About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.
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“Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”
Thatâ€™s what my grandmother would say every time we pulled into the little driveway on Housatonic Street next to the Hagyard Building. The driveway ended in a squat, yellow-brick garage. The garage is now an upscale-chocolate-and-fine-art store run by a retired National Geographic photographer. Back in the 70â€™s, though, it was just a garage. I donâ€™t remember ever parking the car in there.
Next to the driveway, facing Housatonic Street, was a narrow wooden door that led to the steep flight of steps up to my grandparentsâ€™ apartment on the second floor. When I talked to my father for the first time in 28 years, he told me that he remembered leaving my Christmas presents at the top of those stairs the year he and my mom split up. He said he sat in his car with an alarm clock to wake him so he could creep up the stairs, drop off the gifts and drive off.
My grandparents used to get a new car every two years, no matter what. They were fond of convertibles, although I came along after theyâ€™d traded in their final convertible. They drove Chevrolets, back when families were Ford Families or Chevy Families.
When I was a kid, my grandmother still drove. That seems almost surreal now, given that she stopped driving about 25 years ago. But I clearly remember her driving me around Lenox and Pittsfield. She worked as the receptionist in the beauty parlor in England Brothers, a department store on the main drag in Pittsfield. My grandmother was a snappy dresser â€“ never a hair out of place, always the right accessory. My cousinâ€™s wife, Karen, used to go with her mother when her mother would get her hair done at England Brothers. Karen said sheâ€™d sit in awe of my grandmother, wanting to be like the glamorous lady at the reception desk.
For most of my life, my grandmother has been sitting in an easy chair watching television. Itâ€™s almost hard to create a picture of what she was like years ago. Thereâ€™s the occasional black-and-white photo of my grandparents dressed to the nines, ready for a night on the town. There are stories of evening spent at the Crystal Ballroom dancing to Benny Goodman or the Dorsey Brothers or Duke Ellington. There were trips to Florida. Cruises in the Caribbean. Dinner with friends.
Then it all just went away. My grandparents withdrew into themselves, into the TV set, and into the little dramas that are the hallmark of small families. I wish Iâ€™d known them better when they were lively and fun and dancing.
No one in my family is quite sure what happened to them. Itâ€™s almost as if one day they had lives, and the next day they didnâ€™t. Maybe retirement caused them both to lose steam. Maybe they were never really that social, and they just forced themselves to conform. As far as I know, once they left Lenox they never looked back. They never contacted their Lenox friends again â€“ not even the Cronins, with whom theyâ€™d been extremely close. They just closed the door on that life and drove off to Plymouth, then Rochester, then Tucson, then back to the Rochester area again, part of a procession headed by one or the other of their daughters.