After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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After Mom died in 1952, Uncle Dick and Aunt Edith invited me to visit them in Dearborn, Michigan. I was a twelve-year-old girl, glad to take a break from my small southern-Illinois town and its constant reminders of Mom and the grief I felt.
Dad took me to the train station and instructed me to sit by the nicest-looking woman I could find. When I boarded the train, I studied all the women. One appeared cross. Another was reading a Bible and moving her lips. Finally I approached a black passenger near the back of the car and asked if I could sit with her, unaware that a white girl and a black woman together could cause a stir. She smiled but looked apprehensive.
I told her I was all alone and that my dad wanted me to find a “nice lady” to keep me company.
“Isn’t that sweet,” she said, and she patted the seat beside her, indicating I should sit.
The train jerked to a start, and we began to chat. I told the woman about Mom, and she expressed sympathy and shared her bag lunch with me.
When we arrived in Detroit, the woman told me she had luggage to gather and, since my aunt and uncle would be anxious to see me, I should get off the train by myself. She touched my shoulder and said, “You run on now. I’ll watch to make sure you find them.”
I rushed into the arms of my aunt and uncle. By the time I turned around to point out my benefactor to them, she had slipped away.
Ann O’Neal Garcia
I was raised Catholic, in a neighborhood that was nearly all Catholic, and I attended Catholic school. The Church was a steady presence in my life, but as I grew older, I began to ask questions.
One of my elementary-school teachers told our class that non-Catholics, lacking baptism in the one true faith, could not go to heaven. I asked her about my grandparents, who were Lutheran and Episcopalian.
“I am sorry, Mary, but they cannot go to heaven,” the teacher said. She assured me I would be happy there without them because I would be with God. I thought of my grandfather kneeling by his bed, saying his evening prayers, and I knew that she was wrong.
In the sixth grade, as we practiced entering the church for our confirmation, I asked a nun why the boys were lined up ahead of the girls. She told me the boys went in first because, when they were older, they could choose to become priests — the “highest calling” possible. I wondered why choosing to become a nun or to get married wasn’t an equally high calling.
One afternoon in my senior year, a priest from a nearby parish came to our Catholic high school to talk about the evils of birth control, saying that it directly defied God’s plan. I asked if people in countries like India and China, where population growth far outpaced resources, could use it, and he said no. I persisted, but he kept saying only, “No.”
After I got married, I took birth-control pills to regulate my cycle, but I was nervous about the possibility it was a sin. I was reminded of my mother, who’d had her sixth child at forty-two; the rhythm method had failed her because she could no longer tell for sure when she had ovulated.
My husband and I moved back to the Midwest and began attending Mass in the parish where I grew up. It was the 1970s, and my distrust of the Church and the U.S. government was growing. When the congregation stood and began singing “God Bless America” at the end of Mass, I sat down.
Still, I had all four of my children baptized. They attended church, made their first confessions, took Communion, and progressed toward confirmation — but not without protest. By the time I dragged my younger son to church for his final quiz before confirmation, I had become as reluctant as he was. When the nun asked my son if he was ready to be confirmed as a soldier for Jesus Christ, he said, “No.”
As we walked out, I thanked him for having the courage to say what I hadn’t been able to. We haven’t been back since.
As a young woman in my twenties, I joined the Army. I wanted to see the world, never having lived more than a few miles from my parents’ Alabama home. For my first assignment I asked to be stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska. I was eager to experience the “Last Frontier,” with its magnificent scenery and opportunities for adventure. But after my request was granted, I began having second thoughts about being so far away from my mother, who had been in poor health for years. I asked my dad if I should request an assignment closer to home. He said my mother knew how much going to Alaska meant to me and that she would be horrified if I gave it up because of her. So I went.
For the next three years I spoke with my parents by phone weekly, visited whenever I could, and wrote often, recounting stories of cross-country skiing, hiking, and watching dog-sled races. One day my dad called to tell me that my mother’s health had rapidly declined and she was close to the end. I made it home within two days.
My father hadn’t told my mother I was coming. When I walked into her bedroom, her eyes grew wide, and she exclaimed, “It’s you! But you’re in Alaska!”
“No, Mom,” I said, sitting next to her on the bed. “I’m right here.”
I could tell she was hazy from the morphine as she smiled and patted my hand. “My baby lives in Alaska,” she said proudly. “She loves it there.”
