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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House fire

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The Downtown Mall in happier times.  Photo: visitcharlottesville.org

I have no memory of my first visit to Charlottesville. I was a baby in my mother’s arms. She would have been in Charlottesville visiting Aunt Lillian – her mother’s older sister. I would visit that home, near the Downtown Mall, many times as a child.

I grew up in Harrisonburg, VA, a small town about an hour from Charlottesville and travelling there always felt exciting – like going to a real city. There have been many trips to Charlottesville since that first one some 60 years ago, including a dozen years that I lived there beginning in the early 80’s. My father and my sister went to college there. My mother took her last breath in a hospital there. Charlottesville has always felt like a second home to me and what happened there on Saturday has broken me.

Disclaimer: This is not a political blog post. If you’ve followed me at all on any social media you most certainly are aware of my leanings. No, this is a personal post – more of a lamentation if you will. I am grieving another loss – the loss of what little innocence remained in my life. Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced a great deal of loss – my parents, my longtime partner, and a job I dearly loved – that’s just a bit of the inventory. I’ve become comfortable with loss. No, I don’t like it but it feels familiar to me.

When you suffer such loss, you tend to cling tighter to happier times – you grip those memories with white knuckles and you don’t let go because sometimes you feel like your life – or at least your sanity – depends on it. So over the years, my memories of Charlottesville have been a virtual safe house for me. It was a place I could go in my head to feel whole and happy again. I am either blessed or cursed with a wicked memory and I can see my times in Charlottesville like a movie I’ve watched a dozen times.

I can see my dad and me on a sun-dappled October afternoon in Scott Stadium watching UVA play football. I can hear him cheering – more like yelling – and I can feel his big bear hugs after a touchdown. UVA would more often lose than win but my father, ever the eternal optimist, would always put his arm around me as we walked out of the stadium and say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda.”

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Win or lose – a happy place for me and my dad.  Photo: virginiasports.com

I can see my mom at Mother’s Day brunch at the Omni Hotel, dressed so elegantly and relishing being the center of attention as she sipped – more like gulped – her champagne. Good Lord, my mother loved champagne. I can also see her take that last breath at Martha Jefferson Hospital on a blustery cold night in December. That may sound morbid to you, but I don’t intend it that way. My mother was in death as she was in life – a lady – and she exited with courage and grace and that moment is one that I will cherish until my last breath.

I can see my former partner and me at an apple festival. So many apple festivals! I’m not even that wild about apples but those festivals were such pure joy – folks out in sweaters and fleece enjoying the grand weather, eating apple everything, listening to bluegrass music. I wonder now what we possible could have worried about back then.

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A bushel of fun.  Photo: tripsavvy.com

I suppose it was a simpler time everywhere across our nation but Charlottesville is my personal frame of reference for a precious time of great contentment.

That was until Saturday. I don’t care to recap the horror that unfolded in downtown Charlottesville, not far from Aunt Lillian’s house. Heather Heyer, 32, is dead and several people are recovering from injuries. And a beautiful city has been terrorized.

I know what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday is way bigger and far more important than me. It happened to our whole country and the national grief is palpable. I feel it – you feel it. But my grief is also personal and I don’t know where to go with it.

My safe house has been burned to the ground.

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The end of the innocence.  Photo: nytimes.com

A work in progress

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That’s me partying like it’s 1957.

I’m turning 60 later this month. There, I said it.

I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, you don’t look it.”

Work with me here.

The ever wise and wicked funny Anne Lamott wrote a marvelous Facebook post last year about turning 61. She said she thought she was only 47 and then she checked the paperwork. I get it. I don’t know how I got here so fast.

Most folks have a bit of angst about such a milestone birthday and the universe has certainly conspired to humble me as I approach the Big One. Funny, I can remember when 40 was the Big One. At least I think I can remember.

Anyway, my year began with losing my job as the leader of a local AIDS service organization. Now that will do wonders for your self-esteem, especially if you are kicked to the curb as ungracefully as I was. After 11 years of heartfelt service, my office was packed up for me and delivered to my home in four FedEx boxes. Ouch.

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I’ve always favored thinking outside the box.

