You Can Go Home Again

At the end of her life, my standoffish mother finally let me in.

By Marcia Menter
The author and her mother, Bernice Menter, in front of their house.
Photograph: Photo by Philip Menter.

Next to every fire hydrant in Syracuse, New York, there is (or used to be) a six-foot-tall sign with a picture of a fire hydrant on it, so in winter the firemen know where to dig. Syracuse averages well over a hundred inches of snow a year, most of it in small increments—an inch, two inches, three inches, day after day. In my memories of childhood, it’s always snowing, and I’m always slogging through it to school with red knees, a dripping nose and frozen mittens, muttering under my breath. Snow is piled in crusty, increasingly dirty drifts by the roadside, and you can tell where the neighborhood dogs have been. (This was before leash laws.)

Or I’m riding in an overheated car with the windshield wipers pushing away endless clumps of fat gray flakes spilling out of a white sky. Cars had rear-wheel drive then, so there was a certain amount of drama involved in making it up the hills. To get out of our garage, you had to back out over what was usually a sheet of ice, negotiate a curve and race up a steep incline before the ice realized you were there and tried to stop you. From all over the neighborhood you could hear the buzzsaw whine of spinning tires. Winter music.

My father was a physician who made house calls, day and night, in his tiny yellow-and-white Nash Metropolitan. He would leave me sitting in it next to some enormous snowbank while he went into an unfamiliar house carrying his black medical bag. Both my older brothers and I went on calls with him when we were little. It was his way of spending time with us, though I mostly remember sitting by myself in the car. Also lying awake at night—my bedroom was over the garage—hearing his tires spin as he left, then waiting for him to come home safely. I have never been able to kick the worried-waiting habit.

We lived in the same house the whole time I was growing up. When my parents moved there in 1950, three years before I was born, it was the only house on an elm-lined block, a 1925 colonial with a Tudor-style brick front. (My mother had the brickwork painted white. She once told me the painter had protested, “You can’t paint tapestry brick!” And she’d said, “Watch me.”) By the time I was 10, the elms were dead and gone, and both sides of the street were lined with tiny ranch houses over which our place loomed like an old church. My friends lived in ranches or split levels with finished basements. We had a cellar with a cracked cement floor, a big red furnace and those scary long-legged spiders that live only in basements. And we had an attic that was freezing in winter and stifling in summer and smelled like someone else’s past. The attic had real stairs going up to it and full-size windows. It was meant to be living space but had never been finished. The floors by the windows were thick with dead flies every summer until Mother swept them away.

We had ancient radiators that clanked and sputtered and occasionally leaked but gave off plenty of heat that enveloped you when you came in from the cold. I’d put my mittens on the hall radiator to dry, and the house would smell of wet wool and whatever Mother was cooking. She was a butcher’s daughter and a good, if impatient, cook. I’d open the oven or lift the pot lids to get a good whiff of dinner, but not if she was standing there. The kitchen was her territory, and she didn’t want me messing with it. I learned to open the fridge quietly so she wouldn’t yell from some far corner of the house to ask what I was taking. All my friends have the same memory of eating cookies over the wastebasket so as not to leave telltale crumbs.

Actually, the whole house was Mother’s territory. She always seemed to be telling me to get out of her way—out from under her feet, as she put it. She would tolerate the little-girl clutter in my room for only so long before powering through it and getting rid of things. The night my favorite stuffed animal went missing and I went ballistic, she denied all knowledge of its whereabouts, but I was convinced for years that she’d orchestrated the abduction of the Orange Dog. Or maybe she’d just thrown it out without realizing it, which would have been worse. I had a great big bedroom and plenty of time to myself, but somehow, no privacy. Only recently did it occur to me that Mother, too, had no privacy as a child.

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