Collage by Wayne Hogaur (original art)
Going Home Again
by Mel Livatino
Leaving home was an immensity. I’ve been trying all my life to express that, the bigness
of that. The central experience of my life.
V. S. Naipaul
So primary is homesickness as a motive for writing fiction, so powerful the yearning to
memorialize what we’ve lived, inhabited, been hurt by and loved, that the impulse often
Joyce Carol Oates
The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.
You can’t go home again.
Each spring for more than twenty years, from 1988 through 2010, I took house walks organized by women’s organizations in the toney suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore. On these walks no woman ever appeared alone; they came in twos and threes, mostly, it seemed to me, to parade their clothes, their hair, their nails, and to inspect everything and everyone with their finely reticulated sense of status. I, on the other hand, was a man alone on these walks: no companion, no fancy clothes, and no status to speak of. I went because I loved the way light splayed itself over elegant walls, floors, and furniture, and made these houses glow. I went because all my life I have been looking for home.
My lifelong search for home has also taken me on another kind of house walk. On this walk I am again alone. No one else can take these walks, for they are through the homes of my childhood and youth. I take these walks not on actual foot but only in memory.
I once read of a soldier imprisoned in a North Vietnamese prison camp for six years, much of the time in solitary or near-solitary confinement. When asked what sustained him through those years, he replied that each day he played a round of golf on his favorite course in his imagination. He imagined every swing, watched the flight of every ball, felt the sun and air on his skin, and kept score for each hole. When the war ended he returned home and shot an 86 his first time out. Those hundreds of imaginary rounds not only sustained him through all his years of imprisonment, they also kept his golf game in marvelous shape.
I don’t take my imaginary walks through the houses I once lived in nearly as often as the soldier who played imaginary golf, nor have my walks sustained my life, but they have kept me close to the boy I once was and to the family I came from. My walks also entwine me with what lies at the bottom of the sweetest word in the English language: home. I take my imaginary walks in order to go home again.
The earliest home I can remember was an apartment building on the northwest corner of Southport and Irving Park Road, a working-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago only a mile from Lake Michigan. We lived there from 1942 to 1944, when I was two, three, and four. Because they have so little ego, children absorb the world without filters, so that in later life they remember it like poets and painters. Only torn bits and pieces survive into adulthood, but those scraps are imbued with feelings that last a lifetime. The stairwell outside our second-floor apartment was such a scrap. Its gray-glass double-hung window gave onto an interior airshaft. The light from that window had no visible source—only the brick walls of the airshaft were visible—but this haunting light has remained vivid in my imagination for seventy years.
One afternoon in that apartment I wore a little boy’s navy sailor suit and blew a boatswain’s whistle so shrilly my babysitting grandmother yanked it from my mouth and I never saw it again. In that same living room I often played with a large green metal car on the gray carpet. I can still feel the shape of my small hand on the top of that car. Twenty-five years later my first new car, a VW Beetle, was as close to that color as I could get.
The Penesnaks lived in the apartment above us. Helen was a lovely woman with gorgeous curvy legs and a voice full of laughter. Decades later I dated women with legs just like hers. Her husband, Clyde, came to own a golf driving range at Harlem and Irving Park a few years later. I can still see the overhead lights of that range and my father hitting golf balls into the night sky. A few years later the driving range became one of the first shopping malls in the Midwest, the Harlem-Irving Plaza. There I took my first non-newspaper job selling Hardy Shoes when the Plaza opened in 1956. I shoved shoes on customers’ feet on the very land where a few years earlier my father had powered golf balls into a nighttime sky. Though I never saw the couple after I turned ten, I have often wished I had a picture of that young woman.
When I was four or five my parents moved two and a half blocks away to 3943 Marshfield. Though I have not been in that apartment in sixty-five years, I could walk you through it blindfolded. A bay window jutted out from the living room. Nights when my father was at work my mother often sat on a radiator in that bay watching the street turn dark, smoking one cigarette after another. My sister and I sat nearby watching her cigarette smoke curl up to the ceiling. Thirty-five years later my mother would die of severe emphysema.
On the north wall of that room, above the sofa, a large round mirror reflected the entranceway. One day when I was five or six, my mother ducked out to the grocery store leaving me home alone. Panic soon overwhelmed me. I was facing the mirror pulling on the shoulder straps of my beige corduroy overalls to go out searching for her–when over my shoulder I saw her coming in the front door. The terror of that “abandonment” has roiled my stomach on every long trip alone the rest of my life.
