The Nearly Departed
Or, My Family & Other Foreigners
"Hilarious and charming and loony and quite nearly perfect."
— Augusten Burroughs, author of RUNNING WITH SCISSORS
Cullerton's parents were always eccentric. Her mother gardened in curlers, pop beads, and black satin underpants, while her father hid wads of cash in shoes in the garage. This is a haunting, heartbreaking, and incredibly funny book that is a love letter to parents, family, and home—however strange they may be.
Praise for The Nearly Departed:
"A wise, courageous, brutally honest and darkly hilarious memoir..."
— O Magazine
"Wildly humorous, bracing, even embracing...a tone-perfect sense of anecdote, and a commodious and forgiving heart..."
— The Miami Herald
"A Triumph of compassion. . . . This is a wise and fascinating book."
— Alice Elliott Dark, author of THINK OF ENGLAND and IN THE GLOAMING
Read an Excerpt:
"I have been in tens and tens of houses since Aff-rica."
When the weather's bad, Mom gets in the car and backs up to visit Dad. It's about fifty feet in reverse from her house to his, behind the garage. I don't know which is more dangerous — her driving or her walking. A month ago, she hit a tree. This was right after Christmas. She says it got in the way when she swerved off the road to avoid a jogger. "A jogger with antlers?" asked Eric, my brother's fifteen-year-old son. Mom has a tendency to "see" things, not just because she wears three pairs of glasses, one on top of the other, but because her vision, her perception of the world, is so brilliantly impaired.
Mother detests joggers. When they first arrived in the neighborhood with their 4 x 4s and custom-built "billion-dollar tract houses," Mom would follow alongside them in her car, beeping the horn and yelling: "What are you? Nuts? You're going to die of a heart attack, mister. Go home." Joggers were put in the same loathsome category as everything else that signified change: arugula, color television, even landing on the moon.
"Why would anyone ever want to go to the moon?" This was said with total disdain and amazement at a time when the whole country was euphoric about our conquest of outer space. For the next thirty years, Mom would repeat that same rhetorical question, replacing the word moon with Italy, England, France, Russia, Greenwich — In short, any destination her children or her husband were headed for that was beyond Ridgefield or Danbury, her hometown, twelve miles away. Mother's mind has always been willing to wander a great deal farther than the rest of her.
These days, I can only imagine the conversations our neighborhood joggers have with their wives. Who is this lunatic? they must wonder when they sprint past our house on the corner. This teeny-tiny woman who, rumor has it, petted and hugged her dog after he bit through the pant leg of her mailman? She was proud of Sandy. He was protecting her. He was heeding "the call of the wild," she said. Mother's entire life has been a call from the wild, a howl from the heart no one could hear. And now, at sixty-eight years old, the wild has finally claimed her.
Unfortunately, her house and all 9.2 acres of our property have gone with her. There's nothing left but the creaking bones of what was once a beautiful old colonial. The wood-shingled roof, soggy from years of snow and rain, has moss growing on it. Vines have crept up the walls and sealed some of the windows shut, and there's a smell in the kitchen that reminds me of the stink you get when you suck between the space of a rotten tooth. Eager-beaver Realtors probably assume it's a case of hard times, benign neglect. For those of us closer to the ruins, it's more like Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher. Mother and the house have become one. Aside from backing up to Dad's and the odd trip into town with Eric, Mom goes nowhere. Confined to a single room off the kitchen and barely able to put one foot in front of the other, she scuttles around sideways, clutching onto everything but straws for support.
As concerned as I am about my mother's deteriorating condition, it is the news about my father that has unexpectedly stunned me. Dad had a massive stroke eighteen years ago. He was fifty-one. But it's his heart and lungs that are finally failing him. Doctors say he has less than four months to live. With the scaly red patches on his face and scalp, the stray silver whiskers that stick out from the spots he misses while shaving, and his stream of obscenities, he too has become part of the wild. A primitive, unyielding force of nature as indomitable as the viselike grip of his left hand. The grip of that hand is still strong enough to break bones. But it is only when my own hand is caught within its grasp that I recognize some small part of the man I once knew as my father.
Dad hasn't had a kind word to say to anyone but the lady who delivers his Meals on Wheels in years. The best thing about his quadruple bypass four years ago was that it proved that he still had a heart. We all made jokes about the Tin Man. Then we giggled about Rasputin. Nothing seemed to kill my father off — Not strokes or heart attacks, not emphysema or the dozen Hershey bars and handful of Russell Stover chocolate-covered cherries that he devoured every day.
Even in his gray wooden cottage behind the garage has become as dark and uninviting as the man who inhabits it. Originally built by Dad's brother, Larry, for their mother after she had her stroke in the early 1970s, it is furnished with bits and pieces of my father's former life as a globe-trotting shoe executive. The green Kermanshah rug from an apartment we owned on Gramercy Park is covered with coffee stains and cigarette burns. There are greasy blue-and-white-striped canvas couches from our old summerhouse on Lake Candlewood and dusty cabinets, full of crystal and china, that haven't been opened since the days when my English grandmother invited us over for afternoon teas.
