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Excerpt: The House on Beartown Road

In her new memoir, Elizabeth Cohen tells of balancing suddenly single motherhood, care for her aging father, and her career as a smalltown paper's reporter and columnist.

By Elizabeth Cohen - April 18, 2003

Not so long ago we were just a family, like any family. We lived in New York City. I worked as a reporter at the New York Post and also wrote stories, essays, articles, and the occasional poem at a desk in the corner of our bedroom while Shane painted in the living room. The day our daughter was born, we walked the four blocks from our apartment to the hospital. Twenty-four hours later we returned, rolling Ava along in a stroller. One day we were two people, the next day we became three.

The following summer we strapped our daughter into a Snugli and took her to street fairs, parks, Indian restaurants, and an island off Greece. We saw all the other families, with their new babies, looking like us, doing what we were doing. Being a family like other families, doing family sorts of things, was a good feeling. It felt right.

I met my husband, Shane, in 1995 in the tiny town of Gallup, New Mexico, where I was living then. I first saw him at a party. It was instant. We moved toward each other and then stayed there. It was the easiest thing. There wasn't even anything resembling a date. We met and then were. It didn't require discussion.

I fell in love with his sense of humor, the whimsy and intelligence in his paintings that filled a loft in a storefront on the main street of town. I fell in love with the smell of his shirts. It was weeks before we revealed even the most introductory information about each other. By then, it was too late.

Shane is fifteen years younger and, by society's standards, entirely inappropriate for me. When we met, he'd assumed I was younger and I thought he was older. We liked the same music, food, books, and movies. We both liked to get in our cars and drive, straight into nowhere, without destinations or maps. We ventured into forests and canyons, through Navajo country, where the wind sculpts rocks into whimsical forms, and onto the Zuni reservation, where the broken hills are striped red and white with mineral deposits. Within two years we were married and moving to New York City to pursue our careers in writing and art.

But when we had our daughter, Ava, two years later, it was suddenly important to us to get back to a rural place, like the one where we had met. New Mexico seemed too far from New York City, so we started driving on weekends through New York State, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey, looking for newspapers where I could work and real estate where we might live. When we saw the old farmhouse on Beartown Road, near a medium-size paper that had offered me a job, it seemed destined.

It is a small white house, floating on the top of a hill in a sea of lilacs and hydrangea. It has creaking floors and leaded windows and a generous porch with two chairs on which we imagined spending long, lazy summer afternoons, drinking iced tea and reading novels. It has a tree for a swing, two more trees perfectly spaced for a hammock, and a huge loft space for Shane's paintings. It is a simple house, farmer-built. There is nothing fancy about it, but it is solid—a place where you think things will go right, people will love each other, and children will grow up happy and healthy. From the minute we walked through the rooms we knew it was for us. All of us.

Our family seemed to increase every day. The cats came to us on their own as cats do. First came Lulu, found in the rain in Manhattan before we moved; then, six months after we arrived came Milo, a long noodle of a cat who slips out of your arms as though oiled, a gift from Samme Chittum, a fellow journalist and friend, who had made the same career trek from Manhattan to the Binghamton paper; Twyla—later to be nicknamed Twy-twy—turned up one day on our front porch. Soon after came the dalmatians, Samo and Franny—a sister and brother we bought from the Shumachers, breeders down on Tunnel Road.

Life seemed idyllic. The world of my own childhood, of nightly slipping between clean, sun-dried sheets, having dined on meals made from my mother's favorite recipes, pressed between pages of her dog-eared copy of The Joy of Cooking, was repeating, in my life.

Night was a time of dark sugar, safe and sweet. My family curled inside it, myself between the warm bodies of my husband and baby, my father's shredding brain over a thousand miles away. From time to time, as we slept, someone would roll over and toss an appendage somewhere over someone else. My husband's arm would wrap around my waist. The baby would fling a leg over my arm. She tucks her toes beneath me the way I used to tuck my toes beneath my sister when we were small and slept together. And she breathes like my husband, in short, irregular snores.

I didn't know how sacred that sweetness was, nor fathom how quickly it could disappear. I had no clue how disaster could smack into a life and change everything.

But it did. It hit, and night and everything else would never be the same.

Daddy came to live with us in the sticky heat of August. I got the phone call from my sister, Melanie, late in the summer of 1999. Earlier that year Melanie had moved with her two children into my parents' home in New Mexico. It had become clear by then that something was wrong. My father was not himself. And my mother, whose health was failing, was not able to care for him alone.

We'd noticed the creeping changes in him for some time. After several fender benders, and fearful of his declining driving skills, my sister and mother convinced him to turn over the car keys in 1997. It was a battle. He got really mad, insisting that after fifty years he was a better driver than ever. But in the end he acquiesced. I believe he recognized that he had become dangerous behind the wheel. No one dared say the word. We circumvented it daily, the way you might avoid a homeless person raging in the subway. We mastered the euphemism. We said things like "mixed up," "confused," "spacey," and finally "unsettled" to describe him during those nights he walked from room to room, opening and shutting closet doors.