Early on summer mornings my father’s friends would pick him up for golf in that room. They would pile out of their car, troop through the entranceway and stand tall as gods above me in that room, their voices and bodies huge, their laughter loud. Then my father would pick up his clubs from the entrance hall, go with them out the door, pass under the bay window, and drive off into the sunlight. Thirty years ago I took up golf, in part because of the sunlight of those mornings and the godliness of those men.
That apartment was chock-full of things virtually no one under the age of sixty has seen. In the dining room an oil stove weighed the air of the whole apartment with a heavy oily odor. In the kitchen a real icebox was filled each week by a man lugging a huge block of ice by tongs over his shoulder. A pot-bellied stove squatted on another wall, its yellow fire gleaming through a small glass window. I sometimes spat on its flat top just to hear the spittle sizzle. But my favorite thing in that kitchen was a radio broadcasting the adventures of Our Gal Sunday (“Can a young girl from a small mining town in Colorado find happiness with rich Lord . . . ?”) and the wisdom of Ma Perkins.
Beside the kitchen was my parents’ bedroom, where I once witnessed my father suffer a horrible bout of flu. Off the dining room was the bedroom where my sister and I used to lie in the dark listening through a crack in the door to our parents and friends talk.
Out the kitchen door a wooden porch butted up against the alley. Over the railing I periodically watched in amazement as a wiry man sitting high atop a large horse-drawn cart came rolling through the alley crying out, “Rags o lion.” He was a fixture of the era, a junk man collecting rags and old iron.
On that same porch I once constructed an airplane out of scrap wood found in the alley. On those two boards nailed together in the shape of a cross I rode the heavens of my young imagination as richly as any child today shoots down enemies on video games.
Across the alley was a cinder lot just behind Uncle Louie’s tavern. Nights my father and friends sang barbershop harmony in that tavern, songs he also crooned in our apartment, mostly the Mills Brothers: “Lazy River,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Someday,” “I’ll Get By,” “Paper Doll,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love”–songs that still have the power to lift my young father’s face and voice before my eyes.
At the rear of Uncle Louie’s was a dilapidated shack with missing boards that revealed a horizontal two-by-four four feet off the ground. On it a friend and I used to place empty bottles—wine, whiskey, beer, milk, whatever littered the empty lot—and take turns throwing stones at them from the alley. Gallon milk bottles sounded the sweetest when they broke: a deep hollow POK. No one ever stopped us. In families with little money, these bottles and stones were our most wonderful toys.
Above the Italian family who lived on the second floor was a dark, dusty attic jumbled with hundreds of stored objects, but only one claimed my attention: my grandfather’s cash register. A few years earlier, at sixty-three, he had collapsed of a heart attack outside his barbershop one morning. I have no memory of seeing him alive, and this was the only object of his I ever laid hands on. My sister and I used to bang its keys and watch large white shields with thick black numbers jump up in the register’s window. After I turned nine I never saw the register again.
By August 1949 my father had scrimped a down-payment on a house at 4111 McVickers, in the far west of the city. For $11,500 we now owned a house that had been cobbled together for four decades, one step at a time. The outside was sheathed in boring brown asphalt siding pretending to be bricks. The five-foot high basement forced everyone walking through it to adopt a permanent stoop. The center of the dining room floor, just above the basement’s support pillars, rose three inches higher than the periphery of the room. The garage at back was ready to topple.
Upstairs Gladys and Joe Sorci lived in a four-room rental apartment with their two young children. Gladys was a gorgeous woman who used to throw her week’s bedding laundry over the railing rather than carry it down to the basement. This practice irked my mother, but I think it was Gladys’ beauty that really enraged her. Joe was a vet who had lost a leg during the war. In visits to the apartment I sometimes saw his plastic leg leaning against a wall. A few years after we bought the house from them, he was arrested for selling horsemeat to butcher shops and passing it off as beef. When the news hit the front page of the Sun-Times, they quietly moved out, and a soft-spoken Latvian couple displaced by the war—D.P.s, we called them—moved in.