Toni Bullock London
Eagle River, Alaska
In 1997 my boyfriend, T., and I were evicted from his New York City apartment. We hadn’t paid rent in months, using the money to buy cocaine instead.
We shoved our few belongings into garbage bags and took a cab across town to my apartment. I’d lived there peacefully for years, but, after meeting T., I hadn’t been back much. It was a shock to realize the disparity between the young woman I had been and the woman I now was. Ignoring the stack of eviction notices plastered on my door, I tiptoed inside. Here were the walls I had painstakingly painted, the antique carpet I had salvaged and scrubbed by hand, the windows I had gazed through, dreaming of becoming a successful writer. Despite our drug use, I believed that T. and I could settle down there and improve our lives.
We were in the middle of a several-day bender when the sheriff came to say we had to go. He stood by while we once again collected our belongings, our eyes wide and dry from cocaine, our speech disjointed. I felt as if my last tether to a normal life had been severed.
T. and I slowly walked down 47th Street. With each step away from my old place I felt as though I were entering an increasingly dark and forbidding world.
We were homeless for more than a year, living hand to mouth and sleeping on rooftops, at the subway station, or down on the docks. I didn’t know what having a home really meant until I lost it.
My mom is deaf, and for seventeen years I was her ears and voice. From an early age I helped her communicate with store clerks, teachers, and others in the community.
Often my afternoons were spent making phone calls. I scheduled appointments with doctors, disputed bills with creditors, and helped my mother arrange dinner with friends. She relied on me to alert her to the phone and to our doorbell. I was quick to let her know when her hearing aid was whistling like a teakettle because of a malfunction. And sometimes I would run downstairs from my bedroom to tell her that the oven timer was going off.
In my senior year of high school, I dreamed of going to college and being free of my responsibilities to my mom, who had become increasingly dependent on me. I felt guilty for this, but with the help of my guidance counselor, I realized that both my mom and I could grow from my leaving.
Before I left, I installed assistive devices for my mom, such as lights that flashed when the phone or doorbell rang, an alarm clock that vibrated under the mattress to wake her up in the morning, and a teletypewriter for the deaf, with a screen that displayed phone conversations in text, allowing her to make calls on her own.
As it turned out, the guidance counselor was right: I had a successful college experience, and my mom became more confident. Apart, we both found our independence.
As a teen I lived in a New York City apartment with my mother, who was from Greece and didn’t speak much English. Each evening, after work as a typist, I’d return home and tend to household chores: cleaning off the table, washing the dishes, taking out the garbage. I had been my mother’s caretaker for a long time, running errands for her, bringing tea to her in bed, and rubbing her arms and legs with ointment. Rather than express appreciation, she complained endlessly and often yelled at me.
With help from my therapist I devised a plan to move in with my father. Despite his drinking and his many girlfriends, I viewed his home as a sanctuary from my mother’s strict, suffocating ways. But could I really just abandon my mother? Who would tend to all her needs after I was gone? Who would translate Greek into English for her? I was troubled by guilt, but I knew nothing would change until I left. At the age of eighteen I’d earned the right to a life of my own.
Early each morning I secretly took some clothing to my father’s apartment. I’d walk down the street with skirts and blouses draped over my arms and a shopping bag filled with shoes. I’d drop it all off at my father’s place, then ride the subway to my job in Manhattan. If my mother ever noticed anything missing from my room, she didn’t mention it.
After a few weeks my closet was empty, and my drawers were bare. Now I needed only to tell my mother of my decision. That evening, as she sat knitting, I placed my house key on the table and slid it toward her.
“I’m leaving,” I said. “And I’m not coming back.”
Her face red with rage, she put her knitting down, stood up, and hurled curses at me in Greek: “May all your children give you pain as you are hurting me.” Her face was inches from mine. “How I wish I never bore you. Only a whore would leave her mother’s home.”
I had expected her fury, but her words still hurt. I walked out and started down the stairs. Then my mother opened the door of the apartment and shouted in English, “Drop dead!”
Where the hell had she learned that? It didn’t matter. Running down the steps and into the cool, fresh air on the street, I had already left her behind.
My Lebanese parents fought constantly when I was growing up. They got divorced, and my father remarried, but the ill will between them continued. If forced to communicate, they would speak unkindly to each other.
