Life is a highway

I have a love/hate relationship with surprises. It’s simple – I love being the surpriser and hate being the surprisee. I mean I do love little surprises – like when my dear wife comes home with a case of my favorite wine or a friend sends me a card in the mail when it’s not my birthday. I’m just not a fan of the big surprises – like a party where you never really are surprised, but you have to act like it to make sure everyone else is happy. That is no fun, but I’m all in as the surprise generator and I orchestrated a really good one for my sister over Labor Day weekend.

Sisters. Everything.

My sister lives in California but has been on the east coast for business and was visiting her dearest friend from high school – Paige – who lives in Waynesboro, Virginia. We grew up in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg – God’s country as my father was fond of saying – so Waynesboro is close to home for us. Paige and my sister have an extraordinary friendship dating back to the 8th grade. I hope to write about it some day in a book – yes, it’s that rich. They will both turn 60 next year, but when they get together, they’re like two teenagers and I was excited to crash their slumber party for one night. Bonus – Paige’s party mix is legendary.

Like the back of my hand…

The drive to Waynesboro up U.S. 29N through Virginia is the MapQuest of my life. I have made that drive at least 200 times since I moved to North Carolina in 1995. It was the route I took to visit my parents until they died in 2002. And during that darkest of years as they both succumbed to cancer, I was on autopilot, making that trek on an almost weekly basis. I was a little apprehensive that the drive might stir up some painful memories of that time, but instead, my trip was a comforting collage of many of the best times of my life – trips home for Christmas with my former partner, the car loaded with presents, goodies, and giddy anticipation; drives past miles of burnt sienna colored trees to Charlottesville to meet my folks and my dear friend Chris for a UVA football game; day trips to Lynchburg to visit my favorite aunt who always called me “Love” and made me feel cherished. This was a solo trip, but my car was filled with loved ones past and present.

My lucky number

My mind was so full on the trip up that I sometimes forgot that I was driving. Not in a dangerous way – more like when you enter a drive-thru carwash and slowly pull into the grooves of the tracks and shift your car into neutral and take your foot off the brake. There’s that sudden lurch forward, but then the car is driving itself and you simply let go, knowing that you are safe as you are mesmerized by the spray of changing colors. That’s what Route 29 feels like to me. I was being gently pulled forward in a cocoon of gauze filtered memories.

The Gospel according to Anne

As if the drive wasn’t already delicious enough, I treated myself to a free Audible trial and listened to a book by Anne Lamott – Almost Everything, Notes on Hope. Lamott is, of course, a wonderful writer and I love to hear her read her own work. It’s like sitting over a cup of coffee with her at the kitchen table. Neither one of us is in a hurry and I feel like she’s speaking directly to me – sometimes a little too directly. She often writes about family – a subject I find heartbreakingly fascinating. Lamott says that “family has to be a cauldron of challenges and loss or we couldn’t grow.” Yep. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time stooped over that cauldron since my parents died – endlessly stirring lamentations and disappointments. I’m tired.

Me with my BFF Anne Lamott in 2016

Lamott shares a story about an uncle that she had a huge row with many years ago – while she was still drinking. A few years after getting sober, she offered an apology to the uncle and he reluctantly accepted. They remained distant and life went on and they both got older and he moved into assisted living. She visits him often now and says that she will miss him when he dies. Lamott explains that our old identities within our families keep us small and that our work, and it is hard work, is to forgive ourselves and our families. For years, my role in my family was that of the dutiful oldest child – a role Lamott describes as “code for filled with rage” – that made me laugh out loud. I was damn good at that job, but when my parents died seven months apart from each other, my identity was obliterated. I desperately clung to a role that no longer existed and set myself up for years of disappointment with unrealistic expectations of others. Lamott describes these expectations as “resentments under construction.” See? She was totally speaking to me.

