“Childhood Homes and Grown-up People”
A Sermon by Joshua Leach
Preached at the First Parish UU in Bedford,
May 8, 2016
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“No one like one’s mother and father ever lived;
When I see my children, I see them only
As children, only-children — like myself.”
—Robert Lowell (1917-1977)
When I learned I was scheduled to lead a service on Mother’s Day, I knew exactly the story I wanted to tell. Last fall, I was talking to my Mom on the phone, and I was getting near the point of signing off when she said, “Now Josh, before you go… there was one other thing that I wanted to get your thoughts on… your sister was a little upset about this I think when we told her… I hope it won’t upset you…”
“I won’t get upset,” I promised, feeling the beginnings of a cold sweat start from my pores. My mother had adopted the small yet firm tone of voice she reserves for soliciting my input on decisions that have already been made. I sensed that whatever was coming next was going to have something to do with change, that great bane of my existence. Why else would she be so hesitant? You have to understand that, largely because of incidents that occurred when I was between the ages of ten and fifteen, I remain to this day under permanent suspicion in my family of flying off the rails at the slightest hint that things might be different in the future.
“Well,” my Mom said, readying herself to tread firmly on this particular set of eggshells – “Your Dad and I think we might sell the house in Florida and move into a smaller place.”
A smaller place?
“Yes, there’s a condo we like.”
In philosophy, of course, I was immediately on board, being committed in principle to ideals of simplicity and the transience of material things.
In practice, I inwardly promised to look for two empty pods lying around the house the next time I was home, that would reveal how these extraterrestrials had managed to clothe themselves in such a convincing likeness of my parents.
In some ways, of course, this needn’t have been a cause for such high drama. It wouldn’t be the first time my sister and I had had to let go of a childhood home. We moved around a fair amount when we were kids, including living for a year here in Massachusetts. One of my earlier personal memories in fact is of pulling out of the driveway for the last time from our house in Hopkinton and waving goodbye. I must have asked my parents something about why we couldn’t just leave all our things in the house forever, because I remember my Dad explaining that we had to “make room for the new owners.” And in my child’s brain, that all became one word “the newowners,” whom I pictured as a kind of hostile subterranean creature that likes to invade and repurpose vacant houses. As we pulled away from the drive, in fact, I was sure I could see one silhouetted in the window.
After that, most of my childhood was spent in a house in Coppell, Texas, which we sold in turn when we moved to Florida.
I told my Mom in all truthfulness, therefore, that I thought I would be okay with her and my Dad’s decision. I told her that I wasn’t feeling all that strongly about it at the moment, that I would probably start to freak out in another day or two, but that feeling would subside in its turn and I would be fine – I gave her, in other words, a sort of advance itinerary of the stages of grief.
I hung up the phone after we had finished talking and went back to whatever I had been doing beforehand, and didn’t think much of it. The next day, however – very much as predicted – the second stage of my grief process arrived with a vengeance. They are selling my childhood home! I inwardly wailed. Sure, it had happened before, but now I saw the key difference. All those previous times when we had moved and sold a house, there had been a new family home to replace it, where we all had lived together. It began to dawn on me that whatever new place my parents were going to land in would not be like that. Sure, there might be room for me there to crash on occasion, but it would be a guest room. And that would make me a guest. That meant that my parents’ place in Florida was not quite home anymore, which made home – what exactly? My apartment in Medford? Perish the thought.
I knew I had to get my sister on the phone so we could put a stop to this nonsense at once. I had reason to be optimistic. My sister and I had indeed had some success in the past putting the kibosh on our parents’ schemes to introduce radical change. There was one point, around the time of our move to Florida, when an alternative possibility opened up at my Dad’s work for the whole family to be transferred abroad. My sister and I had suddenly been faced with the prospect of spending our adolescence in an international school in Amsterdam, or South Africa. Kids with a bit more of the spirit of adventure in them might have leapt at the chance, but my sister and I instead waged a propaganda campaign of epic proportions, involving messages scrawled on index cards that we left all over the house for our parents to find. I recall that one of my sister’s drawings showed the entire family being swallowed by an enormous Belgian waffle – I guess because it was one of the few mental associations we had with Amsterdam, wherever that was.
