The Long Way Home
Every fiction writer has a moment when she realizes she wants to spend her life telling stories, and mine is this: I was seven years old, walking to the library on Saturday morning with my older brother. I had been reading since I was four and was addicted to reading for escape, and by Saturday morning, I usually had five books, the library’s limit, ready to exchange. But that week there was one I hadn’t gotten to. I don’t remember its name; only that the cover was illustrated with sepia drawings of owls and woodland creatures. On the top of the pile in my arms, it caught my brother’s attention.
“What’s that one about?” he asked.
My brother never talked to me. He was two years older, involved in his boy’s life and found my world unworthy of his attention. When he asked me a question that required more than yes or no, I was determined to impress him. So I made up a story. For five minutes, as I spun a yarn about a not-so-wise owl raising a skunk, my brother listened attentively and, unbelievably, laughed. I suppose if there had been a dancing bear on the cover, I might be wearing tap shoes right now, but a story was what was wanted, and that was that.
My parents had moved from a coal patch near Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and we were living in Bethlehem, the steel Mecca two hours to the south. My father worked days in the steel mill’s blast furnace and nights in a silk mill. My mother worked in a sewing factory. Because they hadn’t the time to make friends in Bethlehem, our entire social life took place on weekends when we drove back to Hazelton to visit our huge extended family.
It was the early 1970s. Many of the underground coal mines in that part of Pennsylvania were closing down, and most of the damage that mining could do to my family had already been done—uncles who died before I knew them, a grandfather who lost an eye in a cave-in, a handsome cousin who dragged an oxygen tank behind him because of black lung. My family seemed to me to be a stable of beasts of burden, discarded when no longer needed and left to wonder what the hell happened to them; a painful exercise, because pack mules are not trained for introspection.
But life went on. A few of the men got jobs in strip mining, running huge steam shovels that scooped the skin off the ground to access the coal near its surface. It was easier on the men than tunnel mining, but more brutal on the earth, and the landscape of my youth was covered in slate.
I have sixty-four cousins, all older, so I attended lots of weddings where we children were allowed to drink whiskey sours and eat maraschino cherries till we turned red, then green, and a reception could last for days, the polka band playing on until the last dancer dropped a last dollar bill into the accordion player’s case. Everyone in my family danced. It was our way of making recreational conversation. Talk that didn’t impart practical information was suspect.
Religion permeated every aspect of our life, as it does for all people whose survival is a lottery. Because my father was Roman Catholic and my mother was a Byzantine Catholic whose church followed the Gregorian calendar, we celebrated every holiday twice: two Christmases, two Easters, two New Years. Services at my mother’s church, St. Peter’s and Paul’s Ukrainian Church, went on for hours; the priest, resplendent in gold lamé, intoned the service in English first, then in Church Slavonic, then in Latin. At Sunday supper at my grandfather’s house after church, before we were allowed to start eating, my mother and her sisters would chant an a cappalle prayer that lasted ten minutes. My mother had sung in the church choir and they all had beautiful voices. But it shocks me now to remember what we prayed for: that the tunnel mines, which paid better wages, would reopen, and our men, by God’s intercession, could go back to being beasts of burden.
My parents were always exhausted: with three full-time jobs between them, children to support, a house to maintain, and the weekly pilgrimage to the coal region. Plus we had taken in a magical, slightly unhinged creature, Babba, my father’s mother, who nicked, scorched, or broke just about every valuable object in our house during manic bouts of housekeeping. My mother spent hours trying to repair the damage, especially Babba’s biggest offence: filling my head with bizarre ideas about life and fantastical gossip about the other neighborhood Babbas: Mrs. Marzak, Mrs. Horwath, and Mrs. Szilborski. To me they looked like Humpty-Dumptys in aprons, but Babba spun stories that made them the most remarkable people in our neighborhood. The clash between Babba’s fanciful visions and my mother’s pragmatic version of life kept our house on constant edge. To escape, I retreated further into books, reading under the sheets until three in the morning by flashlight, and, when allowed, sleeping over in the homes of friends from school.
