The night before I left, my mother slept in bed with me. She was afraid to sleep alone. I awoke to her reaching for me with her left hand, the one that shook involuntarily with what doctors call an essential tremor, as if the tremor were a necessary thing. In the dark room, far past midnight, the tremor rustling the sheets and my arm, I felt the familiar, overwhelming frustration that could clobber me no matter how hard I tried for it not to. Her shaking hand, gripping my arm, her desperate need to feel that I was there. I hated it. The need. The fear. That she was gone already, a ghost beside me in my bed. She had dementia, had had it already for ten years—a slow, steady decline until she couldn’t formulate sentences, had to wear diapers, had accidents, was always anxious to go home, worried about the babies, so worried about the babies. I hated her dementia. I was angry with it. The trembling hand had an urgent grip on me. I grabbed it and held it hard so that it was forced to stop shaking. I hated myself. Gone was my mother. The dementia had replaced her with a quaking, shaking hand. I got up, got her up, and led her down the long hall covered in portraits of us as children, the ten of us, photos my mother had taken herself, to her own room, where I tucked her into her bed and gave her a cold, fast kiss.
I had been with her for a year, sheltering in place with her during the pandemic, in my childhood home. My husband, my daughter, my son, our cat, and our dog had come to her from New York City on March 15, 2020—the pandemic spreading around the globe, a tide of death and destruction whose surging numbers were now, a year later, too big for the mind to take in. Indeed, much about the experience of the pandemic seemed to expose not just the limits of my brain’s ability to process the daily scale of death, but to reveal, from the moment we began to isolate by the millions, the early onset of a condition that, because of our individual separateness, didn’t have a name, though it did have its own uncanny prefiguration in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude—the episode in which a village slowly loses its collective mind. The village inhabitants cope by leaving notes for themselves everywhere to guide them through their days, the notes moving from the practical sort you might find in a kitchen to the metaphysical sort (“There is a God”): a set-piece moment of magical realism that came to seem more like cinema verité. The country of my birth was like that village unmoored from memory, like my mother, whose sense of both identity and direction were disappearing in front of me.
In March 2021, I was the last one of my family remaining here in New Jersey. My daughter had returned to college, my son to high school, and my husband to take care of him in our old life in New York City. We had a new president; the country hadn’t fallen apart, or not yet, anyway; one hundred million people had been vaccinated, with two hundred million more projected by the coming May. The dismay and bafflement I’d felt, as a pervasive national mood, had been replaced by a wave of relative sanity, determination, damage assessment, and repair to institutions that seemed to depend too much on the presumption that public office holders would act in good faith.
The year had been a disaster for my son, Jasper, a high school junior; he’d resisted every minute of our year in New Jersey and now refused to visit, but he pleaded with me to come home for his spring vacation, to come with him and my husband to visit two of my sisters in Idaho, where one of them had recently moved. People were traveling again. I had gotten vaccinated, along with my husband, so I made plans for Idaho.
I was afraid to leave. It was an abstract fear—one I couldn’t quite identify or make sense of, but that I had plenty of excuses for: though my mother had a caregiver named Dayana, here with her son from Colombia, the job was too big for one person alone; we had also begun projects at my mother’s, my family and I—the garden, the flock of chickens now full-grown and laying ten eggs a day and needing care; the eradication of a bamboo grove; and the forest. There was a massive restoration project that involved creating an understory; there were invasive species to be removed, native grasses to be seeded, oak and maple saplings to be planted. There was so much fixing still to do. I was afraid that if I left, I would lose all that I’d made and restored in the past year at my childhood home—that it would be taken away, cease to exist, would slip through my fingers and become nothing, that without me my mother would die. As frustrated as I was with her condition, as hard as it was to watch her die incrementally, I felt I was keeping her safe. If she was safe, if she was alive, there was still time to understand what I was doing in New Jersey, what I wanted from the past, and, somehow, to fix all of it: the house, the land, my mother, my childhood. My need to repair and renew was urgent, desperate. My mother had messed up a lot. I couldn’t have put it so concretely in the moment, and in that year in New Jersey I often wondered what I was doing there—but I would come to see that my fear of leaving was inextricably bound to my desire to understand what had happened, and to make it better.
My mother too was afraid. I could feel it. She understood something was very wrong with her, but not what. She understood more than we allowed. She understood that I was leaving and it upset her. On the few occasions I had gone away for a night or two, she always pleaded, “Don’t go,” a haunting in her eyes. “Don’t go.” Though she struggled to form anything coherent, she could say those two words. What she really meant was anybody’s guess, but it kicked up an ambiguity I am almost ashamed to admit to. My mother’s métier was to be improvident, making herself vulnerable to the winds of chance, a characteristic that could be endearing but which also meant she had prepared for nothing. It was left to my sisters and me to sort things out, and as I was the one with her, the sorting out fell to me. I too wanted to be taken care of—I wanted her to take care of me—and it was not going to happen. That’s what I saw in her terrified eyes, in her quaking hand. Even so, I didn’t want to leave. I believed that if I just worked harder, I could fix even this.
