Home, Where My Music’s Playing

Posted on July 18, 2010


In the family I grew up in, I was the eldest of a passel of cousins, half of whom lived within walking distance of me. Together, we roamed the interior of our shared blocks, racing bikes down the alley and building forts in old ladies’ yards, begging popsicles and calling all the neighborhood dogs by name. Our parents were relatively young and relatively poor, and weekends were spent at my grandparents’ house, also in the neighborhood. The adults played euchre–dollar a hand, quarter per euchre–and I supervised the babies. The middle kids fetched beers from the kegerator and wrestled in the yard, or swung too high on the porch swing until they were scolded away. In the summer, dinner was sometimes fried walleye that my grandpa caught in Lake Erie. Inside the house was a haze of cigarette smoke and the constant wet rumble of the dishwasher, one of those old ones that had to be wheeled up and attached to the sink. Someone was always sitting on top.

That family no longer exists. Everyone is on second marriages, or even thirds. My grandfather’s death exposed fissures in the bedrock of the family that quickly widened, leaving half of the siblings on one side and half on the other. The family business that he built was torn down the middle as each side held on with ferocious tenacity. This is a huge oversimplification, of course, skipping the tedious details of my grandfather’s duplicitousness, my uncles’ overweening greed, my crying grandmother, lawyers and audits and naked hatred between brothers and sisters who spent every free moment together for decades and can no longer stand to be in the same room. This is hardly a Fortune 500 company that hung in the balance, but everyone felt they had earned their claim and to hell with larger issues of morality and fair play and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.

My cousins are all men now, with pickup trucks and tattoos and pregnant girlfriends, little sisters of the girls I went to school with. They tower over me, big corn-fed boys who work in manufacturing at the dying local industrial parks and hunt deer on weekends. They seem aimless, and I don’t recall anyone having such twangy accents when I lived here, though I suppose they did and I just didn’t hear them. I suppose at one point I did. Despite our parents’ estrangement, we are happy to see each other once or twice a year for an hour or so. What we have in common now is our shared past, whatever distance separates us from it now. I think of holding them when they cried as babies, and teaching them multi-verse silly songs, and putting their toys together on chaotic Christmas mornings. I can’t quite imagine the flavor of their lives now, and I’m sure they feel the same about me. I’ve been away for 17 years, nearly as long as I lived  in Ohio.

I used to keep the idea of home always in reserve, secretly thinking that if things ever got too hard in DC, or if I just royally fucked the whole thing up somehow, I could move back, simplify, learn again to make do with the pleasures of summer sweet corn and fall festivals and being recognized by strangers at the grocery store as a member of my large and unruly tribe. Just this weekend I saw a woman I haven’t seen since I was ten, whom I remember not at all, and she said, You were always a genius, are you still? I’m not, of course, but I’m smart enough now to know that I could never live here again. I don’t fit, no more than I ever really did, and the things I thought I missed here don’t exist, if they ever did.  The family I thought I had could not, would not, have been dissolved by simple greed.

But that’s okay.  I know I’m where I need to be, doing what I need to do, and damn lucky to have found it.  I can’t wait to go to the airport tomorrow and come home.

Posted in: DC, Where I Come From