When I went to college, we needed two cars to haul all my belongings from Long Island to Boston. Both my parents reluctantly agreed to drive: my father and I were in one car, my mother and younger brother in the other. This was before cellphones, so we brought walkie-talkies to communicate on the way. My brother and I used them to crack jokes, trying to defuse the tension.
At my dorm my parents were civil as we carried all the boxes to my room. My mother unpacked my sheets and comforter and made my bed. We took a few photos, then went to the bookstore, where my parents bought me a hooded sweat shirt with the university logo on it, splitting the cost. At lunch my mother and father went through the buffet joking, “Who serves hummus without olive oil?” The four of us sat on the lawn and ate and laughed — just as I had always wanted.
After everyone left, I cried in my dorm room, feeling lonely. To comfort myself, I imagined there might be other family events when my parents would get along. (I later learned that, during the drive back to Long Island, my father and mother talked to each other via walkie-talkie. Evidently my father was reassuring my mother, telling her not to cry, that I would be fine.)
Four months later my father died suddenly. The day I left home was the last time we all were together.
Many times when I was little, I would stare at a distant star and wonder who else might be looking at that same star from some far-off part of the world. My family had never been able to travel outside our native Hungary. I dreamed of visiting countries I had read about in books, especially the United States.
I had just graduated from high school in 1956 when revolution broke out. Student demonstrations in Budapest erupted into a full-scale uprising that quickly spread. In my village we heard that people were leaving Hungary in droves.
One Sunday I had a chance encounter with a young man named Andy who was planning to leave with a friend for the U.S. He was about five years older than I was, and his good looks and ready smile put me at ease. Andy invited me to go with them before the borders were closed. “If you want to come,” he said, “meet us in front of the glass-blowing factory at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”
I got up at dawn the next day and told my parents I was going to the grocery store. I didn’t tell them my plans or kiss them goodbye or even leave a note, because I didn’t want them to try to stop me.
When I got to the factory, no one was there, and I thought Andy and his friend had left without me. They arrived a few minutes later and seemed shocked that I had shown up.
The Austrian border was about 120 miles away. There were checkpoints on the major highways, so we had to walk on back roads. Occasionally we got a ride in a horse-drawn wagon or an off-duty firetruck. Sometimes people gave us a warm bowl of soup or information about what to expect ahead. The bridges either had been blown up or were guarded by soldiers, but we managed to find fishermen to take us across the rivers. As we got closer to the Austrian border, we joined up with other people, young and old, all trying to leave the country.
I developed blisters on my heels from all the walking. Andy often held my hand or put an arm around me for encouragement, and I could feel the attraction between us deepening.
By the time we reached the last village before the Austrian border, our group numbered about fifty. Many wanted to wait until morning to cross, but fifteen of us — including Andy and me — thought it would be safer to approach the border in the dark. That night we crept across a highway patrolled by the secret police and Soviet tanks and then, one at a time, over a wooden bridge with creaking planks.
On the far side we found an irrigation canal that we’d been told led to the border. We had walked along it for two hours when suddenly flashlights shone on us and a voice yelled, “Halt!” Bullets whizzed past us, and everyone ran. In the chaos Andy and I became separated.
I fell, and someone in our group pulled me up and dragged me through icy waist-deep water. Some of us made it to the bank, but Andy wasn’t among them. We found a different route to the border, running as fast as we could until we saw the Austrian flag flying atop a hill. We were finally free.
We were taken by train to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Salzburg. I searched the barracks for Andy but didn’t find him. One day, as I was standing in line to be registered as a refugee, I spoke with a fellow Hungarian who was staying at a hotel in the city. I told him about Andy, and he said there was someone at the hotel who fit his description. I ran all the way there. It was Andy! We embraced and walked outside as large snowflakes began to fall.
The 1982 Volkswagen van seemed like a good deal when Christina and I purchased it a few years ago. It was more spacious than the leaky old station wagon we’d been living in, and it came with a cat named Gigi.
The Volkswagen had a cozy futon in the back, felted seat covers, and a furry steering wheel. Christina sewed colorful curtains for privacy, and I built a bed frame that had space underneath for storage and for Gigi’s litter box. I also retrieved a large metal display case from a dumpster and attached it to the van’s roof rack, which allowed us to carry everything from spare gas to a kayak.