I could not bear the idea that my perfect family no longer existed. Of course, it never existed – no family is perfect. Lamott says that this journey we call life is mostly about reunion. And she ends the chapter on family with four words that made me almost stop the car – “Don’t bank on never.” These words were a hopeful balm to me as I motored down memory lane.

I thought about a couple of interactions I had had on my birthday last week with two people I hold very dear. We’ve been estranged for many reasons – some quite valid, some tethered to those old identities. Whatever the reasons – the connection with those people gave me a bit of the peace I have been longing for. I felt hopeful that there might be more.

So, I made it to Waynesboro and surprised my sister and Paige – a good surprise I think – at least they made me feel like it was. And we laughed and laughed and shared old stories and inside jokes – the kind of things that families do when they get together. We cried a little, too, when we remembered those no longer with us and some of the hard things we had all been through. When I went to bed that night, my body was tired from holding so much joy. I want more of that tired, please – the restorative tired that connection and reunion bring.

Sunny surprises

My drive home the next afternoon was lovely. I stopped at the scenic overlook on top of Skyline Drive and stood in the breeze for a good while looking down on the beauty below. There was a family picnicking nearby – just as my family had done many times over the years. They were happy and laughing and I wondered how things get so achingly complicated when it comes to family.

And then I heard dear Anne’s wise voice again – “Don’t bank on never.” And I got back in my car heading towards Route 29 because somehow, that road always leads me home.

No matter where I live, I will aways be a Virginian.

The missing years

My dad passed away peacefully on a beautiful Sunday morning 20 years ago today. These deathiversaries – as I am wont to call them – have become sacred days on my calendar and I try to celebrate my father in a special way. He loved being outdoors, so you’ll most often find me on a long walk or a stroll in some gardens. And I find myself almost always happy. That was one of my father’s most indelible traits – he was an eternal optimist. Damn him. It’s a tough act to follow for sure.

Twenty years is a big one to wrap my head around – so I did some math. That’s funny because I’m not good at math but I did figure out that I have now lived 31% of my life without my father. That’s almost a third of my life – you can check my work on that. I’m not sure why I did that because it certainly didn’t comfort me. I guess this is just my convoluted way of telling you that I have lived a long time without my father.

Same.

Lately, I’ve been imagining a conversation with him – probably over a Coors Light – his beer of choice. I would give him a recap of some of the highlights of the past two decades. (There are a lot of ways to measure 20 years.) Without a doubt, the very first thing that I would tell him is that his beloved University of Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA National Championship in basketball in 2019. Nothing on this earth would have made him happier. Nothing. My father loved sports – as a participant and a fan. More importantly – to me at least – he was a good sport, too. He was a humble winner – although his teams didn’t do a lot of that – and he was the rarest of men – a gracious loser. No one was louder than him watching a game – well, maybe me and my sister. We inherited his sonic capacity for yelling. I don’t use that voice very often anymore – it terrifies my cat and makes my dear wife question her choices in life. Dad was always in it to win it, but was amiable in defeat and would optimistically lament, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Here’s an ironic sidebar. That magical night UVA captured the national championship, I watched the game alone in my condo silently while said dear wife was sleeping. You see, she cares less about sports than anyone I’ve ever known. It is one of her few flaws and I have learned to live with it. Let me remind you that that game went into overtime. Silent overtime. Granted, I was ferociously texting with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris in Charlottesville – but I didn’t make a peep. That said, I’m fairly certain that I damaged some internal organs by keeping all of that emotion inside. When the game was over and UVA had finally won THE BIG ONE, I wept with unbridled, albeit hushed joy. And I swear I could smell my father’s cologne. He was right there beside me. He still is in so many ways.

Rarer than a Bigfoot sighting – my dear wife enthusiastically cheering at a football game. (Probably because it was over.)