Whether my sister’s cautionary illustration was the deciding factor in our parents’ minds, I do not know, but we never did move to Holland. I thought that we might have similar success if we tried again.
When I consulted her on the selling the house project, I was pleased to find my sister had the same feelings as I did, and then some. What we were really struggling to come to terms with, we found, was not so much our own decided feeling that we did not want this move to happen, but the mystery of why our parents did. Why would they want to leave the cherished homestead, where our stuffed animals were still upstairs and our bedrooms as we’d left them in high school? Sure, neither of us had actually been back there for at least a year and a half, but it was easy to spin cobwebs of longing around the place once the possibility arose of losing it. Why would they leave all this for some crummy condo?
We began to construct theories to explain our parents’ irrational behavior. The first was the aforementioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario. Our parents had evidently been abducted and replaced with convincing but malignant alien replicants.
Theory number two was that my parents, despite being a UU minister and a former DRE, had converted to a new religion. Perhaps the house would soon be deeded to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
After our next conversation with our parents, however, a third possibility arose, and soon came to predominate over the others. This one occurred to me after my Mom had said that one of the chief reasons for the move was that our current house “had two floors, and as we get older that’s getting harder for us to manage.” That one gave me pause. My parents, who are in their mid-fifties, have been fully mobile for as long as I have known them—in fact, my Dad is training as we speak for a half-marathon. That’s when I alighted on my new diagnosis, which I called the “Reverse Mid-Life Crisis.” If the classic escapade of the mid-forties father is to buy a sports car or join a garage band – in short, to become convinced that he is younger than he is – then perhaps, I thought, the characteristic crisis of the mid-fifties empty nester is to behave as if you are older than you are.
This seemed to me like an impression that could be corrected. Perhaps if we all lived in the same place, my sister and I could have responded with another flood of surreptitiously placed propaganda. We might have left newspapers or magazines lying around the house, say, fortuitously leafed open to articles about 110-year-old couples, or the startling recent advances in medical science that had made sixty the new forty.
From a distance, however, we had to work with a more limited set of tools. We decided the best we could do was to get just Mom on the phone, and talk her out of the decision when Dad wasn’t there. It was a tactic that long ago had worked in order to stay home sick and get out of going to church, so why couldn’t it now?
Once we’d got her on the phone, my sister started in by asking Mom if she had thought through the financial implications of the move. “Do you know the value of the house now? Have you looked up how it compares to when we bought it?” Our mother, who is a former accountant with an MBA in finance, politely but firmly explained that she had.
Next, I explained to Mom my premature aging hypothesis, and made passing mention of the alien and new religious movement theories as well. She graciously chose to be amused by this. But still she did not budge.
The moment when we truly knew the campaign was lost, however, was when we heard a door beep on the other end of the line, and Mom called out only half-jokingly, “Brock, the kids are on the phone, I need your help!” The battle was over before it had started. Our Dad’s firm convictions – in other words, his legendary stubbornness – are well known to be impervious to all attacks and appeals.
Dad got on the phone and professed to be astonished that the relocation scheme should come as a surprise to my sister and me at all. “Honestly, what’s so crazy about it?” he asked. We launched in with our prepared lines, but now with only half a heart.
Dad replied that we simply did not understand what an enormous headache it was to take care of a house. “It’s way more space than your Mom and I need now, and you two kids are never down here, and something’s always breaking,” he said. He described busted air conditioning systems and falling roof shingles, broken doors and a driveway always being infested with mold. He sketched in for us some details of the perpetual battle with the forces of nature that is a condition of the human existence in Florida, where an army of snaking mangroves and insects and possums and weeds is ever ready to find their way inside, if one does not employ an arsenal of sprayers and garden shears to keep them at bay.
Yes, we said, but what about the stuffed animals in the attic and the place where the dog threw up and – we went on in this vein, but despaired all the while of changing his mind.
I signed off the call with the realization that my parents probably were going to sell the house. Yet I carried a mutinous heart within me. The reasons our Dad had given for the move were reasonable, but not that reasonable. How hard could it be to take care of a house, anyways? Was that so much to ask for the privilege of preserving the relics of our childhoods in mint condition? Was it really so difficult to keep a stationary and inanimate piece of property from turning against its occupants?