Wherever we went, we felt at home. And if we didn’t, we’d just start the engine and drive to a better spot: an out-of-the-way hot springs or a seaside cliff from which we watched whales migrate south, just like us. Even Gigi seemed to enjoy the adventures.
Within a year the van’s engine was giving out on steep inclines. We couldn’t afford to fix it, and we couldn’t find a buyer for it, either, with its weird roof rack, half-finished paint job, and many miles’ worth of wear and tear. I finally sold our home on wheels to a dump. I got a hundred dollars for it.
Just before I left for college, my father told me that he and my mother were getting divorced. When I returned the following summer, my mother had moved into a one-bedroom apartment she paid for with the minuscule amount of money she had wrangled from the settlement. She was drinking heavily and smoking pot openly, even passing the joint to me if I asked for it. For long periods of time she’d stare silently out her window at the parking lot. It took me years to realize how heartbreaking it was for her to lose her child to college and her husband to divorce, both within six months.
My father had relocated to a condo and become obsessed with cleanliness, ripping out the carpet so he could sweep and mop up every dust particle. He started using plastic cups for his whiskey and Sprite, because it was easier to throw them away than to risk tarnishing his immaculate kitchen.
While staying at either parent’s house, I slept on couches or in rooms that didn’t feel right. The contents of my childhood bedroom had all been sold or given away. At eighteen I had left behind a home and a family, and at nineteen I had come back to find it all gone.
Days after the start of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution in Cairo, the violence was creeping ever closer to my family’s home. Armed fugitives had broken into houses only kilometers away. My parents, my sister, my aunt, two of my cousins, my grandmother, and I barricaded ourselves in. We locked the doors, pulled the drapes, and blocked the windows with furniture. My dad taught everyone how to make Molotov cocktails. Then he sent my cousin and me onto the roof to watch for approaching danger and stationed himself outside the front door with his gun, a couple of Molotovs, and a lighter.
Up on the roof, I strained to see any hint of a threat in the dark. I’d never felt fear like that before.
My dad eventually called us down, and we packed bags with cash, credit cards, and our passports. Then we tried to sleep.
As I lay with both my cousins on a bed meant for one, the room — the whole house, in fact — seemed strange to me. I had no idea where we would go the next day to find safety. I felt as if, no matter what happened, we had already left home.
United Arab Emirates
On December 1, 1969, I watched the television news as birth dates were drawn for the Vietnam War draft lottery. The anchorman announced that men with birth dates selected in the first third of the lottery would be drafted. My birth date fell in the first third.
As the U.S. rounded up men my age to fight in Vietnam, I began planning to flee to Canada. I had read that Canada would grant citizenship if you had a skill the country needed. After reviewing the list of approved occupations for immigrants, I thought maybe I could pass myself off as a cobbler, based on the one pair of leather moccasins I had made. (College English major was not on the “approved occupations” list.)
In the summer of 1970 I boarded a plane to Canada. It was my first international flight, but I didn’t feel as though I was leaving home, because I thought my country had betrayed me.
My enrollment in a Canadian university entitled me to a draft deferment, but I dropped out after four months. Then I was caught shoplifting a Beatles record, a cup, and a scarf from a department store.
I pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and was charged a twenty-five-dollar fine and scheduled to be deported. Meanwhile my draft board had been notified that I was no longer in college and sent me a letter congratulating me on my new “1-A” status, which meant I was eligible for the draft. I quickly found a Canadian woman kind enough to marry an unemployed thief — and help me get citizenship. We had started making wedding plans when I received a second letter from my draft board. Having been informed of my arrest, they had reclassified me as “not of sufficient moral character” to draft unless the U.S. was invaded.
Though I regretted my crime, I was relieved not to have to go to war and possibly kill people on foreign soil — which, to me, seemed a far worse crime than shoplifting. I soon moved to a commune in southern Oregon, where I helped with the organic gardening, made my own moccasins, and never again took anything without paying.
I was finishing up a bachelor’s degree in sociology, but I still hadn’t the faintest idea what I wanted to do with my life. I knew only that I didn’t want to leave my family or my boyfriend.
I applied for a position in the personnel department of the company where my dad worked. The job interviewer told me I would first have to work as a typist for five years. When I asked if male applicants had to go through the same “training,” he didn’t answer. This was in 1965.
Then my boyfriend told me that he was seeing another woman. I felt a strong urge to leave my East Coast town — maybe even the planet. So I began hunting for a job elsewhere and came upon the newly formed Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. A job with VISTA would allow me to see the country and help the poor.