But I did leave for Idaho.
We were in our seats, the plane idling on the tarmac waiting to be de-iced. It was six a.m. I leaned my head against the window and felt suddenly the onslaught of a tremendous, overpowering emotion, a vision, as clear as day: my mother appeared before me, my mother as she had once been and as I hadn’t seen her in many years. Pryde, named by her own mother for a girl she’d met as a child in the West—a pretty girl who was killed when a horse kicked her in the head. My mother always hated the name. She was there saying goodbye to me some forty years before at this same airport as I was setting off on an adventure to Italy on a summer exchange. She was smiling and so young, my stepfather at her side—both of them excited for what lay ahead for me. There she was returning home late after a day at work, camera bags hanging off her shoulders, tired, but smiling—her beautiful gap-toothed smile, her blond hair. There she was digging up myrtle from deep in the woods behind our old house in Princeton, my three older sisters and I, very young, helping her, placing the uprooted ground cover with the little blue pinwheel flowers into a child’s red wagon to carry home to be transplanted into our garden. There she was alone with me in the kitchen of that same home, my sisters racing down the driveway late to catch the school bus, and how I loved to be alone with her, to have her to myself, hoping my sisters would stay at school forever. I never wanted to leave her side as a little girl. In fact, I refused to go to nursery school and spent the day with her instead at Head Start in town, where she volunteered as a teacher. There she was at Brown’s in London for tea, my sisters and me in matching Liberty print dresses she had made herself on the Singer. There she was walking my children to school when they were young, singing to them about lambs and ivy. There she was behind her camera telling me to “Relax your lip, Martha.” There she was driving with my sisters and me late into the night in our old beat-up green station wagon, trying to decide if she should leave my stepfather or not. He had a temper, had hit her, had caused her to get stitches and suffer a concussion, but she had a baby with him, still in a crib, our little sister, Joan. There Mom was taking me to Radio City Music Hall for my birthday in June because I wanted to see the Christmas Spectacular. She tried to explain that it was June, but I insisted the Rockettes would be there. I insisted on a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake, too, that we’d bring home for everyone to share. I refused to believe that it would melt. She bought it anyway and anyway it melted in the car on the drive from New York City to home. There she was stealing daffodils from the yard of an abandoned house. A cop caught her and arrested her, had very little sense of humor as she tried, the way she could with that smile of hers, to flirt her way out of the situation. There she was laughing as my stepfather told the story of her arrest to the dinner table filled with kids, the ten of us—his five, Mom’s four, and their one. Then the whole table was laughing at Mom’s arrest for stealing the jolly sunny flowers for our yard.
The images didn’t stop. They just kept coming. Mom as I hadn’t seen her in years, so immersed in the present, so aware of the shedding of herself, piece by piece by piece, the disease eating her alive. I could not stop the tears. My husband looked at me, baffled as the plane lifted off, sympathetic as we sailed across Pennsylvania, confused and then alarmed as we slid through a fog so dense you could see nothing outside the window, consoling as we approached Salt Lake City on the initial descent, holding my hand as we took off again for Hailey. I was careful not to let Jasper see, but I could not stop the tears. I had never cried like this before. Just when I thought the crying was finished a new image of my mother would appear. There she was in her first photography studio in Princeton, New Jersey, with her partner Elaine, both of them pulling back the skin of their cheekbones; “Just one tuck,” they would say. There she was in her garden battling the weeds, which didn’t seem to understand the word no, the persistent chrysanthemum weeds with their endless subterranean root system that her drive and determination and her Japanese sickle would conquer. There she was lying in bed with me as a teenager, afraid that I was pregnant, sobbing against her chest, her hand stroking my head, reassuring me. There she was alive and beautiful and my mother, fully intact and in charge of herself, spoiling my children, decorating the Christmas tree, hanging the Easter eggs from the chandelier, eggs that we had blown and painted ourselves over the years; there she was giving us Advent calendars at Thanksgiving though we were well into our thirties. There she was racing into the city to help with a child’s birthday party, to be there at a birth, for a celebration, for anything we needed. Imperfect mother, yes, but there now before me as I raced across the sky, alive, sitting with me on the deck overlooking the vast lawn and the field beyond, sipping a glass of wine with me at dusk as the sun spilled colors across the evening. “Isn’t it so beautiful here,” she’d always say. There she was.