Bethlehem was a company town and Steel poured money into the local school system. The kids whose parents managed the steel (among the highest paid executives in the country at that time) attended the local public schools alongside the kids whose dads manned the mills. Reading and writing were top priority, and I seized on the opportunity to write. I wrote for the school weekly. I had a column in the “student” section of the local daily and co-edited an alternative newspaper put out by kids from all the local high schools. By the time I graduated from high school, it was clear I was going to be a writer. Wasn’t I one already?
So I was outraged when my parents told me that not only would I not be going to college (“Why would a girl go to college, except to find a husband?”) but that my mother had arranged for the sewing mill where she worked to hire me. They had earmarked me all along to fit into their blue collar niche where, if I got lucky, I’d eventually marry a neighborhood stoker. When I protested that I was a writer, my father said that there was plenty to write about in my spare time “right here, unless you’re blind,” and I answered “maybe, if you’re a brute.” Who wanted to read about the black and blue collar life? John O’Hara and John Updike, my Pennsylvanian writing heroes, never mentioned mines or mills, babbas or their grandfathers’ homemade hootch. Their characters had martini glasses welded to their fists and dressed for work in suits and silk ties.
You don’t have be in a cave-in to be buried alive. On my eighteenth birthday, I moved into a boarding house. To everyone who said: once you’ve left, you can’t go home again. I answered: who cares?
I was rescued by my mother’s brother, Uncle Mike, who had broken with the family tradition of mining and gone into another business—crime. He invited me to lunch at a swank private club in Allentown, ostensibly to give me some avuncular advice. Like him, I was different, he said, and as he didn’t have any children of his own, he’d decided to help me out. He handed me an envelope full of hundred dollar bills to get me started on my own.
I was adrift but afloat, and by the time Uncle Mike’s money began to run low, I had concluded that moving out wasn’t enough of a break with my past. I needed an official annulment, so I enlisted in the Army and got myself stationed in Germany.
Once in Europe, away from coal patches and steel mills, I would find out what “real life” was like and would reinvent myself to fit in. I spent my leave in museums and galleries. I traveled to every country I could get to by train, and I ingratiated myself into the European milieu by telling people I wanted to be a painter. I knew enough German and French, which I’d taken in high school, to tell new acquaintances in their own language that I didn’t speak it at all, which they found charming. I was well-read enough to alight comfortably on the surface of most subjects without being asked to bore down. I was an exotic to the Europeans I met: an American who wasn’t an American. I don’t know why I found that flattering, because it meant I was nothing at all. What was I?
After my enlistment was up, I stayed in Europe, getting my undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland’s European Division, working in the university textbook office, and studying painting with a teacher there. If I occasionally met someone from Pennsylvania and they asked where I was from, I said I was an army brat who’d never stayed in one place long enough to call it home. Or I claimed that my entire family had died in a plane crash, which people found too grisly to pursue or too preposterous to believe. I wasn’t alone in this. Expatriate communities are full of people who have discarded former selves and no one asks for details.
Part of my metamorphosis included marrying someone as far away from me on the social meter as possible: a WASP I met in Paris. We came back to the States briefly to make it official. We got married by a JP on the wrong side of Bethlehem, with a junkie banging on the door during the ceremony, trying to “borrow” ten bucks. I wore a black motorcycle jacket and our wedding pictures were taken in a photo booth in a mall.
That my family couldn’t understand what he did for a living (banking) was part of his appeal.
“What does he do? What does he make?”
“Money. He makes money, Mother.”
My appeal to him was that I had never seen the inside of a country club. I was refreshing. He wanted to disown his background too and marrying me was a coup because his family had never encountered anyone from my social class before, at least not at the dinner table. One of the few times I saw any of them, we visited two of his cousins in London, where one taught acting and the other worked as the financial advisor to an Arab sheik. When they tired of tearing each other apart after too many glasses of Cutty Sark, they turned on me and told Polish jokes. I felt like I was in a Tennessee Williams play, but at least I was now part of a people who didn’t carry their lunch in a pail when they went to work.