I mailed my application and received an assignment to northern New Mexico, preceded by training in Denver, Colorado. I was ecstatic.
My ex-boyfriend now decided he wanted us to get back together, but I was undeterred. Days after my graduation, I had my wisdom teeth pulled, got a physical at the doctor’s office, and began packing.
As I flew over the country, I stared out the plane window, thinking about how I didn’t know anyone where I was going or what awaited me there, but at least it was by choice. A new phase in my life was beginning.
El Prado, New Mexico
My husband and I have been shopping for a house for more than a year. I want a ranch-style home on at least a third of an acre, with room enough to host fourteen family members for dinner and a basement that doesn’t flood. My husband’s list includes no yellow exteriors, no tall trees near the house, and a yard that slopes downhill from the foundation. At one house I chatted over the fence with the neighbor while twelve German shepherds played in his backyard. Imagining our three young granddaughters being used as chew toys, we both added “no packs of dogs next door” to our lists.
But we haven’t toured any houses for a few months now. My husband finds fault with every place we visit, as if the exposed floor joists, cracked walls, and musty smell of our current home were any better. I’m realizing that no matter how many times my husband says, “Not one more winter in this drafty house,” he cannot bear to leave it and the history it contains.
On our dining-room ceiling are child-sized handprints traced by our son and daughter twenty-five years ago as they stood on the table when I wasn’t looking. There’s the top of the doorway that our son, Anthony, would try to jump up and slap each time he went to the kitchen. I’ll never forget his look of surprised joy when he was finally tall enough to reach it. On the ceiling of my daughter’s second-story bedroom is written, “Elise loves Eddie forever and vice versa.” (Elise and Eddie are now the parents of two.) Through that bedroom window I can view my garden, a place for family picnics or quiet tears and contemplation. In my own bedroom, where some might see water stains on the walls, one of my granddaughters and I make up stories about the camel near the doorway, the flowers on the ceiling, the snail climbing the dormer, or, our favorite — a hedgehog leaning against the windowsill as he looks up at the stars.
Even if my husband and I could find a house for sale that met all our criteria, it wouldn’t hold these memories. We’ve decided to stay put a little longer.
I grew up in Del Paso Heights, notorious for being one of the worst neighborhoods in Sacramento, California. My house was just a mile from one of the area’s poorest-performing and most violent high schools. Crime and gang activity were constant. Often I would hear gunshots in the middle of the night, followed by dogs howling and then an eerie silence.
My mom bought our home in her late twenties and raised my sister and me there. She had an alarm system installed, got dogs to help keep us safe, and forbade us from wandering the streets. She also worked hard to send my sister and me to private school far from our neighborhood.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I was raped in a house on my block. My dislike for Sacramento intensified, and I desperately wanted to leave. For my junior year I almost transferred to a military school in New Mexico, but at the last minute I changed my mind because I didn’t want to leave my mom, who had always supported me, attending my after-school sporting events and the plays in which I performed.
In my senior year I was accepted by every college to which I had applied. I even received a scholarship to a university in Hawaii. But I decided to attend community college in Sacramento.
Honestly I could be content anywhere, as long as I’m with my mom.
My office on the twenty-first floor was decorated with dark wood and green upholstery. Large windows looked down on the riverfront and out toward the distant snowcapped mountains, and birds flew by at eye level.
My desk was always piled high with paperwork. The disorganization had become so bad that I would come in on quiet Saturday mornings to sort everything out, hoping for a fresh start on Monday. But I’d always let it become messy again.
One particular Saturday I was sitting in silence, staring out the window at nothing, when I realized that I didn’t want to go home. My husband and I barely spoke. Our marriage had become a hostile truce.
My gaze settled on some apartments down by the riverfront, and I wondered how much the rent might be. Thinking it was a nice day for a walk, I went to find out.
The apartment manager was warm and friendly. Yes, she would love to show me a unit. In fact, one was available. The rent was surprisingly affordable. And the place was right on the water and had a wonderful view. No harm in expressing interest, right? I was just pretending. So why was I signing a lease and putting down a deposit?
The manager assured me I could change my mind. When I wondered aloud what a moving van would cost, she produced the business card of a local firm. I called and scheduled a van for the following Thursday. The man on the phone, too, said it would be OK if I needed to cancel.