And then this happened: up there in the sky, the Rockies spreading out as far as I could see, the sun dazzling the snowcapped peaks, I realized that I wasn’t afraid that I would lose what I had made across the last year in my childhood home. Rather, now that I had left, I was afraid I might never return home again, that I’d prefer to be Elsewhere, that I’d discover that I didn’t care to continue the quest, to do the work, that it was all right to leave the past unresolved. Mothers make mistakes, sometimes really big ones for which there can be no apology.
OMEGA FARM, MY MOTHER’S home, sits on top of a hill, the highest point in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, with sweeping views over fields and farms, the Sourland Mountains unfurling in the distance to meet a big and open sky. When you sit on the deck, which faces north and overlooks the lawn and fields, the sun rises on your right, just beyond a barn and another field and chicken run, a rooster crowing. The sun sets in spectacular fashion across the valley. The midday heat, which comes on hard and thick in July, is cut in half by a canopy of enormous oaks and ash. So complete is the canopy that a satellite image on Google shows only trees—no house. My mother owns that house and the forty-five acres surrounding it, thirty-five of which is forest tumbling south down a hill to a creek along which run trails with rock stairs, rock crossings, cathedral trees rising several stories high—oak, ash, poplar. The land is in a trust, the Delaware & Raritan Greenway Land Trust, which means that it can never be developed, and that strangers can hike the well-made trails. Our forest abuts other privately owned and preserved forests and also a stretch belonging to the State of New Jersey. There are neighbors. There is mail and package delivery, the mailbox at the bottom of a long gravel driveway, but somehow the idea of affixing an “address” to this place seems particularly misplaced. The house, near the village of Ringoes—just seventy miles from New York City, fifty miles from Philadelphia, ten miles from Princeton, five miles from Lambertville in the too easily maligned, benighted State of New Jersey—is located in the most densely populated state in the country. Even so, the only thing that arrives from that wider, crowded world is the wind falling into the trees.
In the 1920s, the Farm, as we call it for short, though it is not really a farm at all and never has been in the traditional sense, was a hunting compound of three cottages—two smaller ones and the main house, added onto over the years until, when my stepfather, Dan Sullivan, bought the place in 1970, it looked more like a ranch-style house than a hunting lodge. He bought it from a woman who had recently lost her husband. She had two young sons. She told Dan she couldn’t care for the place the way it needed to be cared for without her husband. She told Dan the place needed to be loved.
There were nine children in the house, plus the baby my stepfather and mother had together—so as our blended family came together, lofts rose through the ceilings, a wing extended from one end of the house, transforming a garage into bedrooms. A dining room got pushed out from the kitchen, the walls replaced by plate-glass windows and sliding glass doors so that sitting down for a meal felt like you were hanging above the yard in the trees.
At the far end of the new wing, Dan added an indoor swimming pool that he kept heated at 105 degrees with a furnace all its own. Sliding Japanese doors with their smoked panes sealed in a steam so thick you couldn’t see your hand. Dan practiced as a Gestalt therapist, though he wasn’t legally licensed, and often, naked, he’d see his patients, also naked, in the pool.
The house itself—wood paneled, stone fireplaces, big, exposed beams—was covered in Haitian art, which Dan, in an antinomian moment of inspiration, collected and hoped to sell. His fascination with Haiti led him somehow to both divorce his wife and then marry my mother there—at least this was what I gleaned as a kid. Whatever the case, for a long while his marriage to my mother wasn’t recognized in the state of New Jersey. With each trip, Dan brought back more Haitian art. He bought wood-panel carvings, metal carvings, ebony sculptures, colorful and fantastically naïve images, somber styles, virgins feeding their baby Christs, Eve tempting Adam with forbidden fruit, funeral processions, voodoo ceremonies, an enormous pink fish with a belly filled with a crab eating mangoes. He would unload these marvels on weekend New York sophisticates in his Jacmel Gallery, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, across the Delaware from Lambertville. There was a logic to it all, but over time these works took up residence on our walls, and, like a town committed to an idea—The Home of the World’s Largest Corn Palace—the house became a repository for a trend still awaiting its moment.
The place was stuffed with stuff. Dan’s first wife, Sally, was a newspaper heiress. Her father had owned the Times of Trenton and oil interests in Texas. She inherited eighteenth-century cupboards and cabinets, side tables, Louis Comfort Tiffany objets, Vuitton steamer trunks, a pair of swords that dated to the French Revolution, sterling silver, cranberry crystal, Rosenthal china, Bohemian glass. The house was a kaleidoscopic mix of African and Haitian art, and traditional furniture, dinnerware, and specialized silver dinner implements and doodads—grape shears, a potato fork, a cake breaker, a butter pick—that had no practical contemporary exigence. Plants and books were everywhere. A swinging couch. Persian rugs. An orange laminate kitchen straight out of an electric Kool-Aid acid test. In photographs of the time, usually for holidays and other occasions, Dan could be seen sporting an ascot, jaunty suspenders. On his ring finger sat an enormous turquoise ring. He was a would-be philosopher and a dandy trapped in the body of a Texas showman who loved opera and enjoyed showboating and wrong-footing dinner guests and disarming the locals with a glad hand and a wink.
