A house tells you so much about a life.
I’ve never visited Binghamton and my husband’s childhood home when his mother wasn’t there. It was strangely quiet without her dogs and though the cats were still in the house, they stayed hidden the whole weekend. They know something’s amiss.
Framed prints and antique pictures hang on her walls, a dancing girl, a fiddler and his lover, a woman with a white dress, sprawled out along a sofa. The banjo clock upstairs did not keep time any better than the banjo clock downstairs; they both stopped long ago. Two guitars stood neatly on the left side of the living room and two violins on the right. Beth’s music book is open on her stand to Tilpenny’s Jig, a kitchen chair propped in front, like she’d be back in a jiffy.
My kids put linens on the bunk beds upstairs and saw three more guitars in the closet while I played on the Young Chang in the basement, her latest musical foray. The rack on the floor had music books we gave her, a dozen or more piano method books.
I scanned her shelves and noticed many of the books we read, she and I: Girl with the Pearl Earring, Shipping News, Unbroken. A Marine Corps manual sat on the end table with a paper clipping about her grandson. The Roscoe Diner calendar on the wall was open to March with appointments: her tax preparer, Merry Maids, music gigs. Mail was stacked neatly on the table. The porcelain tea thermos I gave her stood by the stove and my husband found the Black Monkey tea in the cupboard, both Christmas gifts, both unused.
The home looked good, clean, updated. A split level house built in the 60s, she is the original owner and her three boys were born and raised there. She said she will live there until they take her out.
Beth left her home on March 5 with a fractured tailbone. It was her birthday. She has since broken her hip, underwent surgery, and continues to fight breast cancer, diagnosed at stage four in 2009. She’s gone through it all: chemo, radiation, hair loss, and during this trial, she cared for her husband who was diagnosed with cancer until his passing in 2011.
My husband and his brother have been driving “home” to visit and care for their mother, still hospitalized, hopeful for an ultimate recovery. It’s been a month. I brought my children to spend time with their grandmother this weekend.
When I entered the room, I was pleased to see her awake. Tubes, lights, catheter, bags – she leaned to the side of her bed, perhaps to alleviate the pain from her hip surgery. Her face was scratched, her arm was mottled purple from the blood tests, her limbs swollen; how changed she was in a few months. She spent Christmas with us.
The kids told her stories, shared photos, even danced a treble jig to music she liked. She smiled and said a few words now and then. My husband tried to get her to eat, but she doesn’t eat. She drinks fluids, so he kept her cup full. After sitting with her awhile, I recognized the twitch of her nose, mannerisms, and the occasional comment. The nurse came by and said how beautiful her family was and how well behaved the children are. Beth responded in kind, that as her grandchildren, “They dang well better be.” A slight smile on her lips. I asked what she liked to eat at the Roscoe Diner since we pass by it on the way back. Without a pause she said, “Rice pudding.”
She needed rest so we left in between visits. My husband took us on a tour of his town, schools, playing fields, businesses, and restaurants. Binghamton was once home to Singer-Link and IBM and in its heyday the population topped 80,000 people. Today there are 47,000 and the place looks empty, sad, and gray. Buildings are boarded up, neighborhoods in decline, and the oppressive taxes in New York have caused an exodus of business, jobs, and people. The town hopes to stimulate the economy with business incentives and the possibility of an energy industry because of the gas rich rock formation, the Marcellus Shale. The WSJ discusses the town in its article, Dreams of Binghamton. (article link).
The symbolism is not lost: the town’s decline, our parents’ decline. Going back to our childhood home, we find a place frozen in time, old photo albums, the broken back gate, fallen down treehouses, the community ball field, the local pond.
But sometimes, if you’re lucky and paying attention, you might just stumble on a gem beneath the dust and dilapidation.
My husband drove the route from his old school to his high school gridiron, passing through a sketchy street of homes, commenting on places like his old bakery along the way. As we turned the corner and followed Seminary Avenue, I recognized the road ahead. The public tennis courts on the right had been redone, blue surface, white lines, new fence. There were seven courts in all that I counted but I noticed a large placard on the side, two of them. No, four of them. Driving past, I saw the caricature of a man’s face and above it my husband’s last name. I read it twice before I realized.
It was his father’s name.
We stopped the truck. Memorialized on a board and larger than life, was his dad’s portrait next to three of his good friends. A brass plaque was attached to the fence which also had his father’s name in raised letters.
The sun was shining on the way back to our house through the Catskills and fly fishermen waded knee deep in the river. We stopped by the Roscoe Diner and had Beth’s rice pudding.
Published April 8, 2014