I would also tell my dad about the lore of the Bubba lucky charm. He had season tickets to UVA football games – no doubt where he honed his good loser skills. After he died, I kept the tickets for a few seasons. They were great seats, and it was nice to get together with Chris in Charlottesville on sun dappled fall afternoons. I don’t recall exactly how it began, but we invented a good luck ritual to use during games – the Lucky Bubba. My niece and nephew called my father Papa Bubba, and it became an endearing nickname that we all used. Chris and I decided that during each game we would be allowed three “Bubbas” to use when we needed something good to happen for UVA. We took this lark quite seriously and used our three lucky charms strategically. Sure, more often than not, UVA would still lose the game, but the Bubbas worked enough times to keep us engaged. And when a Bubba brought us to victory – well, that was the best. We still rely on Dad’s lucky charm – mostly by text. Laugh if you will, but we’ll always have that 2019 national championship.

Me (quietly) celebrating UVA’s Natty with my dad. And yes, those are of tears of joy.

I would most certainly tell my dad that I got married – real married. A lot can happen in 20 years. He would be pleased that I married a woman who shares his very best qualities. My wife is also an optimist and like my father, wakes up cheerful every morning. And like him, she is tall. My father regarded height as a virtue. He was 6’4’’ so I guess he did have a particular perspective on the subject. My wife also shares my father’s reverence for nature – particularly flowers. He had a green thumb and grew the most beautiful roses. He loved caring for them, and I can still picture his long frame bent over pruning his beauties on a hot day.

My dad was an everything’s coming up roses kind of guy, so it makes sense he had such a way with them.

I don’t know if I would tell Dad about the pandemic, but I have often thought that he would have done well with it. My dad was a resolute handwasher. He grew up dirt poor on a farm with no indoor plumbing, but I guess my grandmother instilled the importance of proper handwashing in him. He had big hands to match that tall frame and when he would come in from working in the yard, his first stop was always the kitchen sink to wash his hands. His hands were graceful, and he was never in a hurry as he scrubbed them. He was almost prayerful about it – as if he were giving thanks for the beauty of the earth and the soil between his fingers. I can just think of him washing his hands and feel peaceful.

The lucky truth is that I have a conversation with my father almost every day. These chats can run the gamut from fuchsias to flounder to Tony Soprano. My dad is in so many of the things that I love, too, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. I don’t have to search for a connection to him – it runs deep inside me. No, I’m not the eternal optimist he was, but I am more often hopeful than not, and I think he had something to do with that. And Lord knows, I’m a good loser and I have found this to be an invaluable gift in this life.

My father had a mantra long before mantras were fashionable. He would tell us, “Only cry in victory, never in defeat.” As I kid, I thought he was talking about sports. Turns out it can be applied to all sorts of situations and his words have been a compass for me these past 20 years. And that is why should any of my tears fall today, they will gently land on the corners of a smile.

Thanks, Bubba.

I keep this photo on the bookshelf in my office. It is the essence of my father – outdoors, shirt off, cold beer in his hand and a smile on this face. Cheers, Dad! And keep those Bubbas coming – we need them in all sorts of ways.

The myth of the ruby slippers

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors and a certified treasure to humanity, has some simple and direct advice when it comes to writing. It goes like this: “Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”

I’ve been writing – or pretending to write – this blog post for months and it’s high time I got my butt back in the chair, although it’s not always a bad thing to let a piece of writing sit for a bit. I’ve found it often marinates into something richer than it might have been. I guess it could also grow mold, but I’m hoping that’s not the case with this post.

My original piece was going to be a reflection on my summer sabbatical in California and the importance of place in my life. For some reason I stopped working on it in early November and well, somehow the daffodils are now in bloom. To be honest, I know the some reason was that the holiday season is a roller coaster of emotions for me (and a bazillion other people).

Me as soon as I see the first Lexus Christmas commercial.

A typical day for me during that time from Thanksgiving to Christmas is not unlike a NC weather forecast – sunny skies early, thunderstorms in the afternoon, some containing hail and heavy winds, followed by partial clearing. In short, I’m all over the place – which is where this post originated – place.