My dear wife has a charming saying she uses in delicate situations: “Now that will hurt your feelings.” That about covers it.

Along with my job, I also temporarily lost faith in what I always thought I knew about loyalty and integrity. That was a terribly distasteful feeling but I’m grateful for the many good and kind people who reached out to remind me that these virtues are still alive and well.

I’m not sure I ever thought much about turning 60 but when I did, I guess I assumed I’d be at the peak of my career, not starting a new one. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer. I was 26 before I got my ears pierced, 48 before I got my first tattoo (yes, I have more than one) and 57 before I was a bride. Oh, and I was in my mid-thirties before I came out. True story, but when I did come out, I came out loud and proud.

I guess you could say that I’m the slow and steady type and I think that served me well for a very long time but there’s no getting around the reality that I feel the meter running these days. I lost two friends in January – both to cancer – and one of them was only 54. And my oldest friend on earth – we met in the 4th grade – survived a brutal battle with Stage IV tongue cancer before she turned 60 in April.

You can eye-roll a cliché like “Life is not a dress rehearsal” but it’s true. It’s show time and I plan on making the most of my second act. And now that my bleak career midwinter is behind me, most days I’m very excited about what’s next and on my very best days, I’m even grateful for this opportunity to reinvent myself at such a seasoned age.

A handful of my friends have already retired or are counting down the days but an early retirement was never in the cards for me – not too many careers in non-profit afford you that luxury. And the truth is that I don’t want to retire. Maybe if I won the lottery (which I never play) I suppose I would not work and move to the coast of Maine where I would write the next great American novel. Okay, maybe I have thought about it a few times. (Note to self: Buy lottery ticket.)

One of my favorite books, which was turned into a surprisingly good movie, is The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. It’s about a rather sullen man who writes travel guides for reluctant business travelers. Imagine Rick Steves not enjoying travel and writing his guidebooks. It’s a delightful premise for a story.accidental tourist no 2

I think I’ve had an accidental career – actually a few of them – and while I very much enjoyed each of them, I’ve never been particularly strategic with my choices. My first career was in retail management as a buyer and then division manager for a department store chain. This was when the economy was booming and the mall was the hub of civilization. “Going to the mall” was pretty much a part of everyone’s weekend vernacular. Yes, kids, there really was a time when people shopped at the mall, in the dark ages before Amazon Prime.

I loved the energy of retail – every day was different. And I loved the seasons, most especially Christmas. You can’t be in retail and survive it if you don’t get excited about the holiday season. I especially enjoyed assisting the husbands who came in on Christmas Eve looking like a deer in the headlights. You could smell the fear – they needed a gift for their wife and the clock was ticking. They were easy prey for an overpriced sale. And they were clueless. Many of them didn’t even know what size their wife wore and they always asked with desperation, “She can exchange this if she doesn’t like it, right?”

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Retail could be a real circus during the holidays.

There are so many women out there who have me to thank for the upgrade on their Christmas gifts in the eighties. You’re welcome.

My two stores were in Charlottesville, VA – still the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived – and I got to know a lot of my customers personally. It may sound a little Lake Wobegonish but it felt really good when Mrs. Shifflett came in to buy a dress for her daughter’s wedding and asked me for help. (Oh, you cynics. I don’t eat meat, either, but I know a good burger when I see one.)

I feel like I got to work in the Golden Age of Retail and I was fortunate when the fall came to be able to transition to a new career in fundraising. A friend of mine from retail was working for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in Washington, DC and told me about a brand new position in planned giving. I had no idea what that even meant but I was lucky that their program was just getting off the ground and my track record as a good salesperson was enough to get me in the door.

To my utter amazement, I got the job and thoroughly enjoyed my eight years on staff there. PVA was the first time I was out at work and I was received incredibly warmly by the veterans’ community. Those guys loved me and I loved them back. God, they were funny and disarmingly optimistic. And they drank like the sailors many of them had been.

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Veterans Day, Arlington National Cemetery, circa 1996. So proud to be an American.

I learned so much –  about science and heart – getting to know so many wonderful people in the spinal cord injured community and I can tell you that not a day goes by that I don’t have a moment where I am intentionally grateful for my mobility. That was PVA’s gift to me.

