The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. -– Maya Angelou
When I was twenty, I left my family home. Sometimes, when telling this story, I say I fled. Sometimes, when telling this story, I say I left so fast I nearly broke my damn neck.
My immediate family consisted of two brothers and a sister, technically called half-siblings, my stepfather, and my mother, though “step-“ and half-“ were not descriptions we ever used. (I had an additional family member, my remarried father, with whom I maintained a wonderful relationship with until his death.) By the time I was ten, maybe eleven, my parents had saved enough money to move us from a primarily black three-story public housing complex in the famous Hill District (the “Hill” in “Hill Street Blues,” the birthplace of playwright August Wilson, and the musical playground of jazz artists Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey and Billie Eckstine) to a three-story house with porch, front and back yard in an ethnically-diverse neighborhood in Oakland, home of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Library and Museum, and Carnegie-Mellon University.
For as far back as memory allows me, I don’t remember my stepfather ever working fewer than two jobs, one in the steel mill, and the other as a part-time driver and delivery person for a florist. He continued to do so even after he suffered the amputation of half his right arm when it was trapped in machinery at the mill. In many ways, though, looking back, he was a shadow figure, either working, sleeping or eating.
It was my mother who ran things. She laid down inflexible regulations that were not up for discussion. Immune to persuasion, she ruled with an iron fist and a steel foot, ungloved and unshod. We had a fiery and tumultuous relationship, she and I. We were two thorny rosebushes growing in a garden that couldn’t accommodate both of us. She wasn’t simply strict but, without belaboring the point, she was abusive. She had been the object of physical abuse from her father, so I, first-born, caught all of her anger and abusive parenting. But it was the brother closest to me in age who finally drove me from the house. We just never clicked. It was as if there were some undetectable force field that kept us from resonating with each other. Plain and simply, he was a thief, but a family thief. He stole from only us. More specifically, from me. Clothes not yet worn, jewelry, money. Nothing was beyond his reach, and he seemed beyond of the reach of discipline, however patient and well-meaning.
At nineteen and twenty I was employed as a clerk in the Securities Department of Mellon Bank, then Mellon National Bank and Trust Company. In addition to the two supervisors whose offices, glass and metal, were more like cages, there must have been seventy-five of us, most of them old-timers, in one room, typing, calculating and flipping through stock certificates. There were three of us, and in 1967 and 1968 we were not yet African-Americans. Working there was not pleasant, and I couldn’t imagine sticking around for another forty-plus oppressive years.
That is not to say that I had a miserable early life. I didn’t. I had plenty of friends, an active social life, and enough popularity to share. My family and I had some great and fun times. Amusement parks. Sunday rides to Pennsylvania Dutch land. Picnics. Board games. Paint-by-numbers collaborations. Jacks played on cement floors. Books. Music. But…
Like all young people, I felt I was misunderstood. I wondered who these people were and how and why I’d come to be a part of this family. No one “got” me. Perhaps it was because of my tendency to sleep with books. Or because I scribbled poems on napkins and paper towels and wrote stories on my red and gray Royal typewriter, a gift from my grandfather. I studied classical voice. I had a “second sight,” my grandmother called it, seeing and sensing “things” that escaped the purview of others, though, without glasses, my myopic physical eyes missed a lot. By age thirteen, I no longer believed in the Virgin Birth and rejected all ideas of Armageddon, Heaven, and Hell. I wasn’t interested in learning how to quarter a chicken (though I did) or to fashion biscuits from scratch. I was relatively quiet, sensitive, and observant; however, a quick red temper tinted those three qualities. Had I not looked so much like both my parents, I might have thought I’d been adopted. Anyway, the message that I picked up was clear: I needed to settle into a regular life. My grandmothers had had my parents when they were twenty or so. By the time my mother was twenty, she had married for the first time and had me. And now I was twenty. I needed to settle into a regular life. But instead…
On a warm and sunny afternoon in May, I left home in an emotional huff. Pure drama. After I stocked the taxi with my belongings and brand new American Tourister luggage filled mostly with Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderly, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, I looked to the porch where my mother, one little sister and brother, and my grandmother stood. The faces were so solemn, but that didn’t stop me from yelling out the window, “And I’m never coming back here!” before being whisked to the airport and then Kansas City, Missouri, where I would spend 6 weeks in airline training school before finally being domiciled in New York.
When I thought of home, geographically and linguistically, another word came to mind. Oppression. Everyone had his and her plan for my life. My mother and her mother envisioned my future as a clone of theirs: the man who worked like a field-hand for you; children; a house and, later, when I was old enough and experienced enough to understand the reality of my mother’s existence, complete boredom. My grandfather saw in me a congregant among his fellowJehovah’s Witnesses, with issues of “The Watchtower” displacing “Life” and “Ebony” and “Mademoiselle” on my bookshelves. My own father and his mother saw a college graduate. A Master of Something. My father specifically saw a religious, singing college girl, he, being a member of a Pentecostal congregation where he played guitar and sang in a fine voice. Even though Howard University had accepted me into its pre-med program, my father would help with college if I attended his alma mater only, the University of Pittsburgh. So when I thought of home, sometimes I felt as if I were inhaling and exhaling through a straw, and this metaphor would become a reality by the time I reached thirty-three as a person with asthma.
I didn’t keep my promise of no-return. I visited my family regularly for holidays and regular days, and all was forgiven. My mother had once told me in anger that I wouldn’t live past twenty because I might be book-smart but I lacked common sense, and my grandfather had cautioned me against “taking wooden nickels up there in New York.” I hadn’t fallen into the traps or succumbed to dangers of the world beyond the family home. They were happy to see me. I attended funerals as my family dwindled. Me. My brother. My sister.
I visited my sister, now in a home of her own, several months after she’d given birth to the first of her two children. It was 1997, I believe. My one request was that she drive past our childhood house. I don’t know…I wanted to see it. Not long after the death of our parents, an urban renewal organization had bought the house for a dollar, she told me. Property taxes in arrears. My mother’s rosebush was long-gone. The house, once grayish-blue with green trim, had been painted a sorrowful and dusty maroon. The porch sagged in places, and the picture window that once seemed so huge and grand now looked smallish and inconsequential. I burst into tears. No, I bawled. I couldn’t have predicted this reaction. I was so sad that this house that my parents had worked so hard to acquire and keep had been lost. “I know,” my sister said. “It’s sad, isn’t it?” My feelings had transcended sadness and broken across the border into the landscape of abandonment. But who had abandoned whom?
(To be continued in Part 2)