My father never stopped working on this house. Gravity and age relentlessly pulled at everything. To avoid filing for a permit (which in Chicago always meant paying off an inspector), my father and uncle tore down the garage and built a new one in a single weekend when no one from the city would be around to check. My father also built a rock garden in the back yard, rebuilt the front porch, and tiled the kitchen and bathroom, but the first thing he and my mother did in the sweltering heat of that first August was to steam layer after layer of old wallpaper off the walls of the living room and dining room. Through all the work my father did, I held the flashlight while he raged at whatever he could not tighten, loosen, fit, or make work. I quaked at every rage, thinking it my fault. At thirteen I was forced to pitch in. All alone I scraped and painted the entire two-story rear porch, punishing labor that took most of that scorching summer.
For the first few winters a coal furnace heated the house, and my father rose early to shovel coal into it. Once or twice every winter coal men lugged bags of coal over their shoulders to a metal door in the side of our house, their faces and clothes encased in coal dust, only the whites of their eyes shining from their shrouds. After a few years we switched to an oil furnace. In a small corner of the basement my father built a workroom and workbench. A few feet away my mother did laundry in a round tub with ringers at the top. In the dark of that basement we played hide-and-seek with only the furnace’s pilot light to guide us.
The house had only two tiny ill-situated bedrooms. The one off the living room belonged to our parents, while my sister and I shared the bedroom off the kitchen. When my sister turned eleven, my parents surrendered their bedroom to her and slept on a sleeper-sofa in the living room. It was an enormous sacrifice they made without complaint for the next four years.
The kitchen was small, plain, and strange. The refrigerator did not stand in the kitchen but at the back of the pantry: a Servel powered not by electricity but by gas. A porcelain pillar left over from the house’s origins in the beginning of the century held up the sink at one corner. Near the back door sat a mangle for ironing clothes, looking like a porcelain baby’s coffin placed on a chrome stand. On this mangle sat a large portable Zenith radio. Through its gold plastic grill one morning in January 1956, I heard Elvis’s voice for the first time in my life. I was wearing a pink shirt with a large roll collar, a black string tie, and black pegged pants with a blue suede belt and blue suede shoes the morning Elvis wailed “Heartbreak Hotel” into my ears.
The best thing about the house was that Chuck Cerniglia lived next door. Two years older than I, he was also much richer and cooler. He wore Levis while I wore Sears Roebuck cut-rate jeans; he wore white bucks and I the cheapest shoes in the store; he wore a tan suede jacket and I a shapeless thing from half-price Robert Hall. He owned not one but two electronic football games, a complete football outfit with pads and helmet, a pellet gun, and a .410 shotgun. His knotty pine TV room and finished basement were the envy of the neighborhood. I could only long for such things. When he was eighteen his parents bought him a brand-new all-white ‘57 Chevy convertible with a 270 h.p. engine, 4-barrel carb, dual exhausts, and fender skirts. It was the coolest thing in the world, and all I could do was look on in awe.
From the time I was nine till I was thirteen, Chuck was my best friend and mentor; for those four years I felt blessed beyond measure. But when we were fifteen and thirteen, he discovered girls, cars, parties, and cool friends his own age at his expensive high school. We were never close again, merely waving faint hellos at a distance for the next four years. In memory I still stand on the sidewalk in front of his house, looking in the basement windows at the boy-girl parties I ached to be a part of but never was.
Just as I was in the home stretch of my junior year, about to turn seventeen, we moved four blocks away to a small boxy Georgian at the corner of Mobile and Berteau. Though I could not know it at the time, the rest of my life would be shaped in this house. It was here my father coerced me into working for six years in the same printing plant as he. It was here I finally faced him down after years in the printing plant and told him that I would be going to college. It was here I decided on English as my major. Here I decided to become a college teacher. Here I met the woman who would become my wife and with whom I would have the three sons who have been at the center of my life for more than forty years. Here I received the teaching assistantship that launched me on my career as a college teacher. Without my knowing it, this plain boxy house became the crucible in which my adult life was shaped.
The room to which I was and still am most attached was my small bedroom on the second floor. On sunny days two windows let in brilliant cheering light. Every spring an apple tree blossomed just outside the east window. Those pink and white blossoms pressing against the window on sunny May mornings and afternoons are among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Inside the room the most treasured thing was a cheap brass-wire bookcase beside my bed, for it was on those thin wires that I began collecting the books that have stirred and shaped and blessed the rest of my life. They were only cheap paperbacks, but they set me on the course of my life as a reader, writer, and teacher, but most of all as someone who for half a century has thrilled to the pleasure and meaning of the written word.