When I returned from my summer (a civilized no humidity summer) in California, I began thinking a lot about Dorothy – yeah, that young girl from Kansas. Or was it Missouri? How was she so very certain that there’s no place like home? Maybe it was those ruby slippers that fortified her resolve. Me? I’m more of an Allbirds kind of girl and when I bump my rubber heels together, well, there’s no magic.

Don’t get me wrong – I was delighted to be back with my dear wife, but it hit me when my return flight approached PTI that my connection to North Carolina becomes more tenuous each time I leave this state. It was dark as we made our descent and I could see the lights of familiar places, but I didn’t feel much different than when I landed in Atlanta on my layover. I realized that Winston Salem is a destination for me, but it doesn’t feel like home. It never has.

Home is not always in plane view.

I envied those passengers I heard talking about how good it was to be home and I tried to remember when I last had that feeling. It made me sad that I really had to think about it. I suppose I would have to go back several years ago to when my parents were still alive.

The truth is that I’ve always felt like an accidental tourist in North Carolina. I moved here in 1995 when my partner at the time was recruited for a good job opportunity. I was a Virginian for the first 39 years of my life, and I had always thought of myself as a southerner – until I arrived in the Old North State. I’ll never forget my first trip to the post office and after a brief conversation with the clerk behind the counter, he looked at me a bit suspiciously and said, “You’re not from around here.” Not a question. I felt like I was in one of those old Westerns and waited for him to say, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” He wasn’t unfriendly, but his statement surprised me and before I could respond, he asked if was from up north. I said, “Yes. Northern Virginia.” He nodded slowly and told me he thought I was from New York City. That’s exactly how he said – true story.

My first trip to a NC post office. He didn’t make my day.

That memory is harmlessly amusing and oddly affirming to me today as I ponder the nuances of home. NC is never going to be home to me no matter how long I live here. And that’s okay, because I figured out this summer that for some of us, home is more abstract than an address. Most often for me, it’s a state of mind – and heart.

I talked to Kelly, my hairdresser/therapist/dear friend about this recently. She’s married and has two young children and moved to this area in her late teens. I asked her what popped into her head when she thinks of the word home. She took her time answering and said, “Home is the place I feel most filled.” I think I startled her when I responded, quite enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, that’s it.” I’m so lucky that my hair stylist completes me.

For some of us, home is not an address or a house. It’s a space where we feel in harmony with the world. Maybe it’s not even a space – it can be a sound or a smell. The Episcopal church I grew up in had a musty woody smell when you entered the front door. I left the church for several decades as an adult and when I made my way back to a small church in Greensboro on Easter Sunday in 2007, that same smell engulfed me like a hug. I was home.

The red door of just about any Episcopal church feels like home to me. This one is All Saint’s in Greensboro, NC. Watercolor by Mike Tiddy.

And I suppose that my church here in Winston Salem is one of the physical spaces that feels most like home to me these days. And that was certainly the case this holiday season. Church was a sanctuary for me in all manner of ways.

My mother died almost twenty years ago, but I’m still stopped in my tracks when I smell Chanel No. 5. That was her perfume. The morning after she died, I walked into her closet just to breathe in that scent still lingering on some of her clothing. I felt comforted. I was home.

Tastes can feel like home, too. My father always made oyster stew for breakfast on Christmas morning. Hey, don’t judge, I’m from Virginia and we didn’t have Moravian sugar cake. The first Christmas without him, I steeled myself over the stove to try and replicate his no-recipe recipe. It must have been divine intervention, because I came pretty darn close. I remember taking a deep breath before that first taste and there it was – that familiar briny tang.

I spent some time in Charlottesville over New Year’s – a place I lived for over a decade. Several times during my stay, my heart felt full – most especially when I shared time with my friend of over three decades, Chris. She and her husband Ed live on a farm in Crozet, just outside of Charlottesville. The farm has long been the backdrop for all sorts of celebrations – including a memorable 4th of July when we almost burned the front yard down. Our bad – Ed did warn us that the grass was too dry for sparklers.