He and Sally had lived in Africa, London, and Paris, so the house felt like a wing of the British Museum, with all the associated colonialist baggage, in miniature: there were marble busts, African masks and spears, sculptures of Joan of Arc, a bit of ivory and a couple stuffed birds, a puffin. Photographs lined the halls. Along with the portraits taken of us by my mother, there were also portraits of ancestors staring out from another century, forgotten faces squinting back at you from a great distance. There was even a signed portrait of Queen Victoria, hanging there on the wall like a relative. If there was anything for a kid to learn by studying the contents of the house, it seemed to be that history was completely mad, off its rocker, and that history’s citizens, at least as pictured here, were pretty grumpy about what had happened.
If you believed this Texas storyteller, who drove into our lives in a turquoise Cadillac belonging to his father-in-law, the whole place was history. According to Dan, the house sat on the site of a sacred Lenape burial ground. He told us that if we looked hard enough, we could find Lenape coins and arrowheads. He told us that George Washington had camped at the foot of our driveway near the Alexauken Creek on his way to defeat the British troops at what is now known as Washington Crossing.
He told us a lot of things when we were kids. John Ringo, founder of our town, had buried a bunch of gold up here. In the evenings sometimes, Dan would have all us kids climb a ladder so we could sit on the roof of one of the barns. He’d light a joint, which he liked to do, and take a deep long puff, then pass it around. From up there, he told us, you could see New York City. This was as untrue then as it is now. You can look as hard as you want from that roof, but you will never see New York City. But that was Dan—and all of us kids looked hard just the same: for the arrowheads, for the Indian coins, for the hidden chest of John Ringo’s gold, for New York City. Dan infused everything with a certain kind of magic and lore. The name Omega Farm, for instance, was a nod to his favorite philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote about a future time when everything in the universe spirals into one unified point—the Omega Point. So, Omega Farm—with its tone of utopian aspiration tempered by the common straw of everyday life—suggested the old joke about utopias: that the only thing wrong with them was that they included other people.
BEFORE WE MOVED TO the Farm, my mother, sisters, and I lived just down the road on the outskirts of Princeton in a big white colonial in the woods on Drake’s Corner Road. Long after we left Drake’s Corner Road for the Farm, I would still consider it my real house, the Farm some kind of fake house, imposter house, temporary house, my real home waiting for me to return to it. In it were my bedroom and my dolls and my things and my family, all ordered and tidy, and built by my mother and father early in their marriage. My parents split up in the spring of 1969, and as I remember it, my mother went to her bed and stayed there for what seemed a long time.
At the suggestion of a friend, my mother started seeing Dan, who ran a Gestalt therapy clinic in Princeton. At the time, he lived there, too, with Sally and their children. In town, Dan had a reputation as a feminist, a supporter of women, even organized sit-ins in pubs that excluded women. Although he was unlicensed, he advertised himself as a therapist and worked with groups on realizing sexual equality. His thesis was essentially sound: the dehumanizing role we ascribe to women was good for neither sex. Only if men and women could be equal could true romantic love be achieved. But he was also something of a con man, a serial philanderer. He was, as people sometimes like to say, a complicated figure, a charismatic figure, a man who was convinced he was helping women realize their full potential. If he sometimes slept with those same women—well, it was the seventies, after all. For Christmas one year, he gave me a punching bag to toughen me up; another year, for the same reason, he gave me a BB gun. I absorbed the rightness of his cause, on my behalf, and on the behalf of all women, and us kids threw ourselves into the project with the full conviction and certainty of a just cause. He gave all of us stickers that read THIS AD INSULTS WOMEN, THIS MOVIE INSULTS WOMEN, THIS BOOK INSULTS WOMEN, and he encouraged us to stick them everywhere that warranted them. And we did, marching all over Princeton, into stores and movie theaters, slapping those stickers onto everything that offended us—but that was later.
As it happened, Dan’s clinic was located in a dilapidated farmhouse just a short distance through the woods from our house. Mom got herself out of her bed and made her way to one of those sessions and soon she fell in love.
BY THE SUMMER OF 1970, his kids and the four of us were traveling out west together, crammed into the back of a camper that was perched on the back of a pickup truck. We drove all over California and Oregon, stayed with friends of Dan’s who “hated” children, distant relatives who hardly recalled how we were related—the nine children spilling from the camper to take over the house and lives of whoever was hosting us. In Big Sur, we stayed at the Esalen Institute, where the adults wandered around naked, to the mortification of us kids, while Dan held group therapy sessions.