On the top shelf of wires I also placed a reel-to-reel Silvertone tape recorder on which I recorded songs tangled up with the first girl I ever dated seriously and to whom I lost my heart before I knew I had a heart to lose. Her name was Sharon Evans, and she lived in a distant suburb to which I traveled every chance I got, until a year into our relationship her mother decided I was not right for Sharon and banned me from the house. After that, I could only sneak visits to her for a few minutes once a week while she was working in a drug store. In the only photo I have of her—a tiny thing smaller than my thumb—she is leaning forward, laughing, a boy’s arm around her shoulder. She cut the boy out of the picture before she gave it to me, but I have never looked at that picture without seeing his curled fingers around her right shoulder. The song I listened to over and over each night on that tape recorder was the Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue.” Fifty-six years later that song still brings back that bedroom, that brass-wire bookcase, that recorder, that girl, and that lonely time in my life.
In the summer of 1960 my pining ended when I met an enchanting girl named Mary Lee Chval. She was car hopping at a Dog ‘n’ Suds for the summer. It was half way between her parents’ summer home and the dusty-pink Masonite trailer my parents called a summer home. We dated half a dozen times before she returned to her sorority house on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. I didn’t know I was in love with her until our last date that summer—dinner I could not afford at a fancy steak house—followed by a midnight dip in her lake. On the walk down to the lake I turned to look at her, and by the light of a full moon saw for the first time that she was not just a swell girl, but that she was also radiantly beautiful. We walked into the lake up to our waists and stood facing each other holding hands. For a few minutes we made the kind of nervous small talk young people make when they don’t yet know how to talk with each other. Then across the lake from a radio or phonograph came Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” traveling the same path as the moonlight on the water right up to our waists.
I was utterly in love. We exchanged a letter or two that September, and then late one afternoon when I arrived home from work, my mother put a small blue envelope scented with Chanel No. 5 into my hands. I took it up to my bedroom, sat on the edge of my bed, and opened it with the nervous care of an eye surgeon, the same care I gave to all her letters. She was inviting me to come down for homecoming. I can still see that blue letter in my hands lit by the brilliant late-afternoon light from the south window and smell the Chanel on its pages. I bought new clothes, scrubbed the printer’s ink from my hands and nails, and drove down for homecoming.
At dusk on an October Friday I cruised into the fairy tale world of sororities and fraternities all decked out for homecoming. Slowly I rolled through wood smoke and enchantment. That weekend and the rest of our Jay Gatsby/Daisy Buchanan relationship are etched forever in my memory. The tape recorder on the brass-wire bookcase in my bedroom now repeatedly played “Theme from a Summer Place.” Fifty-five years later I cannot hear that song without remembering that summer, that weekend, that girl, and that letter read by the late afternoon light from the south window of my bedroom.
Four years after I met Mary Lee I met the woman who would become my wife. We, too, met in late summer and soon “Strangers in the Night” and “Summer Wind” were on the recorder. Two years after we met, we married in the summer of 1966. I dressed for the wedding in that bedroom. The night before our wedding was the last time I ever slept in that house.
The only other room in the house to which I have a special attachment is the kitchen. It was under a fluorescent light in that room in 1958 that my father informed me that my wish to go to college after high school would not come to pass, that instead I would be going to work in the same printing plant he worked in. And it was under the same light five years later that I told him I would no longer continue working in the printing plant but would, after all, be going to college. Under the light of that kitchen I made the most important decision of my life.
Thomas Wolfe tells us we can’t go home again. Thirty-two years after I lived at Southport and Irving and twenty-seven years after we moved out of Marshfield, I began teaching a mile away at Truman College. Occasionally I drove past these former homes. Over the last forty years I have never passed them without slowing down, looking, and remembering.
Once I poked my head in the entrance hall of the Southport building and smelled the same stale odor I remembered from when we lived there. It was the odor of every low-rent apartment entrance hall I have ever been in. The tiny white tiles on the floor were dirty; the paint on the walls tired and dull. I wanted to go into an apartment, but which one had been ours? And how would I gain entrance? Tell them I was the ghost of times past? Besides, I knew I’d be disappointed. It wouldn’t be our apartment; it would be someone else’s twenty times over–someone down on his or her luck, for the neighborhood had been seedy for many years. Old newspapers blew in the wind outside and the windows hadn’t been washed in ages.
