North America | United States of America (USA) | The Mid-Atlantic states | Pennsylvania – Life of Grime
There is a point in every journey where morale is at its lowest… a very true quote from an otherwise dry book, Travels with a 2CV which I was reading on this trip.
A few years ago Sexton and I spent Christmas with Mr and Mrs Tattoo. It was the first Christmas that Id enjoyed for as long as I could remember. Before that year, the holiday was always a stressful family obligation, a drunken escape to New York or a day spent with Hindus or Muslims who dont celebrate Christmas. I either suffered, avoided or ignored it. But the year we spent with the Tattoos all that changed. They showed us that Christmas could be a time with friends, food and fun. You can have a Christmas tree and decorations without arguments and tears. And since then, Sexton and I have evolved our Christmas traditions with friends in London. So imagine the excitement this year; we were returning to the place of that first great holiday AND we had children now they had a 2 year old boy and we had Lucy.
Our expectations were high as Mrs Chicago drove us out of Philadelphia, her car loaded with suitcases, backpacks, all our food bags, Lucys travel cot and stroller, diapers, and toys this was the second time we relocated, and it was again by car. I was already worrying about the next leg of the journey, where we would have to fend for ourselves a plane ride followed by a 5-hour bus ride. I was still sick, despite friend and family advice to sip cider vinegar, overdose on Sudafed and drink Jaegermiester. Add to that the fact that we had not had a whole nights sleep and wed been in the US 9 days. Lucy would wake up at 3 am and stay awake for several hours pretty much in time with her routine back in England only we were meant to be adjusting to a 5-hour time change.
If I have one word of advice for travelling with a toddler it is: DONT.
So we were not the most stable people when we arrived at the Tattoos. It didnt take much to tip us over the edge. Mrs Tattoo was frantically sweeping the living room floor. Giant piles of dust and domestic animal fur were heaped everywhere. We gave forgiving words and told them to get to grandmas house. Then Sexton, Lucy and I spent the day wondering what we were doing here. Maybe it was a blessing that my camcorder was broken. The temptation to record our own version of How clean is your house would have been overwhelming. I wanted to help in some way, at least to dig the telephone out from under bags, boxes and general clutter, (so I could plan an escape route?), but I had no idea where to start. One of their outbuildings had collapsed, and all the stuff had been brought into the main house as quickly as if theyd been hit by a sudden hurricane (for the record, Pennsylvania did not get visited by Katrina).
I have to be diplomatic for the sake of whoever might read this. To give a little more background: Mrs Tattoo and I lived in squats in London and Jersey City in the 1980s. I was an Artist; I was above cooking and cleaning. My clothes and all possessions (that werent nailed to the wall) lay in heaps on the floor. So I was the last person on earth to turn into a neat freak.
But that is exactly what had happened. After having our own flat re-decorated, and having survived the chaos of kitchen appliances being in the bedroom for a month, my tolerance for disorder was zero. And here was a house where chaos reigned supreme.
The Tattoos farmhouse was built in the late 18th century, a pioneer outpost at the time. Now a 90-minute car ride from Philadelphia, back then it would have been a day by horse and carriage. The 2-room building expanded over the centuries and was last renovated in the 1950s.
I know people who worship 50s kitsch, spend small fortunes to deck their pads out like Elvis himself lived there. But this place was authentic 50s – not trendy retro, but REAL 50s, and not changed in the decades since. They even had a treacherous metal 50s hi chair for the baby. We feared pinching fingers every time we put Lucy in it. The kitchen floor was so badly damaged it could not be cleaned; decades of grime was ground into millions of tiny cracks.
Instead of baby proofing the house, the Tattoos had the most well behaved two year old boy ever. Little Gino said please, thank you and bless you. He introduced Lucy to other kids when they came over: This is Lucy. Of course he was not a total angel all the time; cat: pull tail he instructed another two year old. But Gino was well versed in discipline. Up with baby oppression, down with baby freedom. A concept that has its advantages in this world of liberal parenting and out-of-control anti-social behaviour.
