By nature, my family is migratory. For generations each of us has uprooted from whence we came. A log of our travels reads like biblical genealogy, our names curling around mountains and fanning out over oceans, hefting the places that we are coming from and going to. We leave places and people for jobs or new vistas, or we don the forms of escape artists, as in the case of my father’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, to evade genocides and plagues. It is the reason why my father and I are both the children of immigrants; it is the reason why my mother will speak of an ancestral home in Georgia, but does not remember the address.
A few months ago, my mother and stepfather loaded the last of their belongings into a moving truck. They made their way from the slanted hillside streets of our urban neighborhood in Pittsburgh to a new housing development in Oakmont, a place that blurred between the suburbs and the locus of the city proper. I do not know who eventually bought the house where I had spent my formative years, but I was told that old schoolmates, now married off to other schoolmates, couples that were nearly young, had stopped by during open houses, or on scheduled appointments with their personal realtors. Their eyes had drifted over pictures of my siblings in our unflattering middle school years and admired our island kitchen. They had stood in my room, which had long been used for storage, playbills and snapshots of childhood friends tacked on the walls. They were outlying witnesses to a life that I no longer knew.
These people would soon start and raise families a few blocks from where we had all grown up, a ten minute walk from where we had gone to high school, an avenue from the commercial strip we had all referred to as upstreet as teenagers, which had once been jumbled with used record stores and coffee houses, but was now limned with chain stores and cafe franchises. The thrall of this notion stayed with me long after the shock of their visitations.
Pittsburgh is a city where people settle. The steel mills and brick smokestacks that once gave my hometown the reputation of a Dantean hellscape are now used as monolithic adornments to mall complexes and water parks. Pittsburgh likes what it creates, and fights to keep it, buildings and citizens alike.
My stepfather’s family has laid claim to Pittsburgh for almost a century. I graduated from the same high school that both he and his parents had attended, their names adorned somewhere on a brass plaque in a storage wing. These names hovered somewhere in the distance as I scurried from class to class, these names that were not quite ghosts.
Some, it seems, are fortunate enough to experience the permanence of objects like these. They point and reminisce: here is the pizza parlor where I went after school everyday, there is the alley where I had my first joint, here is this, and there, and there. This, I know, is what my stepfather thinks of when he thinks of home. For my mother and father and our ilk, these occurrences are few and far between. No one — not even ourselves — knows how to tell us why.
When I was ten years old, my father and mother, still together at the time, uprooted my sisters and I from Pittsburgh and whisked us away to Kenilworth, England, for a position my father had accepted at the University of Warwick. The stay, which would prove to be impermanent — in the end, my father would turn down the job in lieu of marital troubles and an eventual divorce — was an early exposure to nomadism. My sisters and I made no friends our age during the months we lived abroad. We learned to entertain ourselves, that the ground beneath us was ever-moving, that it never had our interests in mind.
During the week, while my father worked, my mother would load up the car, drive on the wrong side of the road, whirl through roundabouts like a carousel horse, and take us to the sites of old Roman ruins and disintegrating, abandoned castles. Cumulatively, these trips were to be our history lessons, for when we were to integrate into a British school system, once we were settled — which, of course, we never were.
At the site of a Roman villa outside of Wroxeter, I hopped from stone to stone — what was once the foundation of the manor proper, the infrastructure of the heating ducts. I laughed and played tag with my sister Melissa.
Who used to live here?, I asked my mother.
I don’t know, she said, nobody knows.
Nobody would ever know.
On weekends, we occasionally drove to London, the city my father had first called home. Everything, it seemed, grew into something else, with no regard for sentimentality. The secondary school my father attended was now a high-end office. The shoe repair shop my grandfather had sweated and slaved in for fruitless clause after clause and little pay was now a newsstand. What was once a slim flat that housed two families, a rotation of boarders, and one toilet was now a townhouse worth almost a million pounds sterling.
Although we took a picture of my father outside, we never walked up to the door and knocked.
I have been fortunate enough to live in three cities (Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York), and one town (Kenilworth), but I have never known which one to call home. The problem with a transient disposition, it seems, is that you expect to one day leave. You expect everything to leave you.
Two years ago, I visited my mother while she was living in Boca Raton, an antiseptic town filled with Cuban-flourished mansions, condos, and the elderly wasting beautifully in the sun. At the time, her move was meant to be permanent, for the advent of a new, better career. As my stepfather looked for the job that would be his ticket to Florida to be with her, he packed up the house in Pittsburgh. My mother was pleased with this turn of events. A Floridian by birth, she would embark on a sojourn that her ancestors had refused to entertain, to even dream: a return to a kind of homeland. My portal to Pittsburgh — my hometown life — was suturing up like a surgeon with a raw wound. It would be a scar of a memory.
