The long road home

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Woodlawn.  Photo courtesy of Tom Glass.

Home has been a moving target for me for a long time now – 15 years to be exact. That’s when both of my parents died and grief ran me into a ditch.  Years later, my emotional GPS has been searching for an alternate route home. It’s a bit like that ring toss game at the carnival. Sometimes I get tantalizingly close to it, but I can never quite snag it. But just like that silly game, I always want another chance even though I know it’s most likely rigged.

Well, last weekend I landed the ring. I found home for a few days in a 220-year-old house in the tiny town of Flint Hill, Virginia. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley so I suppose it makes sense that the road home would lead there. The five-hour drive from Winston-Salem to Flint Hill is literally a map of my life – Route 29 North through Lynchburg, where both of my parents were born and raised, on through Charlottesville, where I lived for over a dozen years and spent some of the happiest times of my life.

I know that stretch of road like the back of my own hand – every wrinkle, every vein, every scar. I’ve traveled that highway my entire life and there’s a point shortly after you pass through Madison Heights on the way to Charlottesville that you come over the crest of a small hill and get your first full on view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My heart has always skipped a bit when I get to this spot. Those majestic mountains are in my DNA. “God’s country” as my Dad always said.

Remnants of Hurricane Harvey were chasing us on our drive up last Friday, so my mountains were cloaked in an eerie fog – but I knew they were there. They’ve always been there. This is the road home to me.

My dear wife and I have been spending Labor Day weekend with our friends Phyllis and Tom for the past several years at their country home in Rappahannock County. I met Phyllis 24 years ago when she was my boss at a national non-profit organization in Washington, DC. She was way way up in the management chain and I was a low-level development officer. And she was the most intimidating woman (or man for that matter) I had ever met. I was terrified of her and relieved our paths rarely crossed.

I laugh when I think about those days now. I was such a greenhorn and she was so polished in her tailored suits and high heels. I can’t really trace the timeline of how she became, outside of my mother, the most influential woman in my life. I know she was a mentor and a teacher and in many ways still is. Then somehow, after we both went on to different jobs, she became a dear friend and now is the closest thing I have to a parent – which is kind of funny since she is only seven years older than me. I can’t really explain it but I just know what it feels like. She is the person whose opinion matters most – the person I want to make proud of me – the person I go to for counsel – the person who believes in me unconditionally. I love her beyond measure – although, truthfully, she can still terrify me a little. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I guess I’m always a little fearful of disappointing her and that keeps me on my toes.

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Phyllis and me on my wedding day. I think she was almost as happy as me!

Phyllis married Tom six years ago at their country home, Woodlawn. He is adorable and brilliant – he’s a builder, a painter, a potter and a prolific – if sometimes meandering – story-teller. He is a perfect match for Phyllis and he makes her laugh on a very regular basis. This is a very good thing because Phyllis is a very serious person – that is unless she’s singing and dancing to some of her favorite tunes. She just gets shit done and the world is a better place because of it.

Tom originally discovered Woodlawn over a decade ago when it was a dilapidated abandoned structure in a field in Appomattox County, Virginia. The house was originally constructed in 1797 and Tom had it dismantled, every piece labeled like the biggest IKEA dresser ever, and moved 150 miles to Flint Hill where he lovingly and painstakingly restored it. It is simply amazing.  You can read about it here.

I’m always excited to visit Woodlawn but was even more so this time because my sister from California was back east for a couple of weeks and met us there. Unlike George Costanza, I actually like it when my worlds collide and I love that Phyllis and Tom and my sister have become such good friends. They even pulled off an international surprise together back in May when our trips to Amsterdam overlapped and they showed up at our hotel bar the first night of our journey. The real surprise was that my sister was able to keep a secret for more than an hour.

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Amsterdam. We’re going to go on EVERY vacation with Phyllis and Tom. (They just don’t know it yet.)