Somewhere along the way, my husband and I decided to stop being the heavy artillery for the each other’s wars. And after we parted, I began to write in earnest. I had tasted enough life beyond the “dark satanic mills” to allow me to invent sophisticated worlds that starred me as a really cool person.
My divorce made me think I could write about divorce, specifically a hip divorce lawyer with a Scottish terrier (I’d always wanted a dog, an unthinkable luxury in a family that had enough work taking care of its humans) who solves a murder! The pages dripped with characters saying what I thought were cool, witty things to one another, in a cool, hip environment. The murder was incidental. Nobody liked the guy or missed him when he was gone. And the divorce part was weak: I was friends with my ex, so what could I know about the real pain and loneliness caused by a less-than-friendly separation? The feedback I got on that novel was, “Are you making fun of divorce, divorce lawyers, or the entire mystery genre?”
But like a train unable to brake, I kept going, manuscripts piling up behind me like squashed box cars. If I was unsure of myself because of my unsophisticated upbringing and patchwork education, my literary alter-ego could be brazen, confident. I would write about things that were shiny and smart and “full of money”.
I wrote another novel, about a woman from a bourgeois family, who brings a cell of terrorists to their knees; a screenplay about a painter who becomes the toast of the New York City art world; a novel about twin child actresses who……It doesn’t matter. A friend who read everything I’d written at the time asked me if it was just a coincidence that the father character in every story was killed off.
By this time, I had stayed away from home for almost twenty years. I’d returned to the States, and was living in Boston, selling paintings out of my studio. It was the first time in my adult life that I owned a television. I can testify to its addictive quality because I know more about Boston sports teams than I think is normal. But there was one interview that struck me, an old re-run (Boston loves to replay its glory days) of a local sportscaster talking to a then-young Larry Bird. How, the interviewer asked, could he anticipate where he was supposed to be on the court? Bird said that when he was playing, it was as if suddenly everything was in slow motion, and a split second before it actually happened he saw the play unfold in front of him—saw where the ball would end up—and he would go there to catch it, shoot it, or hit the open man.
That seemed like good advice for writing. Slow life down, see the ball arcing through the air, landing in the hands of the open man. But to anticipate what happens next, you have to have practiced on the terrain. You can’t write about what you don’t know.
And what did I know? I knew myself, of course. I knew my own struggle to deny where I had come from, thinking a change of scene would change who I was. The human heart in conflict with itself, as William Faulkner said, is the only thing worth writing about. And I knew all about that.
The settings for my next stories chose themselves--slate piles and slag heaps, breakers and blast furnaces. The characters were varied: Babbas bargaining with God, men defining themselves by their jobs and despairing when they lost them, runaways trying to succeed in Hollywood, working class women selling their souls to step into the middle class. I’m always startled when people ask which character I identify with, because it’s obvious: they’re all me.
My brother phoned me two years ago to tell me that my father was ill and that I should go home to make peace with him. I had sent him my writing over the years, still fishing for fraternal approval, and he admonished me: don’t show Dad your new writing. It will upset him to see how you see him.
My father and I had kept up a barely civil connection—Christmas cards signed with his full legal name as if I might not remember who “Dad” was. At our first meeting, because we were both nervous and because we’d never really talked, I handed him a couple of my latest stories to break the ice. He read them right then, and, amazingly, he laughed. He didn’t, he said, think I’d been paying attention.
In my writing I had already come home, so I decided to stay.
Occasionally now, I take my Dad for drives. We inspect the ruins of the steel mill where he worked, which, in a cosmic joke, is being converted into gambling casinos. We drive up to the coal region to see who--a few relatives--and what--a little strip mining--is left. When the coal miners in West Virginia were asphyxiated in a tunnel explosion this winter, he took it with a matter-of-factness I’d always found brutish but which I now saw was the stoicism of our kind. He’s from a breed of people that do dangerous work, live hard lives, let God decide their fate, and don’t talk about it much.
Because what, he asks me, is there to say?
Well, as it turns out, I answer, quit a bit.
since you asked...