During my visit, we decided to take a tour of Hollywood, FL, my mother’s birthplace. In the confines of her car, with the hood down, we cambered down streets named after presidents, lined with art deco and fluted royal palms. As my mother drove, she pointed out personal landmarks: this used to be the dress shop that her mother owned, before it was gutted; this was the house where she smoked pot for the first and only time with her best friend, only to be caught by said best friend’s mother, hiding behind an oleander bush; here is the resort where her parents were married, flanked with promenades and striped cabanas.
The last stop was the house that my mother grew up in, and my grandmother died in, with a nearly-empty pill bottle on her night table. My recollections of this place were vagaries, orange-tinted and dappled, carpeted with shag and held together with wooden panels and sliding doors. I had been four when my grandmother had passed away, left only with the memory of the skin of her hands as thin as onion peels, and a voice in sotto, reading The Giving Tree.
We parked across the street and stared at the house, a sunbelt art deco one-story with a porte chochere. Here was the artifact from my mother’s upbringing, somehow hollowed; here was where a story turned to dust.
A woman peered out from behind a netted screen next door, and then approached us. Looking for something?, she asked, as if we were all in a Western.
I used to live here, my mother said, nodding towards the house.
The woman told us she owned the property, rented it out to the kids next door. Feel free to check it out, she said, keys in hand, as we followed her up the path that vivisected the narrow lawn.
We should have been warned by the Christmas wreath on the door — it was two months past Christmas — comprised of twisted aluminum beer cans. Inside was a cave: what had once been an open living room had been sectioned and plastered and shut. The walls had been painted with a color that made me think of nightshade berries. A handle of cheap, half-finished vodka had been planted between two sunken armchairs, and a flag emblazoned with the name of a state school hung from the ceiling. Out back, weeds bloomed between the flagstones. Empty bottles wafted in the stale swimming pool. I looked to my mother. She did not cry.
When we got back to the car, we buckled our seat belts and said nothing until we hit the freeway, coasting past orange groves and a man who rode a horse alongside on the grass.
I was the first to speak: I’m sorry.
Me too, said my mother, as we kept driving.
Months later, my mother lost her job due to a shift in management. She left Florida for Pittsburgh, where our house remained, but only for a little while.
The last time I found myself bus-bound for Pittsburgh was for a strange convergence of the spheres: for the highest of high holy days, Yom Kippur, and for my friend E, whose mother had died not long before. A memorial service was to be held for her mother — family only — but our close friends congregated on the eve before the Day of Atonement to nurse her with liquor and to distract her with sun-soaked high school reveries. This, too, would be my last hurrah in Pittsburgh, I thought at the time; my mother was packing up the house, getting ready for what would be her failed move to Florida.
E was staying with one of our close friends, J. She had no other options, no house in Pittsburgh to call her legacy. After high school graduation, E’s father had packed her and her younger sister up and moved to North Carolina, where he would die of a brain tumor less than two years later. Her mother had been sent to a nursing home, a victim of early onset dementia. Her mind bleached her memories of her flower child youth. She forgot the names of her children, and lastly, how to breathe. Her house, with the paint-skinned latticework and the curling staircase was not her house anymore, had not been for years. Another family lived there now. This fact, out of anyone or anything I knew, made us strangely alike despite circumstance: soon, we would both be the only people we knew without a childhood bedroom to call home, a place of refuge. We were people who lived with neatly-severed ventricles, with cauterized hearts.
E, our friend J, and I went to a party in a crumbling duplex that the paint-stained residents called an artists’ colony, where E’s younger sister was staying with a childhood friend. The house-dwellers had turned the living room into a maze. They were clever, these artists, using old sheets to fashion walls, and cut-up cardboard boxes to mantle dead ends and secret, pillowed rooms. Party-goers made use of this labyrinth, debating vehemently over things they would forget by morning, kissing in temporary corners.
I ran into a boy who had been a year ahead of us in high school, a former football player with a hard, sure grin that turned girls into shadows, with a wide mouth that could destroy the reputation of the latest golden boy. E had hated him; everyone had hated him and loved him all at once. At the party, he was apologetic, had seen the error of his ways. I used to be an asshole,he told me in the first gentle voice he could muster, but I’ve been trying to be better. Now, I’m really trying. He was drunk, the blushed circles on his cheeks no bigger than crab apples. He was walking around the room, making amends, and found E outside on the porch. That’s where I found them: the former football star telling her how sorry he was. E was laced with gin and belligerence. You’re a bitch and you’ll always be a bitch, E said to him, her hand forged into an unbending fist, grinding itself into the wooden porch rail, ready to punch something, ready to fight. Instead, she brushed past me, back into the maze.
Her mother died, I said to the boy.
I found her in a cardboard nook, holding a cushion to her face. I want to go home, E repeated, voice cracking in all of the unsure places, I just want to go home.
I put my arm around her shoulders. We’ll go home, I said, but I was lying. I didn’t know where home could possibly be.
Somewhere in the thick of Georgia, my grandfather’s family has a burial plot. We would not, I think, be able to find the graves, even if we tried.
This piece originally appeared at Medium.