I knew I wouldn’t.
Then I called my husband.
I was seventeen and had just been released from the hospital after a difficult miscarriage. Feeling invincible despite my weakened state, I fidgeted in the front room of our house, waiting for my mother to come downstairs. She and my father were up there, discussing what to do about me.
Things hadn’t been going well since my family had moved from the Jersey coast to the Mennonite backwater of central Pennsylvania: Our father’s mood swings had become more volatile. The locals seemed suspicious of my siblings and me, with our urban wardrobes and accents. My eldest brothers and I hung out at the home of two heroin addicts, though we weren’t doing drugs ourselves. And I’d run away with friends to Harrisburg, where we’d been picked up by the police after ordering beers at a bar.
Now I was in trouble again. My mother descended the stairs and delivered my father’s verdict with characteristic serenity: I could live in their house until I turned eighteen, but I’d have to come straight home from school every day and wouldn’t be allowed to talk on the phone or have friends over. Or I could leave, and they wouldn’t call the police this time.
Without hesitation I went upstairs, wrapped my belongings up in a blanket, and walked out the door.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
Early one June morning when I was eleven, my grandmother came into my room and told me that my mother had been killed in an automobile accident. I could hear my two younger brothers crying down the hall. Grandma and I walked to their room, where Dad was lying in bed with them, all cut up and bruised. When he looked up and said he was sorry, I knew the accident had been his fault.
A few days later I was sent from our home in Nebraska to live with an aunt and uncle and their five children in Oregon for the rest of the summer. I tried not to draw any attention to myself. I was miserable the whole time I was there and wrote anguished letters to my friends. Finally the summer ended, and I was allowed to come home.
Dad hired a housekeeper, and the five of us struggled through a year together. Then, the day before the first anniversary of Mom’s death, Dad was killed in a car accident. He had been driving, and no other vehicle had been involved. The adults took the news hard, but for me his death just made it easier to abandon the pretense that I had someone to take care of me.
My kind, courageous grandmother moved in with us, hired a different housekeeper, and tried mightily for another year to raise us, but it didn’t work. One of my brothers went to live with relatives in Oklahoma. The youngest stayed with our grandmother for a time. I was sent to an ancient convent-turned-boarding-school in the hills of Tennessee. I arrived at dusk in that tree-filled place, so unlike the plains of Nebraska. A nun drove up in a big black car and took me and my bag to the dormitory.
I was expelled from school just before the end of the year. Then there was another school, even farther away than the first. And another. And another. I didn’t do well at any of them. I just wanted to go home.
In 1996 my wife and I moved from the city of Chicago to a leafy suburban town on Lake Michigan. It wasn’t an easy transition for us. We would miss the energy of downtown, the restaurants and movies and museums. We liked to think that we contributed to the ethnic, economic, and political diversity there. The city defined us and made us feel we were a part of something bigger. If too many families like us left for the suburbs, the urban ecosystem we loved couldn’t thrive. But the city was also an expensive place to raise kids. Our children were two and four at the time, and we were looking for good public schools, a yard big enough for a dog, tree-lined streets, and some privacy. My wife, a stay-at-home mom, needed more people to talk to than the nannies at the park. I secretly longed for a hammock in the yard and a garage big enough to hold bicycles, a snowblower, and sports equipment.
We found a beautiful house in a neighborhood bordered by nature preserves. It was winter when we moved, and the long nights seemed unnaturally dark, the roads and sidewalks lit only by dim streetlights. On my first day back from work in the city, unable to see the street signs, I got lost walking home from the train station and had to call my wife to come get me. My son, gazing out the front window of our new home, would ask, “Daddy, where did all the people go?” Lying in bed, listening to the relative silence, I thought more than once, What have we done?
But as the season turned, the streets filled with young couples like us walking dogs, pushing strollers, and running after children on bicycles. We made new friends, who invited us over for drinks and barbecues. We let the kids play in the nearby woods and trick-or-treat by themselves without a second thought. We got that dog. And I came to look forward to the drive home from work, feeling the tension of the day seep away as I turned down one winding road after another.
Now the kids have gone off to college. The dog has died. The house is quiet. The neighborhood gatherings are fewer and farther between. And this charming town seems increasingly confining. My wife and I have been talking about returning to the city to see if it might revitalize us. It seems inevitable that we will move back. And after we do, I know I will miss the space and the privacy and the proximity of good friends, and one day I may find myself circling the block in search of a parking space, thinking, What have we done?