I could feel my heart swell as we turned on the long and dramatic approach to Woodlawn and glimpsed the most defining feature of the house – its double chimneys.  My sister met us at the top of the steps. She was, as always, dressed to the nines even though it was a Friday afternoon in the country. That girl’s got style for days. She always has. When she was 12, she memorized my mother’s credit card number for the local department store and used it – lying to the store clerk when they asked if she had her mother’s permission. I would have never been able to pull it off and I’ve often said that if I had half of her chutzpah, I could be anything I wanted to be.

She has a huge and demanding job running several breast cancer centers in Southern California and is constantly on one of her two (ugh) cell phones. She’s utterly glamorous and spends more on cosmetics in a year than I have in 60. We laugh at how very different we are in so many ways. And yet, we are as close as two sisters can be. I speak on the phone with her at least once a day and I was giddy to be in the same time zone – much less house – as her for a long weekend.

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Sisters are everything.

My parents always made coming home special. My dad would meet me at the front door – even in his later years when he was disabled and on a walker. And my mother would stock the kitchen with many of my favorite things. Phyllis does that, too – a case of sparkling water and several good bottles of big red wine. It’s no small thing to be known in these ways.

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Breakfast Souffle. Phyllis is the best cook I know. And I know some very good cooks.

But I really knew I was home later that evening when I went downstairs to the ground floor – the house has four floors – to get something. Sounds carry easily over Woodlawn’s ancient beams and boards and I could hear music playing and laughter and the voices of the people I love. I could hear the clanking of flatware as my sister set the table. It was the sound of family. It was the lyrical sound of the living. I stood very still and listened and let those sounds wash over me like a sacrament.

I was home.

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Window on Woodlawn.

We were bathed in the warmth of candlelight at dinner – my very favorite kind of dinner – long and leisurely where no one is looking at a phone or a watch or a stupid TV. Jesus, why don’t we do that more often? We all ate and drank too much, well, everyone but Phyllis – she has the discipline of a monk and the figure of Helen Mirren. Probably not a coincidence.

We slowly dropped one by one and said our good nights. I went downstairs again to my sister’s room – I could see from under the door that her light was still on. I gently opened the door to find her reading. I climbed into bed with her and I was 15 again and she was eight and we talked softly for what must have been a very long time before I kissed her goodnight. I climbed the stairs to the top floor and found my wife fast asleep with the lights on – she’d left them on for me. Most vampires get more sleep than me but that night, I slept in what must be what heavenly peace feels like.

There’s a special mojo in the air when you’re sleeping under a roof with people you love. It’s almost palpable. It’s like the best sound machine ever – so good you don’t even know it’s on. I was the first one up on Saturday – it was a deliciously cool and rainy day – the kind my sister and I both love. I tiptoed down the creaky staircase and went to sit on the back porch. That’s another ritual of home – the staggered pilgrimage to the kitchen as everyone awakens. I was lost in my thoughts when I heard a tap from the kitchen window – it was Phyllis – smiling and letting me know that the coffee was ready.

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A misty morning at Woodlawn.

I’ve watched enough Hallmark specials to know that a house does not make a home. It’s the people.

I’ve also spent years trying to fill the holes ripped in my soul from too many losses and too many disappointments. Last weekend, I was full in a way that I had not felt in a very long time. You know the feeling – when your heart feels too big for your chest – but not in a tight way. No, in a way that makes you feel whole.

A way that makes you know you are home.

 

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Family.

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SoCal state of mind

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Palm tree perfection.

I am having an affair. It has been going on for a while now. Rudy Giuliani says it’s okay because everybody does it but don’t worry – my dear wife is well aware of my transgressions. The object of my affections is long and tan and young and lovely. She is the state of California.

Our relationship began years ago – in the early 90’s when I made my first trip to the Golden State on business. I landed in San Diego and saw palm trees. California palm trees. I was smitten. It was all so exotic to a girl who had grown up in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

To me, Southern California is the cool kids with the cutest clothes – the ones you hope invite you to their party. SoCal knows it’s cool, too, but it’s very laid back about it all. It’s paradise with a youthful attitude and a side of caramelized brussels sprouts. And not everyone looks the same. It’s alive with energy and bursting with diversity and I absolutely love it.

