Saturday, May 12, 2012

House Hunting with Gogol (or, How I Lost My Mother)

Although I am officially on hiatus, I continue to read Russian history and literature, however fitfully. So I'll post now, just to keep in practice. Currently, I'm reading Henri Troyat's wonderful biography of Nikolai Gogol. Like all of Troyat's biographies (and I've previously commented on his books about Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turganev, Alexander I, Catherine the Great, and Pushkin), this one balances a healthy regard for the author's literary genius with an equally healthy regard for the more absurdly comic aspects of his author's unusual life. I'm also reading Norman Mailer's biographical work about Lee Harvey Oswald, who spent some of his formative years in Communist Russia.

But to return to the subject of hiatus, I'm wondering why Oswald and Gogol aren't inspiring me to write as they would have one year previously. I'm wondering whether the problem is that I'm too bored to write, or, conversely, too preoccupied with an increasingly active life to spend time on this blog. It's strange to be unsure if one's life is too empty or too full at a specific moment in time. At any rate, my life hasn't been uneventful in the past few months. I got engaged, for instance, just one week ago, to a wonderful woman. Without her, as Victor Shklovsky said, the sea has no color. This, of course, has led me to reflect on all sorts of things, including love. But one of the most emotionally destabilizing things I've done recently is to tour homes with the intent to buy one with my bride-to-be. 

First, of course, is the question of location. Where does one live? Should one live cheaply or well? Should one look for low taxes or high aesthetic quality? And even if one decides in favor of the beautiful, does one look for a beautiful home or a beautiful neighborhood? Looking for a house is an almost overwhelming experience, since it's one of the few times in life one is often forced to think in terms of one's entire lifetime. When looking for a home, we're not just asking whether or not he'd like to live somewhere in the coming year, we're asking if we'd mind (potentially at at least) living and dying in a particular spot. And like Steven King's book, The Shining, we find traces of other people's life decisions everywhere we go.

In one home I recently visited, the seller's hopes and dreams were overpowering. This was, perhaps, largely because he insisted on showing us the home himself. Having lived in the place for many, many decades, he seemed to be asking us to take up a life journey he could no longer pursue. The fact that the home was hopelessly outdated, a mixed up jumble of luxuriously ugly features, didn't help matters. There was a pool, a bar, reflecting pools, Japanese decorations, and a hundred other reminders of 1960s splendor. The whole place reminded one of how proud Mr. Brady must have been of his Brady Bunch ranch palace. The seller's description--a taste of the Hollywood Hills in suburban Chicago--just about fit the bill. This place spoke to the suburban glory of the 1960s, before the suburbs had lost their charm. And the seller, a doctor with a tightly clad Playboy Bunny wife about forty years past her prime, still saw this wreck of a house, whose yard was (not ironically) made up of AstroTurf, as something Bob Hope or a member of the Rat Pack might well covet. Pondering the place, I wondered what the right response is? Does the home need to be loved? Would it be the death or birth of my own dreams? Would I sell some space-aged, middle aged man this place forty years hence?

House hunting is an emotional process by any reckoning, so readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that my search inevitably led to the very source of my emotional volatility:  my mother.  Like Gogol, my mother's presence looms large in my life.  For Gogol, who lost his father at an early age but was doted upon by a mother who believed her odd son could do no wrong, his mother was never far from his mind.  Long before he had any right to believe he might befriend Pushkin and make an enormous mark on the literary world with Dead Souls, The Inspector General, The Nose, Diary of a Madman, and The Overcoat, Gogol's mother told anyone who listened that her strange and awkward son was a genius and demigod.  Gogol, who had only sisters, was doted upon by his mother, and never doubted her messianic interpretation of his life's mission:  to conquer the world, one way or the other.

I encountered my own mother in the process of home hunting, and encountered her on multiple occasions.  With apologies to the writers of one of my favorite television shows, my experience in home buying might, thus far, deserve the title:  How I Lost My Mother.  The fact that my mom died decades ago didn't lesson the impact of her several appearances on Redfin and ReMax tours.  At the outset of our search for a matrimonial home, my fiancee and I looked at small homes in Hinsdale, Illinois.  The location, astride two convenient highways and right next door to my place of employment, and surrounded by wonderful schools, seemed too good to ignore.  Additionally, it had the advantage of being someplace other than the suburb in which I grew up.  Who wants to repeat the past so precisely by moving into the very suburb one grew up?

One of our favorite homes in Hinsdale turned out to be directly across the street from the hospital where I was born.  Surely buying the house would have been something more than a metaphorical return to the womb?  Of course, as Gogol taught us, life is a strange mixture of comedy and tragedy, and so I soon recalled that this hospital was also the scene of my mother's chemotherapy.  Recalling childhood trips with my mother to that dreaded site of cancer treatment, I found myself driving once more over the small, fragile bridge right outside the hospital that I once knew so well.  The rickety bridge was, once upon a time, a special joy for a little kid:  in the middle of a ordinary suburb, this awkward, single-lane bridge over the train tracks seemed to belong to a much more remote time and place.  The bridge was fun, but sentimentally tied to locus of death and dying in my child's imagination:  the Hinsdale hospital.

Looking in LaGrange, my fiancee and I found another wonderful house, but this time the home turned out to be two doors down from my first home, which had long since been torn down.  How strange to be pondering the purchase of something so proximate to one's original shelter?  The home, located right along the train tracks and right next to my high school, had an enormous backyard, but the noise of the passing trains was almost unbearable.  It was so loud there that I wondered how my mom and dad dealt with the noise themselves over forty years ago.

My mother has appeared to me in dreams these past few weeks as well.  When she died, she visited me regularly for the first several years.  I'd dream that her cancer had turned out to be less severe than originally diagnosed.  Everything had been a mistake:  Mom had somehow survived, and life could continue on its normal trajectory.  The dreams themselves were delicious:  I was safe and sound, for Mom had never left the stage of my life.  Waking from these dreams was another matter.  How many times does the average survivor re-experience the death of a loved one in the waking hours of morning?  Probably hundreds of times.

Last week, I dreamed that I was looking for a home and found a really perfect one in LaGrange Park.  The home only had one regular bathroom, but there was a crude, unfinished half-bathroom in the basement that would make things work.  In a pinch, the kids could use that one.  The three bedrooms were large, the closet space was excellent, and there was a large yard and garden.  The house wasn't anything special, but it was very livable.  With a porch, living room, separate dining room, and expanded kitchen (not pretty, but large), what more did one need?  The school was reasonably good too, only a short walk for the kids.

Imagining my current family in that home felt wonderful, but it soon occurred to me that this was the very same house in which I grew up.  As such, it was also the last home I shared with my mother.  I moved only a year or so after her death.  And of course I realize now that by moving I not only left my childhood behind, I left my mother, whose spirit even now probably lingers in that place, a place of mingled joy and sadness.  If one hasn't been traumatized by loss one might not understand how a place, or a person, can be haunted.  But Gogol would have understood me.  Accustomed to writing about Ukrainian spirits and Romantic encounters with St. Petersburg phantasmagoria, even without the benefit of Freud, Gogol's Gothic imagination would have allowed him to appreciate the irrational and supernatural dimensions of even an ordinary house hunt.  (And no, it has no escaped me that today is Mother's Day).