From the time I was eight years old, I wanted to be a nun. The Benedictines who taught at my parochial school were firm and fair and friendly. They appeared to lead the ideal life: engaged in teaching and nursing work, grounded in sacred music and liturgy. So, after my high-school graduation, I went into the convent. It was all of five blocks from my childhood home.
Wearing the candidate’s black dress, cape, and veil, I followed a routine that seemed designed to eliminate all individuality. After six months I realized that I couldn’t stay and made the five-block trip back to my parents’ house.
Six months later I left home again, this time for a coed university in the Pacific Northwest. (The presence of male students was one of my criteria for selecting the school.) I wasted no time in meeting a boy and married him at the end of my sophomore year. A baby soon followed, and a degree suddenly seemed beyond my reach. My husband graduated and began his teaching career. I gave birth to more children, and we moved again and again as my husband traded one teaching job for another, then finally went into business because academia didn’t pay enough to support our growing family. Each time we left a home behind, it was with the hope that greater security and satisfaction lay ahead.
Wherever we went, we were active participants in the local Catholic parish, volunteering our services as trained musicians. Eventually my husband, a convert to the faith, grew tired of being taken for granted by pastors, parish councils, and parishioners. He was ready to leave the Church. I had gotten a bachelor’s degree and was working on a master’s in counseling. We had buried one child after a grueling battle with cancer. I could have continued to attend Mass without my husband, but I was exhausted and disenchanted with the Church’s orthodox positions on gender and sexuality: It irked me that my daughters could not be altar attendants. In graduate school I had met gay people whom I liked immensely. And, having given birth six times — the last one a high-risk pregnancy — I’d taken care of contraception permanently, which put me on the “wrong” side of the birth-control issue. Twenty years after I’d left my parents’ home to join the convent, I left my Church home. My husband and I became Episcopalians.
We now live in southern Arizona, where we’ve made a complete break from organized religion. I have joined the ranks of the “spiritual but not religious.” My new faith home is not as cramped and restrictive as my old ones. I’m an occasional practitioner of Buddhist meditation and a voracious reader of books by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, and others. Having retired from a twenty-five-year career as a licensed psychologist, I’m enrolled in an interfaith training program, where my spiritual director is a rabbi.
Looking back, I can appreciate what Catholicism — and the remarkable Benedictine nuns in charge of my education — gave me: a fundamental sense of the sacred and an appreciation for the Mystery. Perhaps, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Church is moving in a more inclusive direction. Nevertheless, when I think about returning to Catholicism, it’s as though I were visiting a childhood home: I’m struck by how small the place looks, now that I’m grown up.
Rio Rico, Arizona
In 1979 I was twenty-two and finishing my bachelor’s degree in English. I was insecure, confused, and spoiled but tired of relying on others. My mother had supported me throughout high school, and my father had paid for my college education. I wanted to rely on only myself for a change.
Just before I got my degree, I received a postcard from an old friend, Seth, who now lived in Eugene, Oregon. On the front was an aerial photo of Eugene. On the back Seth had written just one word: “Oz.” I assumed it was an invitation. I wrote back, “I’m coming.”
But first I needed money. After graduation I moved back home to Pittsburgh to work on a farm and save for my trip. When I told my family I was planning to move to Eugene, they expressed concern and questioned the logic of my choice. I didn’t have a good answer. I think I just wanted to know if I could actually do it.
As the summer wore on, I saved some money but blew much of it on frivolous expenses and car repairs. By the time I was ready to embark for Eugene, I had just $250. When my mother asked how much cash I was taking with me, I lied: “About two thousand dollars.” Her worries about my trip seemed to lighten after that.
I packed my car full, including a sleeping bag, cans of food, and a small stove, because I planned to camp on the side of the road along the way. I left Pittsburgh at five in the morning and got no farther than the Ohio border before my car broke down. A tollbooth worker called a tow truck. The driver looked over my engine, determined that a belt had broken, and returned to the shop for a replacement.
As I stood by my car, waiting for him to come back, I looked across the field beside the road. A fine mist hovered above the wheat in the early-morning light. Seldom had I had the occasion to admire such a sight. I had no job, a broken-down car, and an uncertain future, but right then everything felt perfect.
St. Petersburg, Florida