One of the rites of passage into adulthood in my generation, outside of the coveted driver’s license, was getting your first apartment. It seems most of us couldn’t wait to have our own place, even if it was bereft of any furniture not normally seen on the patio, or any other creature comfort.
For some it might be during or after college, for some it might be after college or the military, but there is no getting past the memory: that first taste of independence was like your first significant kiss. It seems like years ago though it’s not, yet you can still remember the taste, how you felt; like a match burning without a source of ignition, waiting for something to set alight.
When Allen was finally stationed at a submarine base on the same coast as me, I flew a small Piper airplane to see him after getting directions to his base housing. I was still working on building the required hours for my single engine airplane commercial rating. I missed him, feeling like only half of myself when he wasn’t around.
Allen’s place was easy to pick out among the identical battleship-gray dwellings, a tale I’ve told many times, his being the only one with the For Sale by Owner sign and a herd of pink plastic flamingos around it.
That wasn’t his first place though. I remember Allen’s first apartment post high school graduation while he was working at
. It was a two bedroom place that he
shared with a couple of buddies. The carpet was this horrid shag
that was less “clean and
more the chip and hamburger crumbles equivalent of a body farm. Their
decor consisted of a couple of chairs and a display made of what appeared to be
every imported beer they’d drunk since graduation, the bottles carefully dried
and set up against the wall in some sort of artistic display of German
expressionism. Montgomery Ward Auto Center
Being the solitary type, my first place was a tiny apartment on the fifth floor in an old brick building. There were no elevators, but it was in a clean, safe neighborhood with lots of parking. Too bad I could no longer afford a car. But it was near the bus line, I had a bike, and my best friend had a car if I got stuck.
My furniture consisted of a beanbag chair, a couple of lawn chairs, and a bed. I’d have friends over, and the older ones would bring wine. But these weren’t the alcohol-fueled parties of my peers or even my brother’s buddies. We’d bring books and we’d discuss history and science, both fiction and non-fiction. I’d make coffee for the younger crowd, and we’d banter about Calvin and Hobbes long before they were a cartoon. Those were good evenings, as we gently sipped on a drink in a serious, almost celibate way as the conversations went late into the night. There was nothing better.
Until I got homesick.
The first couple of months were grand, staying up as late as I wanted (well, late, given I was going to school and working thirty hours a week), leaving my books lying all over the place without the family dog using them as chew toys. I could have pizza for breakfast,
sandwiches for lunch, and more pizza
for dinner (if an apple is in the room, that counts as your serving of
fruit for the day). I could play the radio as loud as my neighbors would allow,
which was generally louder than what parents would permit—if you’re living in a building that’s
mostly full of young people, at least on the fifth floor. Bologna
But when you trudge up five flights of stairs to come home, there’s no one there with a snack who says, “So, what have you been up to?” As kids, that was the best part of the day, coming home to a mom who gave up a great career just to be there to make sure we were fed, loved, and educated. We used to rush in from play like stampeding cattle, poured a glass of milk, and sat down to cookies or whatever she made (which during her cancer treatment was often just frosting between graham crackers, all she had the strength for, though she’d brightly tint the frosting just for us).
We’d chatter away until the sugar buzz wore off, get a big hug, and go tend to our chores.
As I walked into that first apartment, greeted only by mute dust bunnies, I realized I missed all that. I missed dinner as a family around the table, the saying of grace as we held hands. I even missed Dad admonishing me as I trailed in dirt when I brought in a fresh load of firewood, yet always making sure I was safely in my bed at night; a quiet closing of my door against the noise in the living room, his feet a thick whisper in the hallway as my eyes closed in safety and peace.
I missed my mom.
But there was so much to do now that I didn’t have a lot of time for reminiscing. Not only did I have a full load of college classes, there was still my job at the airport pumping gas when I wasn’t in school. The weather seemed to be one of two choices: desert hot or a dark chill that pelted my skin and hands with sleet like little daggers of ice, the wind so strong that the flame from a departing F-4 fighter jet shed away like fiery streamers as I stood and watched and yearned.
Then there was the other job at the local funeral home chain where I worked weekends, which I had through high school. That job was ideal for a student. It was their rural location, without a funeral director on nights and weekends unless called, and it paid more than minimum wage.
I had few responsibilities unless a body was brought in or a family stopped by due to a sudden death. In both cases I knew what to do, and aside from some light housekeeping and an occasional invoice to process, the rest of the twelve-hour shift was mine to do schoolwork. I learned how to dress and act like a grown-up. I learned how to make really good coffee. I learned how to say “I’m sorry for your loss,” and truly feel it. I learned what “closed casket” often really means.
For both Allen and me, having our own place without “Mom!” was an eye-opener. Laundry, I discovered, did not magically do itself; and as many times as I stood in front of the refrigerator, it never spit out a meal like a food replicator on a galaxy class starship.
And between rent, food, bus fare, tuition, and books, there was no money for much else. I applied for student loans but was always turned down with “your family income is too high.” I tried to explain my dad was not paying for my college, I was. We were raised where you either put yourself through college, as Mom and Dad did, or you joined the military. Once you were eighteen, you were on your own financially.
It sounds harsh, but my parents grew up in the first Great Depression, my mom the offspring of generations of Scandinavian seafarers. My great uncle was a captain of his own ship, the Marie Bakke; other relatives less well known yet not forgotten, even if quietly tapping their bones together at the bottom of a cold sea.
Dad grew up dirt-poor, getting through college with ROTC and a full-time job on campus.
But like our parents and grandparents before us, we were expected to make our own way; and the last time I was turned down for a student loan, I looked at the lady who said I didn’t qualify and said, “Have you ever eaten an oatmeal sandwich?”
Being a young adult had its perks, but a high standard of living wasn’t one of them. But I learned a lot during that time. How to fix what little I owned (duct tape was a repair); how a slow cooker from the Salvation Army could make meals for the freezer for a week for less than the cost of some blue boxes of pasta; how filling bra cups up with cotton and wrapping them around your head does not make a good set of ear protection when the neighbor on the other side of the thin wall has an all-night date with that was either an overly sexed blonde or a wolverine (hard to tell with the noise).
It taught me about working so hard that when the shift was over I’d lie down on a hard floor in a back room and sleep, unable to stand on my feet long enough to get to a bunk. It taught me about the riotous joy in the smallest of things: the taste of rich soup, the sweet wine of both freedom and communion, the tender kiss of support from the ones that see you through all of the battles.
A lifetime later my brother and I would still both lie on opposite sides of the country, in simple beds in simple houses. Mine was a hundred years old, Allen’s not much newer. He had no home computer; I had a phone the size of a boat anchor whose only app was the “ringing” one. None of our dishes matched, and there were more books than any other single type of item in either of our homes. As we both lay quietly before sleep, we listened to the wind, to the sound of the wood of the houses around us, a wood that neither bends nor moans. The wood itself was still, as are bones that quiet when the reflexes of earthly compulsions have expended themselves.
Hard times and lean times are only forever if you believe they are. If you refuse to, they are simply brief glances in which, for a moment without measure or context, will lie in your sights the portent of all that you think you cannot bear but will, there between the darkness and the light. - LBJ