Fate delivered something of a karmic response to this question over the past few weeks, while I was house-sitting and cat-sitting for Megan when she was away on vacation. Why do houses would need sitting in the first place, I had wondered at the outset. They are not children or animals. Well, it turns out, as I soon learned, that a house is in fact a living organism of a kind, which breathes, and ages. It is also an organism that happens not to speak our language. The cat was a lot easier to understand.
Around the end of the first week of house-sitting, for one, I was beginning to feel like I was getting the hang of the thing, when I heard that most dreaded of sounds coming from the basement – the tell-tale chirping of the low-battery smoke detector, which alerts you every sixty seconds on the second to its depleting reserves of energy. That single minute is an absolutely maddening interval, as it gives you just enough time to form the hope each time that the beeping has finally stopped before it starts in again. I must have been up and down that basement footstool fourteen times changing and re-changing the batteries before the thing finally stopped, and I backed away on tiptoes lest a current of air somehow disturb the circuitry.
This episode was easy compared to what happened the next morning, however, as I was locking the front door to leave for church. After inserting the key without a hitch, I noticed to my consternation that it was simply spinning round and round in the lock without catching on the deadbolt. “That’s odd,” I thought, “I’ll try again.” I pulled the key out, and the entire casing of the lock came off with it. Clouseau-like, I immediately tried to stuff the incriminating evidence back into the door-frame and use the key again, in the hope that it had healed itself. No such luck.
Okay, there had to be a solution to this, I thought. But what could I do? When the casing had pulled out, a rain of tiny screws and parts had come down with it, and there was no chance of my piecing them together again. Megan, meanwhile, was in Spain, and out of range of WIFI. The landlord didn’t answer his phone when I called, plus it was a Sunday, so the locksmith was closed. That pretty much exhausted my range of options, so I just tried to arrange the busted lock so that it looked as convincing as possible and left for the day, telling myself, “Well, how many people go around trying other house’s front doors anyways?”
To my great relief, we got through Sunday without anyone breaking in, without the house catching on fire, and without the cat making a daring escape, and the locksmith was able to come early the next morning. When he arrived, however, and I held up the house key and said, “Here’s the one it goes with,” he brushed it aside. “Sorry,” he said. “The whole deadbolt’s busted. We got to replace it and the keys too.”
“Well… I don’t really live here is the thing,” I replied, making some hasty mental calculations as to how much all of this would stack up to a jury. The locksmith repeated that there was no other way to do it, so I told him “Well… go ahead I guess.” We needed a lock on the door.
I sent a few more piteous text messages to Megan half-way around the world, as I watched in dismay as the front door lock to a house that was not my own was rapidly dismembered, and all the existing keys to the place that were in the possession of its true occupants were rendered unusable in a single stroke.
Megan, of course, being Megan, was completely kind and grateful about the whole thing once she did get back within cell range. This doesn’t change the fact, however, that by a serious of steps that had each seemed natural and inevitable at the time, I had managed to move into the house of my ministerial supervisor and change the locks behind me – which just seemed weird no matter how I sliced it.
Shortly after all this had happened, I realized that I needed to let my parents know that the scales had fallen from my eyes where the whole condo venture was concerned. The reasons why they might be tired of homeownership had become clear to me.
Of course, even before these house-sitting debacles, it had occurred to me that my feelings about my parents’ decision didn’t really have that much to do with the house they were leaving behind. The trepidation around leaving our place in Florida was merely a symbol of themes that went much deeper and were of far longer standing in our family. Chief among these would be my notorious discomfort with the passage of time … my reputation — carried over from the long fits of melancholia I passed through as a child whenever my parents replaced the carpet on the upstairs landing — for being unusually resentful of any kind of change. These were things I knew about myself. They, and not just the fact that selling an old home is a difficult thing to do generally, were the reason my parents had been so hesitant to tell me on the phone.
Once I had my daunting gaze into the abyss of homeownership, however, and my empathy for my parent’s position had started to grow, I felt a bit of that old and ornery part of myself leaving me behind. Wait a minute, I thought, I actually don’t have to be a brat about this! It was a remarkably liberating insight. I looked inside myself and yes, that ten-year-old version of me was still in there, sulking upstairs or in my closet in the hope that my sad vibes would penetrate the walls and convince my parents to leave everything the way it was.