Several times I walked the streets around the Marshfield flat. At the other end of the block from our house still stood the beige-shingled protestant church with the same iron-pipe railings leading up the stairs. The houses in between were still the same, but now they were fancied up and strange to my adult eyes. I felt like I was walking through a dream and yet not a dream. Déjà-vu and not déjà-vu. Uncle Louie’s had long ago become Biasetti’s Restaurant. Two blocks west on Irving, Manz Corporation, the first printing plant my father worked in—not the one I worked in with him—had closed its doors decades earlier and was now a sparkling clean business without the smell of printer’s ink. All the storefronts on Irving and Ashland had changed to something else. Gone was Knopf Bakery, where my mother had briefly worked. Gone the dark brooding drug store run by the parents of my childhood friends, the Klein Brothers. Gone the National Tea Store with its prominent green and gold sign. The only place on Irving that remained the same was the diner across the street from Uncle Louie’s. It was still a genuine diner, one of only three or four in a city of nearly three million inhabitants. It alone remained exactly the same as sixty years earlier, with the same gray countertop, the same greasy chrome stools and stainless steel walls, and even a tired-looking man in a white paper wedge cap behind the counter.
I wanted to walk the few steps from the diner to my old house, knock on the door and say, “I used to live here. Would you mind if I walked through?” But who would let me in, and what would I find?
I not only walked the McVickers block several times over the decades, but seven years ago gained admittance to the house itself for the first time in more than half a century. It was up for sale and the listing agent, thinking I was a prospective buyer, took me through. The tired brown asphalt shingles had been replaced by dismal gray asphalt shingles. The front porch my father reconstructed had now become part of the living room. The rare built-in oak hutch that took up most of a dining room wall was now a gaping recess with a sagging sofa sitting in it. I opened the closet door in my tiny bedroom to discover a narrow wall inside the closet had been knocked down, revealing a stairwell to the second floor that had been hidden all the years I lived in that room. The apartment on the second floor was entirely gone. Nothing but unpainted rafters and subflooring remained. No plumbing. No kitchen. No heat. Just a bare dark attic. In my father’s basement workroom the workbench he built and covered with a zinc printing plate still stood there. I wanted to pull a corner of the plate loose from the bench, turn it over to see the images and figure out the job it had once printed. The roof beam of the garage that my father and uncle constructed in a weekend sagged a foot in the center, and when I pushed on one of the walls it moved. A fullback hitting any wall would have toppled the entire structure. The rock garden my father had built flagstone by flagstone no longer existed. The white wire fence across which Chuck and I planned our adventures and over which I used to watch his mother hanging laundry on sunny summer days had been replaced by a low dull-gray cyclone fence. A Mexican family with shaky English now lived in the house where the richest family in the neighborhood had once lived. In front of what had been the Lohrmann’s house two doors north, an old man from Poland shuffled back and forth. He was wary, spoke no English, and seemed to have nothing else to do with his time.
Some years earlier I had also gone through the last house I lived in as a boy and a young man, the house that had become the crucible of my being. On a whim one day while passing through the neighborhood I knocked on the door at Berteau and Mobile. The woman who answered the door had recently lost her husband after a long illness and possibly for that reason understood my visit to the past. I was struck by how small and cracker-box everything felt. Her husband’s crank-up hospital bed covered with white sheets was still sitting in the middle of the living room making the rest of the room feel not much bigger than a large closet. How did we live in such a tiny place? I wondered. The dining room and kitchen looked smaller and flimsier than I remembered. How could this kitchen in which my father had sealed my future for five years and in which I unlocked my future at the end of those years be so small and insubstantial? It seemed I could push the walls down with my bare hands. My bedroom had always been small, and I asked if the apple blossoms still pressed against the east window in May. No, the woman said, there were no more blooms. There wasn’t even a tree anymore. She planned to sell soon and start a new life.
William Faulkner was right: the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. Thomas Wolfe was also right: you can’t go home again. You can visit the physical place you once called home, but it is no longer yours. It belongs to someone else now, and in a little while it will belong yet again to someone else and in a little more time to someone else. The only home you can go back to is the one in your memory. Only there does a beautiful woman with shapely young legs and a voice full of laughter live upstairs. Only there does a mirror reflect a missing mother coming in the door. Only there is Elvis still wailing “Heartbreak Hotel” to a boy in a pink shirt and string tie. Only there do the Fleetwoods still sing “Mr. Blue” over and over night after night into a dark bedroom. Only there is a twenty-year-old boy still sitting on a bed reading a scented blue letter by the brilliant light from a south window late on an autumn afternoon. Only there is a young man putting on a morning coat in the blazing sunlight of his wedding day to begin the rest of his life.