And California is just too cool to care that folks on the east coast run that “left coast” moniker into the ground. Whatever, dudes.

My sister bears some of the blame for my SoCal lust. She married into California in 1993 – she met her husband when they were both working at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. He lived in a condo in Del Mar, a small beach city in San Diego County – a condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And by overlooking, I mean dangling. It is a breathtakingly dramatic view.

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THE view. Del Mar, CA.

I know what you’re thinking but she really did marry for love – not real estate. And she still has the husband – and the condo. He’s retired now and she’s working in Newport Beach so they see each other on weekends. It works for them. Some of my married friends think it’s the perfect scenario.

My sister picked me up at the airport that first visit and I can still remember my head spinning as we drove to Del Mar – the terra-cotta colored mountains in the distance and all those fabulous palm trees. And then she turned onto a steep hill leading straight down to the Pacific Ocean. I felt like we were driving into the ocean.

We had lunch on the patio of an oceanfront (understatement) restaurant. We shared a split of champagne and I was baptized in a mist of bubbles and ocean spray. It was love at first sight. I saved the cork from that bottle for years – somehow even then I knew I needed a talisman for that place and that feeling.

And then we went to her condo. On a clear day you can see, well, not forever, but Catalina for sure. I felt like I was in an episode of Santa Barbara, one of my favorite soap operas back in the day. The sun was shining, as it almost always is, but the air was light and cool. Del Mar had me at cool.

Del Mar will always have me for another reason, too. This is where we scattered my mother’s ashes a year after her death. Mom made Karen Walker from Will & Grace look outdoorsy. She just didn’t really see a compelling reason to be outside unless you were at an outdoor mall. But she loved everything about Del Mar – the climate, the flowers and best of all to her – the absence of any bugs. She always immensely enjoyed her visits to see my sister and her husband and I like to think she’s at peace in that beautiful spot.

I am in many ways my mother’s daughter and I have spent most of my adult life in a climate conundrum, too. You see, I love the ocean but I hate the heat and humidity of summer. In Southern California I have found the best of both worlds – with valet parking.

Last month, I spent two magical weeks with my sister in Newport Beach and since I’ve been home I’ve been suffering from SoCal Syndrome – a condition characterized by a general malaise and a craving for Cioppino and avocado toast. The only thing that seems to help curb the symptoms is a triple, venti, half sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato and some reruns of The O.C..

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It’s almost a straight shot from WS to NB.

This has led me to try to trace the roots of my obsession with a place 2,452 miles away from where I live. We have to go back – like the way, way back of my childhood. I can remember being mesmerized by the I Love Lucy episodes when the Ricardos and the Mertzes drove cross-country to California when Ricky got a part in a movie. There’s a great episode where Lucy spots William Holden at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and, of course, hijinks ensue.(I’ve waited a long time to use that delightful phrase.)

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Lucy loved SoCal, too.

Even in black and white, Southern California looked so glamorous to me and some of that was probably the Hollywood connection. My mother was a practical and frugal woman but she indulged in a few guilty pleasures – like magazines. She subscribed to most of the mom magazines of her generation –  Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal (yes, that’s the Can This Marriage Be Saved? one) but she also got two magazines that I became obsessed with – Modern Screen and Photoplay. Okay kids, gather around the campfire and I’ll tell you about the olden days before People and InStyle.

Modern Screen and Photoplay were fan magazines that featured photographs and interviews with movie stars. Both publications reached their heydays in the 1950’s but were still in circulation until the late 70’s. I could hardly contain myself when they arrived in the mail and I would steal away into my bedroom to pore over the photos of stars in their Malibu homes. Again, it all seemed so intoxicating to a dour teenager with acne and split-ends for days.

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Must see TV.

