Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Map of Our Lives

At my father's funeral, the local pharmacist, who had a soda counter where Dad went to eat strawberry sundaes to try to keep up his weight, to try to stay alive to see his fiftieth birthday, told me that the year I got my first bonus as an associate in an LA law firm was the year my dad knew he'd lost me. Until then, I guess he'd hoped I might come back to Nashville. He'd offered to buy me a house there before I left, offered me a junior membership in the country club where I grew up playing golf. But I couldn't wait to get out of there. Nashville was a small town. Everybody knew me and my family, or at least that's how it seemed to me. I wanted a little anonymity, a chance to figure out for myself who I was.

The cities where my children are. Or, "Why is this map smiling?"
Three years later, who I was was a son grieving for his father. His death didn't make me wish I'd not left--not then or even now, with the perspective of time--but it taught me something. Several things, really. For instance, I didn't realize until I heard it in the tone of my father's friend the pharmacist how much my father had wanted me to stay. He offered the inducements I mentioned, but he never really said it. Or maybe I just wasn't ready to hear it. We could have come back together in a few years (maybe I could have enticed him to come to LA), but I needed space first, and then he was gone.

Flash forward a few decades. Here I am again, but this time the shoe is on the other foot. I'm the father hoping his sons will come back home. One is. Not because I want him to (although I’m sure he’s glad I do), but because this is where he means to seek his fortune. He'll graduate in a couple of weeks with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. Silicon Valley is to him what LA was to me when I was his age: a honeyed land of opportunity. Everything he wants to do is here. Meg's and my good luck is that so are we.

But our other son wants to be an economist, and he's just been accepted into the PhD program at Harvard. I couldn't be happier for him (nothing could have kept me out of Harvard law school if I'd gotten in), but I confess to a bit of melancholy. Before he got his Harvard acceptance, when I'd thought he might come to Berkeley, I'd launched into a not too subtle marketing campaign for California: sunshine, family nearby (but not too close), a lifetime supply of the shorts he loves to wear, that he wore even as an undergrad in Chicago, until the snow was over the tops of his tennis shoes. Who knows, a new car might not be out of the question, I hinted.

I should have known better, right? Wasn't it my own father's solicitations that drove me away? Well, not really. True, I sensed that his bribes were merely a more sophisticated means of controlling me as, with expansive bursts of drama, he had always tried to do, but I was used to that and knew how to deal with it. No, the real problem was that Nashville was a small town in those days, too small for me. Say what you want, but the San Francisco Bay Area is not provincial. And although I do probably make too many helpful suggestions to my children, I am not my father.

Except in this way: I can see myself sitting down with a friend and saying, "Damn, I've lost him now."

I know this because I've already lost three. I married the first time when I was very young and had three children by the time I got out of law school (hence my father's offer of a house, which would have been a weird thing to offer a single young man). By the time Meg and I married, two of my first three kids were in college and the third was a senior in high school. My oldest son went off to the University of Pennsylvania and never came back. He's a lawyer in Philly now, with a lawyer wife and two children. My second son is in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, via college at Vanderbilt (a bit of irony) and business school in Cambridge. My daughter got her MFA in drama in New York and stayed for a while to perform off Broadway. By the time she returned to LA to pursue a career in film, I was gone. And now her mother has left too. Hers is less a case, I suppose, of her leaving her family than of her family slipping out of town while she was working on her dream.

There are, in my experience, three forces that pull and push us as we make our way in the world apart from our parents. There is a positive force, a kind of gravitational attraction to family and place, that pulls us back home. There is a negative force, the dark matter born out of the Big Bang of family stress, that pushes us away. And there is a kind of free-floating youthful energy that has nothing to do with family and that crackles like a Van de Graaff generator with the restless urge to learn and feel and grow, to be vibrantly alive. Whatever the force that propels us, however, if we go far enough away, for long enough, although we might not think much about it at the time, gradually a new way and place of living becomes the status quo. Suddenly, somewhere else is home.

Twenty-five years after I left Nashville, I returned. Meg and I were married and had Chris and Nick. I took a job there that I shouldn't have, that wasn't right for me. I was licking my wounds after a business failure. Maybe subconsciously I was slinking back home. I quit that job after a month, but we stayed in Nashville. Meg was writing, and soon so was I. Nashville was affordable, the boys were in a nurturing elementary school and, most importantly as it turned out, my mother and grandfather were there. In the years we stayed, I reconnected with them and Meg and the boys got to know them. By the time Mom died, I had a completely different appreciation for her than when I'd first bolted from town all those years before. I wouldn't give anything now for those last years with her, even though I admit that if I had found a better job somewhere else, I never would have gone back home. So what is that? Life giving me a second chance?

Sentimentality is not a young-person's game. No one is going to die. There is always time to go back home and catch up. Chances to grab the brass ring, on the other hand, feel urgent and fleeting. If we didn't take them, not only would we feel bitter about opportunities missed, civilization itself might stagnate. Still, if you believe that literature shows us who we are, think about what it tells us. I'm pretty sure there are far fewer angsty, heartbreaking and triumphant novels about jobs and friends than about family. For better and worse, our deepest passions are reserved for our families. Living too far away from them is a little like having a long-distance romance: It can be exciting, but in the end it leaves you missing a lot of love every day.

When I was a boy, I had a cat named Pepper. She disappeared one day. We looked for her, but we had no idea what had happened to her. Big dogs roamed loose in the neighborhood in those days. I imagined an owl had swooped down on her in the night. Years later, an eternity in the lifetime of a boy, she reappeared. She had been gone so long that not only did I not recognize her at first, I almost didn't even remember her. Her reappearance was like a magic trick. I wish I still had that cat. Maybe she could teach me how she did that.

1 comment:

  1. Such a richly thought-provoking piece, Mac! I'm right in the midst of this kind of choice-making, right now. It is almost impossible for my spouse and me to know how to choose whether to live on one coast or another. Our children are right now all in LA and the Bay Area, yet it's so expensive here! If I were to follow your line of thought in this beautiful essay, I'd do all I could to stay in California -- yet it might be better to live within our means, far away, than drown financially, staying in over our heads in the Golden State! I definitely agree with you that the chances all of us have to live near family are SO, so precious, and are really the heart of life. Family members move, though! How hard it is to keep us all together, especially in such a huge country. Sometimes I wish we all lived in England, where you could never be more than a 6 hour car drive from each other.