Sunday Letters
One of my many childhood homes
26 March 2000

Dear Friend,

When is nothing something?
. . . Barbara and I decided not to buy a house this week and it seemed like a big decision. But now that I'm telling you about it, it's difficult to explain why. After all, three or four times a week Jack, our real estate agent, calls us suggesting a purchase. Many we dismiss sight unseen; the rest we look at briefly, usually only from the outside, shake our heads, and call Jack back with the bad news.
. . . So not buying a house is hardly worth writing about. It's not an engaging subject. I mean, here I am on my third paragraph and I've already lost half my audience and the other half is half asleep. So why discuss it? There are SCORES of houses we haven't bought. We've done it every day since we've moved to Delaware. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that YOU didn't buy a house this week. Was it a big deal for you? No.
. . . The decision wasn't a big deal for my wife, Barbara. If anything, not buying was a relief. More than once she and I had agreed to make an offer on this house we were considering. We had contacted a lawyer and had the forms ready to sign. This was the best house we'd found so far, in the village we like, in Arden, where we are renting. But Barbara's heart wasn't in it. When told I didn't want to make an offer on the house, she offered no protest. She wants something else. Her heart is set on an affordable 200-year-old farm house with stone walls on 3.5 acres near a horse farm. Actually, such houses exist -- a hundred miles from here.
. . . For me the decision was a big one because, much as I want to be settled and get on with our lives, I want to be delighted with whatever we purchase.
. . . As soon as I say this I'm assaulted by a thought-storm of questions I cannot answer. You who are secure in your lives probably don't experience these bouts of conflicted thought. But for me it's the norm. In this case, I start wondering if I want too much. Then, before I can even begin to consider that question, other questions crowd in, wanting attention. What makes me think I'll find better than what I've rejected? Am I a snob? What makes me different from others who accept the houses I reject? How is it that they are delighted and I am not? Perhaps I really don't want to find a new house and am "content" in a way with being uprooted. Or, perhaps, I'm looking for something I've lost and will never find again.
. . . Yesterday I went looking for the house I lived in as a boy. Barb and I drove across the Delaware River into New Jersey, up the turnpike, over to the parkway, and up to Shrewsbury Boro, where I lived for four years. This is where I started grade school, learned about dinosaurs and airplanes, first experienced the miracle of dandelions and butterflies, of trees that fall over and continue to grow because their roots still hold, where I first experienced the freedom of one's own two feet and a world waiting to be explored, where I first made friends, one of whom died from leukemia, and where my brother, Bill, was born.
. . . I didn't recognize the house (the photo at top). It had a new skin of wooden shingles. Tall trees had grown around it. The picket fence was gone. So was my family and my youth. At least, they are no longer in New Jersey. Those early days ARE still alive and fresh in other ways. They are with me in memory and photographs, and that's something, not nothing.
. . . Then Barb and I drove to the Atlantic Ocean (photo below), to the end of Sandy Hook, where we could look north across the water to Brooklyn, where my father lived as a boy. He left as soon as he could. He joined the Navy at 17 and saw the world, finally settling down in San Diego, about as far as he could reasonably ask his family to move from the unpleasant memories of Depression-era poverty and constantly arguing parents who, after eleven children, finally divorced.
. . . After 29 years my Dad retired from the Navy and, for several years, became a keeper of elephants, camels, and big cats at the San Diego Zoo. Finally, when I was in graduate school, he settled in the mountains above San Diego, just north of the border with Mexico. Dad had his own business, rescuing people who were suddenly without water when their well pumps failed. He liked the work and the place. He died there at home ten years ago, from lung cancer. Never smoked in his life. In the Navy, he had worked two decades with nuclear weapons -- moving them, storing them, making sure they were handled safely. My older sister believes that's what gave him cancer. If so, he died in the service of his country, and I can't be unhappy thinking that. It's something, not nothing.

Beach at Sandy Hook

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"It is not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out of the window." --Wallace Stevens