Friends since the first Reagan administration. Hoping to live long enough to see a Democrat in the White House again.

Chris and Ed were both so dear to my parents – in life and death – and it is an abiding comfort to me to have such a rich history with them. Their house feels like home. And hugging Ed reminds me of being in my father’s arms – he’s a strong but kind man like my dad and he’s okay with me crying into his warm flannel shirt. And just like my dad, he is always so happy to see me. He greeted me this time with perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. “Addy, you know we just sort of set our watches until the next time we see you.” I mean, who says that? Ed does. And then I cry.

Me after hugging Ed.

I often feel at home in nature and what a glorious gift that is. I’ve always enjoyed walking, but after the apocalypse of November 8, 2016, walking became a spiritual practice for me. Yes, it’s good exercise, but it also gets me away from the turmoil of our BREAKING NEWS world. There are just so many screaming words flying back and forth, and I for one would much rather hear the tweet of a bird over one from a president.

Budding blooms > Breaking news.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that for me, home will probably always be a moving target, a fleeting yet often visceral moment. On my best days, there are several moments when I feel at home and as Kelly said, I am filled in glorious ways.

Mary Oliver, the beloved goddess of poetry who passed away last year, exquisitely captures the feeling of home in the poem below. I read it at my best friend’s wedding several years ago outside on a warm day in May while her dog barked. It was perfect.

Coming Home

by Mary Oliver

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place–
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

I’m glad Dorothy made it back to Kansas, but I’m going to just keep trying to enjoy the ride home wherever it takes me. You see, for some of us, there’s no home like place.

Chris and Ed make my heart feel home.
When a familiar view feels like home. Holidays up on the farm.

One shining moment

Final SI cover.JPG

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

I like to think I’m a deep, complicated person, but really there are just a few things you need to know about me to really know me. I love family, dolphins, Jesus, the Rockettes and sports. Not necessarily in that order. And before you haters get all judgy – and you know who you are, for me, sports and family have always been deeply intertwined. I’ll get into that later. Oh, and the other thing I love is being a Virginian. Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina since 1995, but I will always – always – be a Virginian.

virginia is for lovers

Home is where the heart is. For reals.

This revelation was never more apparent to me last week when the University of Virginia Cavaliers played Texas Tech in the finals of the NCAA basketball championship. ACC basketball is a religion if you live around Tobacco Road as I do and UNC, Duke, and NC State are the Holy Trinity. UVA is treated as that second cousin by marriage that you can’t quite remember how you’re related to.

I was born in Virginia and lived in several cities there for the first 39 years of my life, but none longer than the dozen years I lived in Charlottesville. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever live in a prettier place and it is not surprising that C-ville often pops up on lists of one of the best places to live in the US.

My father was a UVA alum and I grew up going to a lot of Cavalier basketball and football games with him. They lost a lot back then, but it never seemed to deter his enthusiasm for the ‘Hoos – the unofficial nickname for sports teams of the school. He would always say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda (his nickname for me).” Most times, next time took years.

Dad had great seats for UVA basketball – on the floor a few rows back from the team. You could hear the squeaking of the players’ sneakers and the coaches yelling at the refs. As a kid it was all pretty exciting, especially the coaches cussing, and we enjoyed some glory years when NBA Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson led Virginia to two final four appearances.

When my dad passed away in 2002, UVA’s fight song was played on the church organ at his memorial service and his absence was a strong presence on Monday night as I settled in to watch the game. I could almost feel him next to me on the couch. Our father/daughter bonding was mostly done over watching games and I’m so grateful that I inherited his passion and appreciation for sports. Sadly, my dear wife cares less about sports than anyone I have ever known, and she went to bed before tip-off. I was left to virtual watch with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris who lives in Crozet – a charming little town just outside of Charlottesville.