Mr Tattoo had recently suffered a serious knee injury, and Mrs Tattoo was doing her finals for her MA. I knew what pain was like so I had to understand. When my back was bad, I was bedridden and Sexton had to do everything. But this was more than a weeks worst of mess. And I couldnt write a paper if my house were in that state. 2 ageing cats and 2 elderly dogs hobbled around, constantly under peoples feet like a pack of wild animals, not helping matters one bit. Nicotine brown pervaded all rooms, giving everything a depressing din.
Then the family came home, the parties started, and all doubts and fears melted away. They couldnt organise their minions of possessions, but the Tattoos sure could throw a party. For 3 nights old friends and new children came over, drinking, eating and making merry until long after Sexton and I collapsed into bed. I remembered why we WERE here that these were my old friends, I loved them. I think it was Christmas day, Terry and I had a silly amount of mom time. While the kids took unusually long naps, we sat on the porch and talked and it was like old times. This was home, my real home, a house where I had never lived but felt more like home than the one I grew up in.
Lucy made herself at home very quickly, too. The only time she wasnt happy was when Mrs Tattoo would stand on the stairs, reaching out for my baby, since I still couldnt carry her. Lucy would look at the rather large woman with long, unkempt hair (um, not all that different to her moms hair) and scream. For some unknown reason Lucy seemed to fear Mrs Tattoo. The ghost of the stillborn daughter? This was a family that suffered tragedy after tragedy. I should not criticise their messy house, but praise their lovely son. Mr Tattoo read book after book to Gino, while Mrs Tattoo taught him his boundaries without sparing love. They are great parents, forever thankful for their second chance at parenthood.
Our little boy and girl kissed in the super market, destroyed all toys in their path, took a bath in the old porcelain kitchen sink, and wrestled on the sofas. They got on like a house on fire.
Too bad that the house seemed like a fire hazard…one night Sexton and I sat on the porch, a cosy little alcove that, by candlelight, felt like a little den, the clutter and dirt mere shadows in corners. We got scared, suddenly realised we were not in control, and our baby was asleep upstairs.
Bed was where fear set in. I lay in the dark room, hearing the ghost that Mrs Tattoo said went away when guests stay. In all the times Ive been here, I never had a creepy feeling. Until now. I even slept in this very room while pregnant, in the summer heat, and nothing seemed untoward. But now I was scared. I heard clicking noises and more people breathing than were in the room. It was as if the house was possessed. Or maybe it was the culmination of all my unease. I was scared for my country. It was falling apart. No, it was not my country, I hated the government, I always had. But this will always be where I came from. And its crumbling. And I am afraid. Its turning into a place I dont recognise.
Outside the bedroom was an obstacle course of furniture, rolled up carpet, piles of plastic bags full of god knows what, and books, leading to the bathroom. You had to navigate around a huge, dusty piece of industrial equipment to reach the toilet. It was either a giant vacuum cleaner in disrepair or part of an air conditioner in no better shape. The paint was peeling off the bathroom walls and the bathtub was unusable. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and the colours were like an old movie.
No matter how much the kids got on, and how many nice people came to visit, the dirt still got to me and Sexton. We were staying in the bedroom, the best place we had stayed so far in that there was room to walk around the double bed. But there was a huge pile of laundry in the corner. We aired the room out in the afternoons. We even asked for a vacuum cleaner once, which was in pieces, under the sofas downstairs. We couldnt work out how to assemble it and didnt want to complain. One day Mrs Tattoo did clear out some of the room. But the task was too big. There were more parties to be had and kids to look after.
On our last day, either Mr or Mrs Tattoo mentioned moving the gun that was in the dresser in Ginos room.
You mean theres a GUN in the room where the kids have been playing? I gasped.
Dont worry, its not loaded, said Mrs Tattoo.
The rest of the guns are in the room where youre sleeping! laughed Mr Tattoo. In the closet, a foot away from where I heard ghostly noises in the dark.
Um… how many?
The couple counted to themselves.. and came up with the number seven.
Ive known they had guns for a long time. Its just that things change once you have kids…
And Sexton only told me this after we left: one night, when Sexton was on the porch smoking, Mr Tattoo came in muttering to himself and looking on top of the giant freezer,”mm… ok… that guns loaded.. he said. And there was another night Mr Tattoo had to go out and get someone elses gun, because the guy was on holiday and thought someone was going to break into his truck and steal the gun.
There is definitely a strange mood in the USA now. Or have I really changed that much?