As children, we were divided into the “big kids” and the “little kids.” I was second youngest, a little kid—until Mom and Dan had the baby, Joan. In San Francisco, the big kids got to accompany Mom and Dan to a production of Hair, regaling the rest of us with stories of the cast naked on stage. Naked was a theme, a prolonged seventies-era meme. All the way through Oregon, up into Washington and the Cascades, the kids sang “Aquarius” and “Manchester England” and “Frank Mills,” dreamy and longing, which made all of us want to find a man named Frank Mills.
The trip ended with three of us—Dan’s daughter Carrie, my sister Sarah, and me—lost deep in the Cascade mountains. We were on a five-day hiking trip. I had stopped to rest. Sarah and Carrie stopped with me to be sure I wasn’t alone. When we started again, we took a wrong turn. Night came on and it was very dark so we unfurled our sleeping bags at the edge of the trail, each of us taking turns watching for the coyotes we could hear howling in the distance.
Mom and Dan and the other kids stumbled onto a cabin where a bunch of geologists lived. They were eating their dinner and offered our group what remained. Everyone was hungry because we hadn’t packed enough food for the trip and had already run low. Mom and Dan told them they’d lost three of their children. The geologists set off to find us, leaving the others to finish the leftovers—which they did, every last bite. Nothing remained, not even a scrap. Eventually, they found us in our spot at the edge of the trail. I was five years old; Carrie was eight; Sarah was nine.
We were now a family of some kind. It didn’t matter that Dan was still married to Sally, that we still lived on Drake’s Corner Road, that the Sullivans were moving from Princeton to the Farm, and that my parents were in the midst of a bitter divorce that somehow involved the courts declaring that we, the McPhee girls, were not allowed to see Dan Sullivan or Yolanda Harrop—my father’s girlfriend. I can still remember the name of my father’s lawyer, Principato, called Prince. I had thought his first name was Prince and his last name Appato. My mother would be frequently distraught by the bad deals Principato tried to make for alimony and child support, yelling and crying about the pittance. “Who can live on that?” Mom would shout, her expression a mix of fear and hatred that terrified me as I also calculated my value based on the amount offered for our support. I thought Principato was an evil prince.
My mother’s lawyer was Henry Hill, a fat, jolly man who had a desperate crush on my mother. He had a little airplane and he’d fly us places for the day—to Maine, to go to the beach, to dig for clams. Some days he’d simply fly upside down above our house, later at the Farm. “It’s Henry,” Mom would say with her smile, pointing at the sky.
No one cared about the law. We saw Yolanda. We saw Dan. He’d come to our house on Drake’s Corner Road in the middle of the night and park his Cadillac in the woods. On the way to school, we’d see it from the window of the bus, lurking there in the trees. But we kept quiet.
After Dan and Sally bought the Farm, we would drive out from Princeton for the afternoon and end up spending the night. Though their marriage was coming apart, still sometimes Sally was there, which was just plain awkward, though Sally never made me feel it; she was kind and gentle and always interested in anything us kids had to say.
On one early occasion visiting the Farm, we brought our new puppy, a sheepdog with long curly white hair. He had a name, Maximilian de Winter, that seemed to call for an ascot, and we loved him. He drowned in the indoor swimming pool, found by my sister Sarah, whose scream I can still hear. Another beloved dog of ours, Smokey, came with us for a visit and was run over, one of her hind legs crushed beyond repair.
THE BEAUTY OF THE natural world wasn’t something I was able to appreciate as a kid. The Farm was in the woods, but I was no Emerson or Thoreau. There were so many kids. The two cottages were filled with teenagers, friends of Danny and Mary, Dan’s two oldest—kids with names like Dougal and Janice and Snooky, Pat, Marvin, and Martin. They were both Black and white. They listened to Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, smoked and drank. The vast field in front of the house and abutting our lawn belonged to a man named Heston, which made me think of Charlton Heston, and in summertime this field was always tall with corn. In that corn, the big kids, and Dan, grew pot, and Dan always worried that any helicopter flying overhead was the police. His worry made us all fearful. On a couple occasions the police actually did come, one time in spectacular cinematic fashion (so recorded in family lore), descending on ropes from a helicopter to find and confiscate the pot in the field, pulling it from the ground, then flying off again. I do not actually believe this happened, but there was a penchant for dramatic stories and they had a way of becoming part of the family narrative. Ditch weed is what the Big Kids called Dan’s pot.