UVA led for most of the game but lost a 10-point lead late. That’s when I grabbed a

MC text

How my sister “watched” the game.

picture of my dad off my bookcase and held it the rest of the game. Laugh if you must, but I don’t think I would have made it through those excruciating last minutes (including an overtime, are you kidding me?!) without him. My sister had stopped watching on TV late in the first half – she couldn’t take the tension and relied on me for text updates. I felt like an old-time Western Union operator sending telegrams. UVA is up by two. Stop. Texas Tech just hit a three. Stop. I’m having a heart attack. Stop.

As victory seemed so secure that even UVA couldn’t blow it, I texted her to turn the TV back on so that she could bask in the victory. When it was over – really over and we had won – I called her and we both sobbed. No words. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life. Oh, and just to be clear –sure, I was thrilled that UVA won, but those tears weren’t for a basketball game. No, they were for my dad. I got to witness one of my father’s wildest dreams come true and that, my friends, truly was priceless.

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My Instagram post after UVA won. And, yes, those are tears in my eyes.

That night – actually, the next day – when I finally got into bed at 2:00 AM, a montage of all the games I’d seen with my dad went through my head. I’m sure I smiled the whole night through and I wasn’t even tired when the alarm went off at 6:00 AM. And the first thing my wife said to me was, “Well, I guess your team won.” Bless her heart.

Yes, “my” team won, but it was so much bigger than that. Charlottesville won. Ever since the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017 when self-proclaimed members of the alt-right and white nationalists marched to promote white supremacism, Charlottesville has been identified with harrowing images of hate. None of us who love Charlottesville will ever forget those images – angry white men marching with tiki torches  on UVA’s main quadrangle and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” We were completely gutted.

White-Nationalist-Rally-Charlottesville

Get off my lawn. Seriously.

That’s why a basketball game felt so important. It provided some healing, if just for a few hours, for a community that really needed it -in the transcendent way that few other experiences can. Chris texted me a few days after the game – she had been down to the notorious Corner – a seven block area of bars, restaurants and shops that serves as the hub of UVA social life. It is the home of Mincer’s, a fourth-generation family owned business selling UVA merchandise since 1948. Mincer’s was where most of my dad’s Christmas presents came from every year, because one really can’t have too many UVA coffee mugs.

christmas dad

Dad’s Christmas haul always included lots of UVA merch.

Chris had gone to get her championship T-shirt – the exact same one that the team wore after their victory. She has lived in Charlottesville for over 40 years and those events almost two summers ago wounded her deeply. She texted me an adorable picture of herself in her shirt, and wrote, “It was so cool to see so many people, townspeople mostly, not students, so excited to be buying shirts – young, old, black, white. This is the Charlottesville I know and love.”

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Winning fits Chris to a tee. We have been through a lot of losses together – in all manner of ways.

I am far from naive. I know a basketball game can’t resurrect Heather Hyer, the young woman fatally run over on the Downtown Mall while peacefully protesting the Unite the Right rally, or erase the years of bitter racial conflict surrounding Mr. Jefferson’s University that was built by slaves. As UVA Associate Professor Lisa Woolfork reflected in an op-ed piece for CNN, “They are NCAA champions. They are students who worked diligently in their courses and on the court. They are not hand sanitizer. Their accomplishments should not be used to conveniently expunge traumatic racist history or clean the reputation of this city.”

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I made a somber visit to Charlottesville a few weeks after the Unite the Right rally.

She’s right. We all love a happy ending and often gloss over the ugly origin while skipping through the agonizing middle, but there can be no shortcuts on the road to redemption. And it can never be a tidy process. We must continue the difficult conversations and we are compelled to sit with discomfort. Our country is deeply broken, and no sporting event on earth can eradicate the deep and painful scars of the past, but for one shining moment in April, Charlottesville felt whole again.

And I was home.

scott statdium

A community celebrates a championship…

cville strong

and the journey to redemption for this city I love continues.

 

 

 

The long road home

woodlawn

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.

SNEAKING UP ON PHYLLIS AND TOM

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.