And I’ve always been drawn to all the TV shows set in Southern California – even if I had aged out of the target audience – Beverly Hills, 90210 (Kelly Taylor was my fav) and Melrose Place (mad crush on Jane Mancini) and then finally, The L Word, a show about my people – impossibly rich, beautiful and thin lesbians who never seem to work and have time to meet for coffee three times a day at The Planet. I loved the scenery – in all manner of ways.

Okay, I know life is not a TV show unless you are a Kardashian or a certain presidential candidate and that the air is always cooler somewhere else. The truth is, I probably couldn’t live in SoCal fulltime for the same reason my sister is always whining about – it’s too damn sunny. My sister, in addition to being a radiation therapist, is also an esthetician and the sun has always been, in her mind, The Evil Empire. She spends more on skin care in a year than I do on wine. That’s a lot of moisturizer, my friends. But she has radiant flawless skin to show for it.

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My sister wearing SPF 1000. She prefers to come out at night.

That said, she struggles mightily with shielding her undamaged skin from the constant beat down of the California sun. If you happened to run into her on the beach, you might think she was Amish or maybe a beekeeper.  That girl covers up.

Mornings are usually pretty safe in Newport Beach because there is often a marine layer that takes a few hours to burn off before the sun is on high. But my sister longs for a rainy day – even just an overcast one – and I understand. She misses the seasons and I know I would, too. Okay, not summer but most certainly fall and spring.

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You’ve got to enjoy the fog while you can.

I talked to her last night and she was lamenting about how all the grocery stores near her are teeming with pumpkins and gourds and the likes in an attempt to at least give an appearance of fall. cali-fall

The last morning of my latest visit, I got up early and drove down to Newport Beach Pier. I bought a coffee and walked out far enough to have a great view of the surfers. In my next life, I will surf. I can’t imagine that rush – of riding a wave on a sparkly SoCal morning. It was cool to see so many young women among all the dudes – and very cool to see a lot of not so young dudes out there, too.

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Best board meeting ever.

My dear wife has joked lately to friends that she fears I might leave her for California. She doesn’t have to worry about that – unless I hit that Mega Million Jackpot. Just kidding. I adore my wife but she has lived her entire life in North Carolina and is not a big fan of change. We’ll have to figure it out if we’re ever fortunate enough to retire.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep watching those KAYAK price alerts and hoping that objects in the mirror really are closer than they appear.

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I’ll be seeing you…

 

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My mistress.

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California dreaming for now.

 

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My sentiments exactly.

Mountain musings

  
The last morning of vacation always makes me sad. I’m never ready to go home. This is how I feel this morning sitting on the back porch, swaying back in forth in the wooden swing on our deck, spending the morning watching the fog and smokey-grey clouds drift and separate across the Blue Ridge Mountains. I want to wake up every morning like this. 
  
We are tucked away in the woods at an elevation of 4,000 feet. To get here we took a series of paved and gravel roads that seemed like they were leading to nowhere. I’ve never been this remote, so removed from the rest of the world. We’ve immersed ourselves in solitude and quiet, the only sounds being the wind moving the leaves of the trees, and the occasional woodpecker that swoops in and taps on a nearby tree. We turned on the television last night for about an hour and even the sound of it irritated me and disrupted my mountain vacation zen. We turned it off to walk down the gravel road to an open field where we watched the sunset.  

I wonder if I could get used to living somewhere like this with the nearest grocery store 45 minutes away. I guess I’d be trading convenience for peace and a spectacular view. It seems worth it to me. Yesterday I picked wildflowers along the side of our road and baked chocolate chip cookies while listening to a Mozart CD I found in the house. These are not things I normally do in my spare time back home. 
  
I’ve had fantasies here of becoming a novelist and spending my days going for walks in the woods and returning to my cabin to write a few pages. How awesome would that be? 

I feel grounded in the mountains; they’ve always had that effect on me. Maybe it’s because they remind me of home and why when I’m in their presence I feel a sense of longing. For what? Peace? Living somewhere that I truly love? Having that connection to place, nature, the land? Perhaps it’s all of those things.