I read recently that home is where our stories begin. It’s where we’re rooted. Home grounds us in the present and gives us a history to remember.
I’ve been fascinated for years by the notion of place and the impact it has on who we become and have struggled since last summer regarding the scope of spaces to write about in my memoir—with whether my book should end when Daddy died in 1981 or continue into my adulthood, addressing my struggle with bipolar disorder (multiple stays in psychiatric hospitals), and, perhaps even, exploring the places I’ve lived more recently—like Vietnam and Haiti.
It seems inevitable that current struggles with telling my story would force me to readdress scope, since events that have happened more recently are easier to remember and write about. And it seems important to remind current readers, many of whom weren’t around last year, that one of the places I’ve considered writing about in this book (even if only by way of preface) was the government housing I lived in twice as an adult. I’ve wondered how that government-provided place has figured in mapping my current internal landscape, especially since my father’s involvement in organized crime made me, as a child, consider government an enemy to our family’s domestic well-being. (Remember FBI agents, when they raided our house, literally broke down the front door, more often than not.)
One such government-subsidized complex was Briarwood, where I lived from 2001 till 2005–a place I began writing about last summer. Below is a scene I wrote at this time last year and want to revisit in the context I outline here. The question is whether my memoir should include these kinds of stories (maybe by way of preface or postscript) or whether these belong in an entirely separate book, given that these places, both defy the stereotype many have of public housing, and may have reimagined my own internal notion of government as bad guy.
The mostly elderly and disabled residents of Briarwood, specifically, were an easy group to get along with. No crime, no noise—not even any walker or wheelchair races in the hallways. If anything it was too quiet—a place where the biggest event of the day was the arrival of the mail carrier, who was greeted 6 mornings a week like a cancer-conquering hero—the bearer of tidings from the outside world. Clearly, this was not a demographic that emailed much or got their news, medical or otherwise, via smart phone—not a tweeting, googling kind of group, for the most part.
However, the most note-worthy events to happen at Briarwood occurred not near the lobby’s mail boxes, but in the second floor craft room—a gathering place for the ladies of building A, where I lived.
These “craft rooms” were more like little libraries with couches, a few comfortable and very 80s-era blue chairs, an artificial flower or two, and, yes, an equally-80s-styled book-case that housed at least 6 dozen romance novels and a few Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies—not to mention a good 30 games and close to 50 jig-saw puzzles—all with pieces missing, of course—because what’s a puzzle without a few holes in the Eifel Tower—Monet’s “Water Lilies” minus a bloom or two?
In Building A elderly ladies gathered in the craft room most afternoons—gossiping, reading, gossiping some more. Some slept from time to time. A few even snored. Mind you, everyone assembled there was born before the Hoover administration—except for me, of course, a child of the Kennedy era. (Yes, I know—generation gap—big time.)
Wigs were all the rage in the craft room. And everyone, besides me in my sweatpants, dressed up. One woman named Evelyn—92-years-old when I moved into the complex—always wore a wig. And she was the best dressed of the group—nicely-styled polyester dresses in navy or gray, with crisp white collars and big brass buttons—usually a fake patent leather belt around the waist.
Evelyn engaged in the only remotely craft-like activity ever done in the history of Briarwood craft rooms. Evelyn crocheted. And she ever only made one thing—over and over. She had to have produced hundreds, even thousands, of them while I lived there. Evelyn made doilies. Usually they were white. Sometimes they were lavender or baby blue, some coaster-sized, others larger.
And like any good crocheter over the age of eighty, Evelyn liked to give her creations away. Nothing honored her more than if, at the end of a snowy afternoon in February, when she said, “Kathy, would you like to take this home for your coffee table?” I responded in the reluctant affirmative—but only after declaring I didn’t dare take another. When I suggested she might like to give that day’s doily to our friend Bea, Evelyn would insist, “Oh but you need a set, dear, especially when you serve sweet tea.”
Bottom line—Evelyn may have doilied me to death, but believe you me, every gray-haired lady in Building A was as well-doilied as me. When I finally moved from Briarwood in 2005, I found more coaster-sized, crocheted circles and almost circles (as Evelyn aged) shoved in underwear drawers and kitchen cabinets than any self-respecting resident of government housing ought to own.
But our dear friend Bea, on whom I tried to foist doilies from time to time—also frequented the craft room. Bea, tall and painfully thin, had to have been at least 5’ 9” before osteoporosis and old age shrunk and hunched her to a mere 5’ 6”, and she couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds fully dressed and soaking wet.
Bea, like Evelyn, had obviously, at one time, been a stunningly beautiful woman, a fact betrayed by facial features that shown through despite her age—high cheek bones and big, blue eyes that still twinkled when she smiled.
Bea didn’t wear a wig, and for a woman well into her 90s she had a head of gorgeous, light brown curls. True her hair was largely gray, but she retained enough of the brown to surprise you, since otherwise she looked so old and borderline antique.
Bea was also one of the ladies who slept most afternoons, waking herself up every few minutes with her own overly sized snores.
But then again, Bea never stayed more than 30 minutes at a time, as when nicotine called at least twice an hour, she struggled to her feet from the over-stuffed chair, shuffled her pink-slippered feet across the industrial blue carpet, and disappeared into her apartment several doors down, only to reemerge a few minutes later having snuck a cigarette or two, still insisting upon her return that she had to use the rest room or make a phone call. Never mind she smelled like smoke over the tic-tac she sucked and the Avon she had sprayed post-puff.
But what’s the point of these craft room portraits? Why share these aging lady stories?
The point is this—
These elderly ladies utterly obliterate the image most folks have of government-subsidized housing. These were not crack heads with jeans belted around their knees or welfare moms, screaming, runny-nosed toddlers on either hip. These were not delinquent teens smoking pot in parking lots or dangling younger siblings from balconies.
These ladies were what 90% of the residents at Briarwood were like—kind, considerate, crocheting grandmas who cared about me and the other neighbors they encountered in the craft room.
So, if home is where ones story begins, the question remains whether places like Briarwood should figure in the memoir I write, maybe even by way of preface. I managed to create a space for myself there–despite the stereotype of public housing. Briarwood proved to be a place more comforting than chaotic, a place with more crafters than crack heads, a place with ladies who loved me and asked nothing more than to lavish their crochet-crazed kindnesses on me.
Home may be where the heart is, but, inevitably, government housing, at least in this instance, is where the doilies lived as well.
Can a doily-giving government be all bad? How might this image of government as provider of home, rather than disruptor of domestic peace, have redefined or even healed my inner child’s notion that government embodies evil? Am I right that stories like these belong in a book separate from my memoir entirely? How has home figured in your life story.