For years I have succeeded in maintaining a safe distance between myself and the devastation here in my old backyard. I would drive up to Ridgefield from New York with my husband, Richard, and two children, Jack and Nora, only for the occasional weekend in the summer and fall. These were seasons when sunshine, gentler weather, and the dense overgrowth of foliage helped disguise the extent of the damage. But January is a merciless month, a conspiracy of cold and melting snow that has left both the physical landscape and my own ambivalent feelings about this place I once called home brutally exposed.
If it were only my parents' divided lives and the prospect of their dying that I had to face in the months ahead, I would probably continue to cope the same way that I always have — by wearing emotional Kevlar. But there are others wandering in and around this landscape whose lives leave me feeling so profoundly unsettled that they have taken up residence even in my dreams. There is my uncle Larry, my aunt Janet, my brother, Geoff, and Stan, the man who rents the apartment on the other side of Mother's house. "Reality's refugees," my husband calls them. Driven, possessed, chased, they are unmoored — as unique as they are bereft.
A frequent visitor now that his brother is approaching his final departure, my uncle Larry is seventy-one years old and has been smoking vast amounts of pot for over thirty years. He has never paid federal taxes, worn a watch, or owned a telephone, and he sleeps like a fugitive in the front seat of his gray 1984 Honda with one hand on the steering wheel. With his bushy white beard, missing teeth, and long, unkempt hair tied into a ponytail, Larry could be Hunter Thompson's version of a gonzo Santa Claus. I once thought he was the Unabomber.
Stan, one of Mother's favorite people, is a stunning silver-haired ex-actor. Currently employed as a leisure-furniture salesman, he devotes most of his time to either running errands for Mom in his decrepit red Mazda (the license plates spell DREAMA) or working on his "special projects" on the lawn. His latest project is a half-built wooden bridge, which he intends to hoist from the shore of our pond, across three feet of water, to a tiny island where the skeleton of a weeping willow my father planted when I was young reminds me of the years when this property was the envy of the neighborhood.
My beloved aunt Janet, Mom's younger sister, is a petite blonde who usually arrives just before dark. A lifetime of chain-smoking non-filtered Camels and basking in the sun while slathered in baby oil and iodine has prematurely aged her. But it was the death of her only son ten years ago that left her truly desolate. Unable to lay his ghost to rest (Mark's ashes are still in a cardboard box in her garage), she has trouble sleeping in her own house in Fairfield. She arrives at dusk in an ancient yellow Datsun and departs shortly after dawn.
My forty-six-year-old brother, Geoff, is the other soon-to-be "permanent" resident. Temporarily camped out at Dad's and separated for the past six years from his wife, Marie, a towering Denueuve-like blonde who became my first best friend in Paris over twenty-six years ago, he is toying with the idea of either moving into a large tent or building himself a tar-paper shack near the barn. The barn, like every other structure in my backyard, is collapsing in on itself. But Geoff is using it to store the remnants of his own previous lives as a shoe designer and traveling sales man. With his gaunt good looks, dark green eyes, and deep throaty laugh, my brother is as handsome, as deliriously seductive and charming, as our father once was. But he is also at his wit's end. And without his wits, without a job, money, or a wife, I worry about what will become of him.
Oddly enough, the only person who appears to be at peace here is Gordon, a young man born in Africa who arrived two weeks ago to help take care of my father. Mother calls Gordon "our man from Ghana." Six foot four with heavily lashed brown eyes and short clipped hair, Gordon is full of optimistic plans to tame the wilderness around him, even to plant a garden in the spring. While I see only the mercilessness of winter and struggle with thoughts of death and disintegration, Gordon sees hope and the possibility of growth. It humbles me, his hope. "I have been in tens and tens of house since Aff-rica," he recently told me. "All over Conn-ecti-cut. And I have never felt so at home, so com-fort-able." (Gordon pays the same attention to my impossible father as he dos to pronouncing his syllables.)
How can this man who still brushes his teeth with a twig and whose face is covered with scars from childhood visits to a tribal witch doctor feel totally at home in my backyard while I, a forty-seven-year-old native and my parents' eldest daughter, feel so out of place? But then again, why shouldn't Gordon feel at home? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, our backyard may as well be Africa. That's how remote and impenetrable, how exotic, it is for anyone who lives with a facade still intact. There's been nothing gradual about the crumbling of our family's facade. It's been falling away in enormous chunks for most of my adult life.
Who would I be without my own facade? I wonder. Without this image of myself that I cultivate as carefully as Gordon plans to cultivate his garden? It is the image of a woman who has known loss but is never at a loss, a woman who can be relied on to hold things together, to keep them whole. This facade and the somewhat conventional life that I lead with my husband and children in New York are part of what makes me such a foreigner here in my own backyard. What frightens me most in gazing out at this half-frozen landscape, littered with rusted-out gutters, broken windowpanes, plastic lawn chairs, and with the ruins of too many lost and luckless lives, is the reminder of just how fragile facade can be.