If we were financially comfortable, the McPhee family, the Sullivans were rich. Their mother took them on exotic trips—to Martinique, to Hawaii. They had a beloved nanny who had worked for them for years. Her name was Bertha and she lived in Trenton but was too old to care for them. She cooked a favorite cake of theirs that Dan would drive to Trenton to pick up from her, bringing it home to his kids, who savored it like gold. They had a bulldog named Peggy and a golden retriever named OJ for O. J. Simpson. Everything was OJ—clothes, sheets, towels, helmets. On the vast front lawn, they played endless games of football, which my sisters and I eventually did, too, the towering ash trees marking the end zones, Dan drawing plays on his palm. There was an immediate hierarchy: Sullivans on the top; McPhees on the bottom. My sisters and I listened to Dan; Dan’s kids did not listen to Mom—or so it seemed to me.
At night, the dinner table was crowded and often argumentative, the tectonic pressures, resentments, shifting allegiances, and betrayals of two very different families suddenly erupting, say, over the issue of abortion. Roe v. Wade was very much in the news. As a Catholic, Dan was stridently against abortion, even though swirling among the children whispers passed from ear to ear, could be true or not true, that my mother had been pregnant twice before giving birth to Joan. I didn’t understand exactly what this meant as a child, but I absorbed it enough to know my mother was going through something big and scary that she was trying to fix. When she went away one weekend (to have an abortion, I imagined then, believe now), my sisters and I stayed with our father, who by 1972 was living with Yolanda and her four children at her house in Princeton. It wasn’t Dad’s weekend, so it felt like we got something extra, but getting something also furthered my perception that all was not right, and rather that something was very wrong. I wrote my mother a letter. All it said was “I love you.” I wrote the words many times across the front and the back of the page. Then I folded it, stole a stamp from my father’s desk in his office at Yolanda’s house. I dropped the letter in the mailbox just outside her front door and raised the red flag. My father and Yolanda discovered the letter, read it, and were alarmed, worried, I suppose, about the burden of my attachment to Mom—or perhaps my desperate need to reassure her with my love. She was only gone for the weekend, and they had no idea (I don’t believe) about the abortion, that she was suffering. They told me, sitting with me in Dad’s office, that Mom knew that I loved her.
DAN AND THE BIG kids would fight about abortion using terms I didn’t understand, words like quickening and sentient flying across the table, the tide of rage rising. When it wasn’t abortion, it was the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Israel. Always the same fights, which went so late into the night that Mom would disappear into Dan’s bedroom, lulled to sleep by the rhythms of Dan’s mildly subversive waterbed, a word that, by itself, conjures an entire gaudy family, long extinct, of 1970s-era enthusiasms that populated the house—fondue pots, egg-shaped cocoon chairs suspended from the high branches of an oak, swinging in the air—while my sisters and I found a place to sleep on the floor in the living room, curling into each other, wondering how we’d get to school in the morning.
IN THE FALL OF 1969, my parents only recently separated, Mom still in her bed, my father’s roommate from college, Bo Goldman; his wife, Mab; and several of their many children moved in with my sisters, Mom, and me at Drake’s Corner Road. They were very poor. Bo was a struggling screenwriter and wasn’t having any luck selling his scripts to Hollywood. Mab made stuffed animals for children, sewed them herself, to bring in some extra cash. Mom was struggling and neither family could make ends meet, so the idea was that together we’d have more, and life would be easier. My mother was always very busy wanting to help other people. It was as if by helping others she was helping herself, by fixing others she was fixing herself, but it never quite seemed to work out that way. Bo moved into Dad’s office in the garage and worked there. Mab took over the house, the kitchen, and started feeding us organic foods—things like Tiger’s Milk and liver, lots of beans. Their kids moved into our bedrooms, sharing them with us. Mab became the gatekeeper of our world and Mom surrendered to her. Mom liked to do that, too, cede control, let others decide for her. Mab made it her job to keep my father out. He left; he had no business returning. When he picked us up for school, she would not allow him to drive up to the house, physically blocking his car by standing at the foot of the driveway. At one point she erected a chain between two trees so that his car could not pass. She changed our telephone number and would not let my sisters and me know the new number. If we learned the number—my sister Sarah would go sleuthing until she found it—Mab changed it again. She didn’t want our father to know it. There was no reason for this other than to punish Dad.
The Goldmans stayed with us for a couple of years and then moved to Hollywood. In the late 1970s Bo became famous for the script to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, followed by Melvin and Howard, for which he received his second Oscar, followed by Shoot the Moon—the story of my parents’ divorce, likely written while he lived with us, typing away in my father’s office in the garage.
