I’ve driven up from Durham to join my parents at their timeshare in West Virginia. Midway through our week together, it occurs to me that they may be space aliens. Certainly they fit the criteria listed in the dogeared copy of The National Enquirer UFO Report (Government Conspiracy: True or False?), which my father has brought with him to the condominium. After the usual chapters on abductions and close encounters, I come across a set of useful clues for determining whether your neighbors come from outer space. They may tend to be anxious, I read, or ill at ease. That definitely describes the emotional set-point of my mother and father. Substituting the word ‘parents’, and ignoring the obvious implications for myself, I read on, absorbed.
Criterion Number One: Anxiety when using Earth transportation. I think about that group trek to the grocery store, the first of many such trips for sustenance. My mother hands me the keys, and then sits taut in the passenger seat, her rigid arms clutching at the armrest and dash. Each time I approach a stop sign, her foot darts out to an imaginary brake. On our return, she takes the wheel, keeping well below the posted speed limit in the right lane, and slowing to a near crawl before every merge. I ride shotgun, and try to gently point out landmarks, while my father barks regular, urgent warnings from the backseat. “Red light!” he calls out; “in five miles, make left!”
Criterion Number Two: Distrust of Earth technology. I picture my mother, a doctor, standing in the unfamiliar kitchen of the vacation condominium, reading carefully aloud from the instructions on a bag of microwave popcorn. She peers at the microwave and, helpfully, I point out the setting that reads, ‘popcorn.’ She gratefully accepts my offer to take over the preparations. She will enjoy the snack, she tells me, after her bath. I remind her of the master tub’s whirlpool jets. “I do not know,” she says, smiling and frowning; “I may be electrocuted.”
Criterion Number Three: Constant information gathering. That would be my father, who spends the six days of our vacation seated before the living room’s small television, rapt and communing with the flickering blue light emanating from the Weather Channel. “Noh, snow in Montana,” he announces; “in Texas, flood.” Shaking his head, sighing, he tells me the weather in New York, in Warsaw, in Pittsburgh. He tells me the weather outside our own windows, without even looking.
I’m in my bedroom, pulling on my sneakers one afternoon, when his shouts bring me flying downstairs. My blood freezes when I see him, leaned back in his chair, clutching his heart above his chest. “Clouds!” he says, looking at me, wide eyed, arm pointing at the screen. “Soon, will be too dark to walk!” He turns back to the TV, where dark patches on the screen occlude the general aerial of our location, and I sag against the stair railing. I picture the resort, a tiny vulnerable target beneath hostile, swirling elements, my father, oblivious to me now, the center of my own storm of anxiety and relief.
Criterion Number Four: Presence of an object that is especially revered and protected. Aha! The Key. Or, rather, the Keys. We have three, handed to us by a smiling reception clerk charmingly unaware of my parents’ eccentricities, and responding only to the number of apparently reasonable adults standing before her desk. For the rest of the week, the absence, or potential absence, of any one of these triplicate keys from the glass ashtray where they are stored, is a source of constant anxiety and concern. This despite the fact that my mother is the only designated handler of the keys, and that under no circumstances are my father or I allowed to touch them.
The night before we are to leave, a minor crisis arises. “I can find only two keys!” my mother exclaims. The family flies into panic mode. Pockets are searched and turned inside out; drawers are pulled open and ransacked. Newspapers, TV Guides, and countless color brochures from enticing and unvisited local attractions, are shuffled on countertops and tables. Finally my mother reports, triumphant, that the errant key has been found. It was lying in a Ziploc baggie, on a small glass saucer, behind the Estée Lauder gift bag in her bathroom.
I set down the UFO book, and consider that, really, it could be true. When I am around my parents, I am aware of this constant, low-grade anxiety, this sense of never being at home. There are all these fragile attempts at control, these anxious preparations for flight from an environment foreign and, always, potentially hostile. This has nothing to do with the timeshare. They are just as uneasy in their own house.
There is the issue, for instance, of the electronic dog. Once, visiting my parents soon after its purchase, I get in trouble for stepping on it. “What are you doing?” my mother cries; “you will kill him!” There is a thin, smothered yipping from beneath my foot. My father comes quickly to the rescue. “In catalogue, he is doberman,” he sighs, staring ruefully at the retrieved plastic box housing their dreams for a stellar and yet affordable home alarm system; “but when he arrives, is schnauzer.” Nevertheless, they plug in this flimsy crime deterrent every time they leave the house, an integral part of an elaborate leavetaking ritual that includes the closing of drapes and the setting of a dozen timed lights, even if they are only going out for an earlybird dinner at Chi-Chi’s, even if they are leaving for a rare matinee, extra early on a long, summer afternoon.
I used to think this had something to do with being Polish, or with being immigrants. But I know plenty of other immigrants, Polish and otherwise, and the majority of them are fully assimilated. I spent a year in Poland, myself, with no trouble. My parents would be out of place there, too, I realize. No one in Warsaw has an electronic dog.
On the day we are to leave, my father is up before dawn, bustling around the car, tightly cramming in the six suitcases that my mother has already carefully packed. I watch him from a window in my bedroom. It is only ninety minutes to their house, but it seems as though he is preparing for a much longer journey. Another early riser, a neighbor heaving luggage into his own muddied station wagon, commiserates.
“Michigan,” he calls wearily, nodding to his sagging car. “How about yourself?”
“Pittsburgh,” my father replies heartily, reaching over the roof to adjust one last strap.
When he is finished loading the car, and I’ve tossed my own small bag in my backseat, and we have all checked and rechecked the light switches and kitchen appliances in the two-story condo, and my mother has de-baggied and ceremoniously returned each of the three keys, we are ready to leave, beating the resort’s 11 A.M. check-out time by a good three hours. We hug our goodbyes, my mother asking once more if I’m sure I’ve got enough food for the long trip back to North Carolina, my father warning me of construction outside of Winston-Salem.
He firmly vetoes my suggestion that they stop at the new Ikea on their way home, though my mother loves to shop, and though the store, its sign, at least, is right by a clearly marked exit. “You can get off highway,” he says, with finality, “but can you get back on?” Surely a philosophy of life, or at least a koan to keep me occupied for the next long while. We climb into our respective vehicles, and I drive behind them up the on-ramp to the interstate, where they turn north, and I, south. I watch in the rearview mirror as their car grows smaller and smaller, until the image shimmers, and I blink, and they are gone.