The house my mother had always kept antiseptic-clean and pin-neat had begun to swirl in papers and opened files. Clothes were strewn over the floor, drawers left open. Things were getting lost more and more frequently. His yellow urine stains could not be scrubbed out of the carpets near the bathroom, no matter what my mother tried. Caring for both of them, each with their own needs, was more than my sister—a single working mother—could handle.

What's more, my sister told me Mommy and Daddy were fighting—horrible shouting matches that ended with my mother in tears. "I don't want my kids to hear it," my sister said. "It's awful, she screams at him and throws things. Then he gets mad and yells back. She keeps calling him stupid." That was the first moment his disease became real to me. Before my sister told me about my parents' fights, it had been fuzzy—an if, a perhaps. In an instant it grew a shape. It became a thing, but a terribly unknowable thing, like a black hole in space. My parents were not the sort of parents who fought. They'd always agreed on everything. That my mother would ever call my father stupid was inconceivable.

They say black holes are invisible but that people know they are there because of their effect on the things around them, the way they chew up stars and galaxies. I knew Daddy's disease was real because of the way it was consuming our world, the people around him. My mother.

She had always worshiped my father and, in fact, had tended the hearth of his intelligence almost professionally for decades. She had typed the books he wrote. She filed, she annotated, she whited-out. She edited, rubber-banded, and paper-clipped his intelligence. She gave up her own jobs, as an administrator, a grant writer, a teacher, a potter, to be his assistant, his behind-the-scenes helper. This change in him, from brilliant to befuddled, defied everything she knew. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" she yelled at him several times a day.

Stupid was a strange word to hear from our mother. We were not stupid. We didn't know people who were stupid. We didn't call people stupid. It was foreign, a piece of linguistic shrapnel that had no place in our lives.

Our house had always been an intelligent house. Our family walked around inside it knowing things. The way some families play touch football or ski together, we exchanged facts. My mother's passion was crossword puzzles. From time to time she'd shout out queries, like "What was Jean Valjean's resort?"

From another room in the house, two or three of us would yell back, "Sewer."

"Creator of Mrs. Sarah Battle?"

"Lamb."

"No, that doesn't work."

"Elia," Daddy would say. "His pen name."

He knew the hard ones. That she had taken to calling him stupid was unfathomable.

"I can't take care of both of them," my sister said in that fateful phone call.

"Please, please," she asked, "take Daddy."

Take Daddy.

It was a request that I, like so many adult children, had never anticipated—to "take" one's parent. Especially my father, my fiercely opinionated, intellectual father. My parents are not the sort of people one imagines taking anywhere. They took themselves places. To London and New York in theater season; to Russia, Sweden, and Norway on cruises; to St. Croix in the winter; to the annual economic conventions where my father would give presentations before the leaders of multinational corporations. They took themselves to their favorite places, like the Golden Nugget, in downtown Las Vegas, where Daddy played low-stakes blackjack all night and my mother played the nickel slot machines. My parents went there every year, sometimes more than once. They knew the name of the chef.

In fact, in my experience, it was my father who took us places. He took the whole family on his sabbaticals and teaching assignments abroad. We'd lived in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico. He'd taken me to Israel with him, to a conference on international labor relations, when I was thirteen, and to field hockey practice when I was in high school. When I was in college at the University of New Mexico, where he taught, he used to take me to lunch at the Faculty Club, where a man named Gus would grill us hamburgers over charcoal.

You don't "take" my father. He takes you.

But not taking Daddy was an even more inconceivable thing to consider. What was the alternative? My sister said she couldn't handle living with both my parents. My mother had agreed.

"Take him," she reiterated.

"Of course," I said. Of course I would.

Daddy had come to all my ice-skating and ballet and piano recitals when I was little and clapped even though I was dreadful. He whispered my lines to me when I played Christopher Robin in the Albuquerque Children's Theater production of Winnie-the-Pooh. He brought my sister and me dolls from all over the world, Thailand, Kenya, Japan. And he'd always been good for a double pat on the back (but not hugs or kisses, he was not demonstrative that way) when I'd needed one.

To turn him away was impossible. So we took Daddy.

I discussed it with Shane. We were up for it, we made plans. We were even getting excited. We would give him Ava's room at the end of the hall and move her into the smaller room near us. Then he would have the view out twin windows down Beartown Road of the valley that filled every morning with mist. We would get a subscription to The New York Times and The New Yorker, his two favorite things to read. We would cook brisket, we'd stock the kitchen with rye bread and pastrami. We'd get better mustard.

After all, we had only one child and there were two of us. My job as a journalist wasn't quite as demanding as my sister's job in telecommunications. I could wear jeans to work; she had to put on suits and stockings every day. And we had this house we'd just bought, with more than five acres in the rural countryside of Broome County, New York. We took Daddy because it felt like the right thing to do. The good thing.

I had no idea.

Elizabeth Cohen is a reporter and columnist at the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. She has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Newsweek, among other publications. Excerpted from The House on Beartown Road by Elizabeth Cohen. Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. You can buy The House on Beartown Road at Amazon.com.



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