THE BACK AND FORTH between Princeton and Ringoes, between my old home and what was becoming my new home, ended in the spring of 1973. My parents were finally divorced, and my mother was very pregnant with Joan. Was this to be the Omega Point? The only point that Omega Farm represented to me then was the upheaval and disorder of a momentary whim that had gone off the rails. In the mornings, we were always late to school, piled into the Cadillac. Many times, I went to school wearing two different shoes. Afternoons, one of the friends of my older stepbrother, long hair flying, a cigarette in one hand, a beer between his legs, would pull into the school parking lot like an extra from Easy Rider, rev the car engine so that everyone in the straitlaced, buttoned-down world of Princeton could watch me climb into the back of the Turquoise Cadillac and thereby become properly, righteously, discomfited.
WE ATE DINNER VERY late, my mother, now a photographer, returning from work with the camera bags hanging off her shoulders, my stepfather sometimes glowering with rage. The abortion and PLO arguments that could swell to violence were well underway. All his life, Dan held forth, center stage, leveraging his Texas drawl when it suited his audience, and never once did he seem to decline a pleasing impulse. He had studied to be a Jesuit priest at Grand Coteau in Louisiana but had been expelled for having sex with another novitiate. He had affairs easily. He smoked too much pot, drank too much wine, took LSD with RD Laing on several occasions—just to see what it was like. As a child, I had no idea who RD Laing was, but just the way the story was told, the way the name was said, added to the mythos of Dan. Dan and Mom were always rushing off to the car, ice clinking in drinks in hand, late to the symphony or the opera in Philadelphia or New York.
I thought it best to stay quiet and not draw attention to myself, but I watched and here is what I saw: adults stoned or drunk or exhausted or all three; children filled with turbulence and rage—pushed together and told to get along—stealing each other’s clothes and small possessions; children who played mean tricks on each other, laughed, forgave each other, went on adventures, prattled in the wee hours about nothing, but mostly—and this was because of the older kids, who could sniff out a fraud when they saw it—mocked and ironized to a fare-thee-well the way Omega Farm was neither one thing nor the other, neither farm nor utopia, but mostly, really, a big sprawling, chaotic mess with Neil Young playing from speakers nailed to the trees.
DAN WAS A HANDSOME man, thinning hair, blue eyes. He wore a cowboy hat and had a half squint that, when focused on you, could make you feel like the most special person in the world. He played poker with wealthy men in town, town being Princeton, and with some of the police. When he won, he shared the wealth, handing out bills to us, and he won a lot. He wore his ascots and his cravats and his brightly colored pants half-ironically. He loved people, an audience. The house was always filled. There were frequent parties—the lawn taken over by champagne and hot-air balloons lifting into the evening sky. We were always in debt, the taxman was always coming for us—but no matter, it didn’t interfere with Dan’s vision. An orchard, a hedge of forsythia against the field to serve as a snow fence a quarter mile long, sunshine yellow in the spring, a garden overflowing with vegetables and flowers in summer. We raised sheep, goats, a donkey, peacocks, ducks. We ate the lamb for Christmas and Easter. The chickens laid eggs that we collected in the morning and at dusk, finding them in their nest boxes like a surprise each time. A local farmer harvested grass for feed from our field. For a few years, we even had a raspberry farm.
AND THEN WE ALL grew up and moved away, the ten of us spreading across the country, many of us vowing never to return. “The scene of the crime of my childhood,” one of my sisters said. My stepfather died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. We married, had children, developed our careers, grew older ourselves. My mother started forgetting things, slowly yet steadily—one by one our names slipping away along with all else.
But something happened.
Sitting on the deck above the lawn at dusk, my kids, their cousins, would sometimes declare their own love, too, for the majesty of the view as the sun slid west, its colors leaking across a horizon punctuated in the distance by a hot-air balloon. It brought to mind all the many sunsets that came before—the garden parties and pig roasts, the football games, the tobogganing down the hill, the weddings, the quiet evenings with my mother sipping a glass of wine. The slow, majestic beauty of an afternoon as it built toward sunset was something I’d enjoyed but never treasured, at least not until the kids, these teenagers growing into adults, who had no deep past here, but now understanding what was what, had said it. What they were saying indirectly, I realized, was that it would be a shame if we lost this view, if we lost the Farm.
This was suddenly, bracingly, a likelihood. My mother, who had somehow kept everything afloat, was slipping away. Who would oversee taking care of her? How would we afford it, and where? The first question would be answered by default. My sisters had done well, had made their own lives, had their own homes Elsewhere. I lived closest to the Farm and still held on with an inexplicable grip. The second question, the how, emerged as a plan in which my sisters and I contributed money to an account managed by my sister Sarah in Atlanta, which she used to pay the caregiver. Mom had not saved for retirement and had no money beyond the value of her house. Everyone knew the answer to the where question: the research on “aging in place” had made it clear. People liked to grow old where they had lived their lives, at home, where things were familiar. The Farm was an extant, practical solution to the quandary of caring for our mother in a place where she would be happiest and in a manner my sisters and I could, conceivably, afford. A nursing home was none of these things. We would keep my mother at the Farm for as long as we could.