Those good folks also kindled my patriotism in ways that have remained with me over the years. I think of my time there every Veterans Day – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

If my time at PVA taught me about sacrifice and courage, my time at my last job taught me a lot about stigma and poverty and how they are the natural enemies of HIV prevention. My position also gave me a front row seat to magnificent acts of generosity and compassion – some large ones that came with checks with lots of zeros and some small ones that came in cases of green beans from Costco. All of them mattered.

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Fighting the good fight at my last job.

It is an extraordinary thing to spend your work days with passionate people who share a vision and  my time there broke my heart wide open in remarkable ways that will inform the rest of my life. And it has ruined me for ever just working for a paycheck.

Nope, I need a side order of a mission statement, even if it’s just one of my own making.

The upside to a forced sabbatical has been the luxury of time to do a lot of pondering about my past and my future. I’ve thought a lot about my parents. Certainly losing them both just a few months apart from each other in my mid-forties was the watershed event of my life. Their deaths, or rather how I handled their deaths, changed the course of my life.

I came across a line in a book recently that stood me still. One of the characters, who has lost a son, explains that he and his wife will often not speak to each other for hours at a time because, “We’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” I know now that I tried to escape the deafening din of my own grief in destructive ways and it cost me a great deal. I deeply hurt a few of the people who I held most dear and that can never be undone. And, of course, I hurt myself in ways that only I can fully know.

This has led me to thinking a lot about regrets and for the record, I don’t really buy it when people say they don’t have any. It’s an arrogant reflection on life. I have 1,001 small ones – that I didn’t learn to play the piano, the tragic dress I wore to my senior prom (picture Laura Ingalls in polyester organza) and my early insistence that John Edwards was not a cheater.

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Me and my high school doppelgänger, 1973.

But it’s the big ones that I stumble through like thickets at 2:00 AM. I’m not ready for a full confession on those but I will say that I regret saying no more than I regret saying yes. I need to remember this.

I was actually feeling pretty good about myself at 60 until I listened to Bill Clinton’s 42 minute recitation of Hillary’s resume at the Democratic National Convention last week. As I brushed my teeth before going to bed that night, I was afraid to look in the mirror for fear of seeing the reflection of a sloth. Oh well, I still believe in a place called Hope.

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That’s me in the mirror. #ImWithHer

I’ll be in California for my actual birthday visiting my younger (damn her) sister. I couldn’t imagine not celebrating this birthday with her. I love her beyond measure and no one knows me as well and deeply as she does. We share an emotional GPS that alerts us when the other is off course in any way. It is an indomitable connection that has kept me tethered to this world in my darkest storms.

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Sisters, Sisters. There were never such devoted sisters.

My sister is known for her extravagance and I’m a little nervous about what she might pull out for this celebration. Sissy, if you’re reading this now, I was just kidding about the Tom Ford sunglasses. Sort of.

I didn’t want a big party. I never want a big party. And I most certainly NEVER want a surprise party. And so I will have a sushi (my fav) dinner out with my wife and my sister. The icing on my birthday cake is that my best friend from college will join us the weekend before my birthday for some revelry. She turned 60 in June and is anxious to have me join her in this new bracket so I’m approaching it like signing up for a very exclusive wine club.

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I’ve always preferred the more intimate dinner party.

She just sent me the loveliest email that might just be my wish when I blow out my candles. She wrote, “I’m hoping our time might have a magic slow quality to it.” I’m hoping the rest of my life has this quality.

It makes me happy when I just think about looking at those three beautiful faces all in one place for a few precious days.

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Me and my best friend from college before hair products were invented, circa 1981.

Sometimes I imagine a soundtrack for my life when I’m processing things in my head.Who needs Pokemon Go when you have an overactive imagination? Lately, I’ve been hearing this Iris Dement song – My Life.  

My life, it’s half the way traveled

And still I have not found my way out of this night

My life, it’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that just never turned out right 

But I gave joy to my mother and I made my lover smile

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting

And I can make it seem better for a while 

It is an achingly beautiful song and if you ask me, it’s a pretty damn good resume, too.

 

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I’m embracing 60 with joy.

 

(All photos property of Addison Ore)