But I realized there was also a twenty-six-year-old version of me, who is an adult, who lives in Massachusetts, and who works and lives on his own, and who can respect his parents’ decision about where and how they want to live just as he would want them to respect his.
For the first but perhaps not for the last time, it dawned on me that my parents might be my parents, but they are also two human beings, who might have something they want to do with their time other than act as curator to the National Historical Museum of My Adolescence. So much has been written and so many hands have been wrung about the teenager’s quest to establish their individuality, that we tend to forget that parents go through an analogous struggle to retain their selfhood, especially in an American middle class culture which often expects them to subordinate all of their needs to their children. As George Eliot wrote in the Victorian age, offering an insight that could be extended, I believe, to fathers and parents and caregivers of all kinds — “It is a fact perhaps kept a little too much in the background, that mothers have a self larger than their maternity, and that when their sons have become taller than themselves, and are gone from them to college or into the world, there are wide spaces of their time which are not filled with praying for their children or re-reading old letters from school.”
I’ll give you a mild example. When my sister and I were away at college, I remember, the understanding on our parents’ part was that they would not call us every week unless there was an emergency. That seemed exactly right to me. But any time I called them and they were not immediately available for a long chat, I was in agony. What could they be doing that was so much more important?
The lesson I learned in this month leading up to Mother’s Day is that it is actually possible to be more generous toward our parents than this.
Generosity, by the way, really is what this all boils down to, because the fear of change that makes it so hard for me to accept the loss of a familiar home is at heart a question of how generous I am willing to be. Discomfort with change is a conservative impulse, with all the best and worst aspects of what that word implies. It’s a quality that leads me to want to treasure and hold on to things that are important, to recognize that sentimental value is value all the same. But the less wholesome side to it is that fear of change is also a fear of sharing what one has with others, because that would make things different.
I remember at one point when I was in high school or college, my parents vaguely considered the possibility of adopting another child, and I reacted to this idea with a degree of hostility that I now find embarrassing and somewhat baffling to recall. The reason for it, though, was simply that my parents were my parents, and I didn’t want them to be anyone else’s.
As I reflect this Mother’s Day on all the childhood homes around the world that people are never able to sell, because they are forced to leave them by a barrel bomb exploding next door, or a drone strike, or a death threat from a gang; as I think about all the parents who will spend this holiday in prison, or in immigration detention, or sleeping in the open air on a city street; as I think of mothers like Hilda Ramirez, living in sanctuary in a church basement, who have to spend each day in fear of being separated them from their loved ones through deportation — I am reminded that the world doesn’t need more fear of change, from me or from others. It stands in need, rather, of a whole lot of change, and of a lot more generosity than it holds at present.
All of us, as individuals and collectively as a faith community, will inevitably face tests in the months and years ahead of our capacity to weather change, including of our willingness to alter our cherished religious home for the sake of generosity. I have in mind, for one, our efforts to convince Bedford’s Historic District Commission that a minor visual alteration to our sanctuary roof is a small price to pay for the sake of doing our part to confront climate change. I am thinking, for another, of the question that will come before us this next annual meeting as to whether we are able and willing to potentially provide sanctuary to an undocumented individual or family on our church premises.
While I found in my own family that tests like these can be uncomfortable, I also found that they opened me to insights and to a kind of resiliency that I didn’t know I had. Difficult as it is to do, perhaps we can find a way to be grateful for the small tests in our lives that call us to confront change, and that inspire us to embrace it when it comes along with a generosity of spirit that we perhaps didn’t realize we had.
Our closing words are by Langston Hughes, from his poem, “Mother to Son.” [Lightly adapted]
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me hasn’t been a crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’ve been climbing on,
And reaching landings,
And turning corners,
And sometimes going in the dark
Where there hasn’t been any light.
So son, don’t you turn back now.
Don’t you set down on the steps
Because you find it’s kinda hard.
And don’t you fall now—
For I’m still going, honey,
I’m still climbing,
And life for me hasn’t been a crystal stair.