At the grim peak of the pandemic, the dark December month of a year in which nearly six thousand long-term elderly residents of nursing homes were, each week, dying in unspeakable conditions, alone, afraid, cut off from anything or anyone they had ever known, I walked out into the night, the ground covered in snow, the wind whistling through the branches of the oak trees, and thanked each lucky star above my head.
History, like the wind clicking in the frozen branches of the oaks, would likely view such moments with a cold objective eye. This, too, history might say, in echo of a phrase I was hearing increasingly, is what white privilege looks like—that Dan, a New Age, would-be guru, had once purchased a farm, way back when. That I—if I or anyone cared to listen to what was written in the wind—was heir to a first and second national crime: first, to lands that had been systematically stolen from the Lenape and the tribes of the First People; and second, to land and property—those ever-powerful Lockean points of economic leverage—that had been systematically withheld from emancipated slaves and their descendants. The world made from these two great errors was in flames. The smoke from forest fires in California made smog in the skies over New York City. Other great American cities were being torn apart by state-sanctioned police violence against people protesting police violence against people of color. Meanwhile, the pandemic: the onrush, the overwhelming flow of bodies stacking up in outdoor refrigerated trailers in parking lots of besieged hospitals because we couldn’t bury or burn them fast enough. It was a grotesque cascading state of failure made worse by a punishing and incompetent regime of elected officials who seemed to follow some hidden hand that moved all things, all important decisions, toward choices and public proclamations that defied common sense, that a fifth grader would know were genuinely insane.
It will be for others to unravel the great chain of causation, to name the actors, and in some way to remember, to their everlasting shame, the scoundrels of this history, against which each of us responded, as we could, in whatever context and circumstance we found ourselves. Mine, for a brief moment, was to recognize one single life, my mother’s, who had given life to me, to bear witness as she slowly came unmoored, and, as my mother became a ghost, to find a way to hold on to that remnant of her, the Farm, that I might find—and further—its purpose.
BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, I didn’t think in those terms. My thoughts, such as they were, were naïve. On weekend visits, I began taking on some project or other that needed attention, usually the ones that added to the experience of being there—and to the ones that didn’t, I failed to notice or turned a blind eye. I liked to think of myself as clever and resourceful.
At the edge of the forest, surrounded by thickets and brambles, trees dripping with vines, we had an old Sylvan pool, kidney shaped and very large at forty thousand gallons. An old, partially collapsed tarp revealed a swampy green murk with frogs and floaters and snakes. There was never enough money to do things right. A tarp was not a pool cover. The pool deck was brick, but the bricks were in disrepair—pushed upward or sunken by the rising or sinking roots of nearby trees. I decided one year, not long before the pandemic, that I’d re-lay the bricks, push back the brambles, and create a path down from the house. My mother loved to swim. The path to the pool was paved in small sharp stones that hurt her feet. I also decided I’d buy a proper pool cover. I paid for all this by selling discarded things from the house at the local flea market, old knickknacks of my grandmother’s.
In the basement Mom had forty years of negatives from her job as a photographer in Princeton. Visiting one weekend, I answered the phone. It was an old customer asking if, by chance, Mom had retained the negatives of his wedding, and if so, could he buy them? This question led me to the loft of the barn adjacent to the house, where hundreds of thousands of negatives lay stored by year and alphabet. One Thanksgiving, with Sarah, my children, and their cousins, we formed a human chain, and box by box moved all the negatives to the basement, where I organized them. I started with the most recent work, and when I could I made calls—cold calls—to Mom’s former customers and asked if they wanted to buy their negatives. Many of them did. Little by little, the pool became a place where people wanted to swim. Swimming was the one remaining area of independence for my mother. I loved swimming with her or sitting poolside and watching her execute a perfect, YMCA-trained sidestroke up and down the length of the pool. I loved that her work paid for the repairs.
Unable to afford an actual house, I used my mother’s house to play house, at scale. I wanted it always to be a place for family and friends and people wandering up the driveway to come together. Fixing Mom’s house became a way of preserving and possibly even correcting the past, creating a place where the kids could visit their grandmother, a place where, we later joked, my husband and I, and our friends, and all the siblings, could retire and putter around in the garden, a utopian retirement community of old fogies writing stories and playing music—that vision, even as a joke, held sway.
“Don’t be so romantic,” my oldest sister, Laura, said to me many times. “That place will eat you alive.”
Twice I had tried to buy the Farm (as beautiful as it is, it isn’t worth very much), but twice my sisters, for practical reasons, weren’t ready to have Mom sell it. Even so, I would never, not ever, have moved to the Farm.