left and leaving, the first

This is part two of a series about how, in another life, I was an au pair. You can read part one here. An index of the whole series lives here. It was originally published on December 28, 2009.


I spent my last week in America painting rooms in the house that my mother had bought that summer. During my sophomore year of college she had moved to upstate New York, and I hadn’t been back to my hometown since. Who was left there to visit? My former piano teacher, but was he still alive? My ex-non-step siblings? There must be someone left there who I once knew, but who?

My college friends went home for the summer at the end of each school year. I went to visit my mom in New York and my dad in New Jersey, but home had already become a relative concept. Home was where my books were, where ever I was, in whatever apartment I was staying in at the time. There was an apartment-above-the-garage outside of Saratoga Springs where I spent a summer working as a live-in part-time babysitter for three sweet, dull accountant’s children. There was an apartment-above-the-garage in Vermont with my freshman-year roommate and her family. There was a series of boxy white-walled rooms in college dormitories.

My senior year of college, I had moved into an apartment downtown with two friends. The bedrooms were barely bigger than the mattresses on their floors, but the kitchen, dining room, and living room were spacious, high-ceilinged. Our landlady was an eccentric junk-sculptor who spent the summers in Saratoga and the winters somewhere in New Jersey. During the summer the scent of her chain-smoked cigarettes seeped through the wall I shared with the one-room shanty she had tacked onto the back of the house.

During the winter we had peace and the junkman sculpture looming quietly from her little porch. We also had the “jungle” mural she’d painted on every wall of the smallest bedroom. Green streaks smeared the walls, flames (or parrots?) adorned their crowns. A monkey sprawled directly above the bed, arms reaching, eye sockets two empty brown gouges in the plaster ceiling.

Now I was moving to Germany where I would live with the family I’d be working for. A dangerous arrangement no matter what the job. But I didn’t think about what I was doing. I painted, and at 3 am the night before my flight I packed: clothing and supplies laid out on the bed and hastily thrown into two suitcases. I wasn’t leaving home. I was taking it with me. When the concept of home stopped being a static, unmovable place, I got to know it as something flexible and moving: something I could have as much of as I needed as long as I didn’t try to nail it down.

We drove out to Newark, I got on the red-eye flight to Frankfurt, one-way ticket in hand, and I woke up in Frankfurt am Main.

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