hot to work,” he remembered.
Suddenly, as we walked, he leaned into my enclosing arm and said, “Better. Better now Kreeper’s here.”
I felt that the world had started all over again, from the moment before. “Better for me too,” I said. “Better for Kreeper to be here.”
It seems to be the profoundest mystery of the world, where my father is now.
And home again, to cherish being with my mother. Where on earth did her sense of design go since I seem to have inherited none of it; did it skip a generation to emerge in Avery one day, when she has her own house? My mother has spent the last six months throwing herself into projects to enliven our childhood house, her home of 45 years. Every room is stamped with her inimitable style: warm, cozy, personal.
Every room contains furniture made by my father, discovered and refinished by my mother, her handmade samplers, her china collection, her shadow boxes. A home filled with the possessions and love of a lifetime of family.
She is brave beyond anything I could have imagined. What fun we had. She invited her best friend Janet to lunch, and I cooked for them a complicated, freshly summery salad of chicken baked in a parmesan crust, on a bed of butter lettuce with steamed heirloom purple potatoes, tiny tomatoes, devilled eggs. We revelled in each other’s company, with a lifetime of friendship to amuse us.
And we went out to lunch, to the gorgeous and mysterious (no signage!) Black Market Bistro on Indianapolis’s Mass Ave. Tongue salad with beets and cottage cheese! Iceberg lettuce wedge with creamy dressing, roasted rainbow trout on a bed of arugula with two kind of olives and panzanella — stale toasted bread, a sort of superior crouton. Heaven, with my old friend Amy. A joy to see her.
And one whole day spent cooking my mother’s — and my! — favorite foods, stopping to switch the sprinkler in the garden, to try to draw breath in the awesome Indiana humidity, and finally to welcome old friends for a completely heartwarming supper party on the gorgeous back porch, built by my dad years ago. Crabcakes, Moroccan meatballs, fried huge shrimp, stuffed baked mushrooms, colorful three-cabbage slaw, steamed asparagus with shaved Asiago… and pals from the past. What a joy to see Kevin and Todd…
And happiest-making of all, Kevin’s and Amy’s gorgeous daughters, first cousins and the closest of friends, Colleen and Jesi. I believe that is the way we survive the pains of adulthood: we revel in watching the next generation leap wholeheartedly into the joys of THEIR whirlwind ride. Long may it last.
That was my visit “home,” bittersweet, filled with childhood and adult memories, leaving me with gratitude for the life I had as a little girl, with two loving parents I cherish, a sister and brother I love and don’t see nearly often enough, friends in abundance who still surround my mother with love. A beautiful way to start my American summer.Print This Post