We'd wait to eat dinner until my dad got home, setting the table and expectantly waiting for my mom to round us all up in the car to pick him up from the train. Our table was giant, a special order to comfortably seat six kids, two parents and handle the wear-and-tear that comes with years of family dinners, dyeing Easter eggs, carving pumpkins, baking cookies, painting and gluing and glittering things on to construction paper, and even occasionally being climbed on by a sleepwalking child.
After he'd washed his face and changed out of his suit, we'd take our reserved seats at the table, my dad at the head, mine two seats to the right, flanked by my little brother and rotating-favorite sister and directly across from the patio door, which had a tiny Gumby and Pokey standing on the frame to test the observational skills of newcomers to our dinner parties. We'd always say grace a few minutes into the meal, some of us out-of-sync in order to be technically correct in thanking the Lord for that which we had already received. Participation in dinner conversation was mandatory at our house, a lively round-the-table report-out of the day that tended to deteriorate into a number of scenarios, commonly starting with a diatribe against "the liberal Left," occasionally devolving into a tearful breakdown by my not-to-be-named, less-talkative sister when put on the spot to offer her opinion, sometimes extending for hours to allow time for an ungrateful child to finish his peas, and infamously involving a few head-to-head battles that could only be resolved by bringing the dictionary, atlas or encyclopedia to the table.
My mom cooked every night, unimpressive to me at the time and which now strikes me as incredible, seeing as I have no children of my own and a frequent nightly habit of frantically texting with my husband about how to feed ourselves, usually culminating in a Thai takeout order.
After dinner, my siblings and I would embark on our bumbling group project of cleaning the kitchen. As group projects go, some pulled more weight than others. (I will admit to pushing a wet rag over the surface of the table for many minutes longer than necessary to avoid being the one having to sweep the floor.) It was a serious job that ended with an inspection by a thankless, detail-oriented man who had no problem rearranging the dishwasher or demanding a re-sweep of a still-dirty floor, seemingly unconcerned by the self-assessed exhausted and overworked children standing before him in defeat.
We'd then disperse to our rooms, Karen and I in the front, Patty and Meghan next door and my brothers to the luxury of their own separate rooms (or to the makeshift basement computer lab, where my brother would take apart, lay in pieces on the carpet, and then successfully put back together our family desktop for no apparent reason other than to prove he could). The hallway that connected our bedrooms was filled with family photos and mementos that remind me of my mom, Catholic figurines and framed artwork that I'd made in third grade. My sisters and I shared a giant, communal bathroom with a double vanity that was always littered with Neutrogena and Chapstick. We unquestioningly respected our agreed-upon shower schedule for survival purposes (a stark contrast to our no-sharing-clothes contract).
Significant square footage of our house was reserved exclusively for my parents, decorated with our baby pictures but not welcoming of our presence. We were invited into their bedroom or office only when we'd done something wrong, or had a genuine need for a private conversation (which did not include inter-sibling disputes unless they involved blood or fire). The dining and living rooms were invite-only, and it was usually just Karen who made it to the adult table during the parties and get-togethers my parents threw often. My most potent memory of time spent in the living room was the night I got engaged, sitting in there with my sisters and my parents, crying and laughing and drinking too much wine in front of the fireplace, welcoming Wes into the fold.
At our house, Tostitos were a food group, Christmas decorating a sport, and Sunday mass mandatory. The acre of yardage was meticulously maintained on a weekly Saturday morning schedule by my disciplined dad and his crew of free and somewhat unreliable laborers. On lazy weekends and summer days off, my grandma would come over with a coffee cake and we'd have hours-long brunches that lasted until the second pot of coffee ran out.
My parents worked with an architect to design the house to the exact specifications they needed for their large and uncontemporary family (including one design flaw which they learned about twenty years later when we explained how we used the basement stairs into the garage to sneak out past curfew). It was their dream house that they'd saved for years to build so their small children would have the space to grow up, to be the backdrop for all of our childhood experiences and family memories. They built it when I was in second grade, and I remember visiting it one night with my dad right before they finished construction. The base cabinets had just been installed, and he lifted me up to sit inside the cavity where they were putting a wall oven. It's funny to flash forward from that vantage point and moment in time, remembering everything that would happen in that soon-to-be-finished house. The day we moved in, my youngest brother cried and later told everyone that he would be painting his room black and sharing it with my mom.
Every time I walk in the door, I revert back into the 17-year-old who'd last lived there, my stress melting away in the comforting familiarity and sense of security that comes with it. My parents sold the house today, downsizing to a place perfect for spending the warm Chicago months in retirement. It's just a house, and that cheesy saying about home being where the heart is and all that stuff is all true. But I was surprised how sentimental I was at saying goodbye to the place that served our family for decades, and how much I wanted to set down roots and buy my own home with Wes when my parents told us they were selling it.
As my childhood home was renovated and staged for sale, Wes and I did buy our own place. It's taken on a life of its own, becoming the new family gathering spot and the place where we gather to eat Tostitos and drink cheap wine and have brunches that never end. It's a work-in-progress that I've been focused on designing and improving, forgetting that there's much more involved in making it a home than what meets the eye. A few weeks ago, I did a little DIY video tour of our progress on it to post here on this blog, but revisiting that video today, I realized that there's some Catholic paraphernalia, family photos and children's artwork missing that needs to be addressed in the coming months and years in order to give this place the kind of character and personality I grew up with on Garfield Avenue and didn't fully appreciate until today. More to come on that...
Ok, that's all I have. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, especially if you felt the same when your parents sold the place you grew up.
P.S. If you want to see the video or just hear what my voice sounds like after reading my typing for hours on end in your time following this blog, I've posted it on my downloads page for your viewing pleasure. (If you're on my email list, you can access it via the link at the end of my last newsletter. If you're not on the list and want to see it, you can join here for access.)
P.P.S. I know, a couple of sappy posts in a row. Thanks for staying with me. Something fluffy and fashionable coming soon... and I promise to set up a reader preferences survey as soon as I figure out how to do it, so you can choose which topics you care to receive!