Letter to My Children
the last fifteen years of my mother's life she suffered with Alzheimer's disease.
Until then she had been a bright, cheerful woman deeply interested and involved
in the world around her. I would go home to visit her in Virginia and she would
look at me in a puzzled way and ask, "Who are you?" I would answer,
"I'm your son." "Where do you live?" She would ask. "In
California," I would tell her. "Isn't that interesting," she would
say, "I have a son in California."
At the onset of the disease
she seemed simply forgetful and confused, but later on she would endure periods
of intense agitation. If she were unattended for a short time she would leave
home and wander away. She would pace through the house she had lived in most of
her life crying fretfully that she wanted to go home.
Hoping to please
her and put her mind at rest I would take her for a drive, visiting sites where
she had lived as a child. In the yard of the hillside house in Shipman I sat in
the car and admired the vista of the old oaks and long green lawn. I envisioned
my mother there as a little girl playing with the pet lamb she had been so fond
of. I looked to her for some response. She shook her head and said, "I want
to go home."
The house in Alberene where she had been born brought
no better reaction. The house had changed little since she used to take us children
there to visit our great grandparents. They were an ancient bedridden couple,
propped up side-by-side on pillows. She had a powdery medicinal smell. He had
a handlebar mustache that tickled when you kissed him. They hid peppermint balls
in a Mason jar under their pillows and rewarded them to us if we would kiss them.
I asked my mother if she would like to visit the house, walk in the yard, sit
on the porch. "No," she said, "Take me home!"
the years I have decided that what my mother was calling home was not a place,
but a time. I suspect it was a time when she was much younger, when her children
were still underfoot, when her husband was still vigorous and attentive (My father
was an adoring father and loving husband who would pick up our mother and waltz
her around the kitchen all the while singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart,
I'm in looooooove with you
Watching my mother's anguish set
me to wondering where I would have in mind if someday I couldn't find home and
wanted to go there. In this family we tend to be long lived and we grow fuzzy
minded as the years go by. At eighty I have already noticed some alarming symptoms.
My doctor says the forgetfulness is only natural, that it comes with age. Still
the specter of Alzheimer's lurks out there. Someday if and when I become even
more cloudy minded and disoriented than I am now, unable to drive and unable to
tell you where "home " is, I expect I will ask you to take me
home, I know you will do your best to find the place I need to be. I leave these
notes for your guidance.
Often in dreams I go home to Virginia. I rent
a car at Dulles and drive down Route 29. Around Culpepper the Blue Ridge comes
into view in the distance and my heart lifts. Past Charlottesville I leave Route
29 and follow the curve of the narrow country road that borders the Rockfish River.
The river is old and the water level is low most of the year as it flows gently
over and around time worn boulders and mossy banks. It leads past farms that have
moved further up the hillside after Hurricane Camille turned the river into a
wall of roiling water that swept away the owners' homes and barns. There is a
spot right before Power House Number One where my brothers and I used to catch
as many small mouth bass as we could carry home. There is where the road bends
upward and where some domestic goats once got loose and established a wild herd
on a rocky ledge.
Then for the next six miles the road curves through wooded
country. These are old forests of white oak and water oak and red oak and every
kind of pine and dogwood and redbud and maple and sycamore and sassafras all of
them making such a show of color in the fall that it takes your breath away.
road leads me finally to the Village of Schuyler. Mixed feelings of revulsion
and love rise in my throat. I was born in this village. It is where I grew up,
and was once the storehouse of my most treasured memories. The house where we
lived has gone out of the family now but it is owned by a friend who is in the
process of restoring it. My father bought the house from The Alberene Stone Corporation
when the mill closed during the Depression and employees were given the opportunity
the buy the houses they were already living in. Darkness was usually gathering
by the time I arrived there, but my mother and father were expecting me and would
meet me at the car. Home! Three bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, a kitchen.
Upstairs were the "boys' room" and across the hall was the "girls'
room." We boys slept two to a bed. In that room I kept a journal seated at
my "writing" desk, a contraption with four legs, a drawer which I had
built myself. It faced a window where a crab apple tree dominated the field. When
it blossomed each spring it was covered in pinkish white blossoms and then turned
to gold when flights of wild canaries flew home again and rested there. The view
of the misted Blue Mountains from the kitchen window was stunning and the yard
was filled all summer long with bird song. Even today I can still recall the aroma
of bacon cooking and coffee percolating on the woodstove while my mother started
breakfast. My parents raised eight children there!
original settlers in the area were reserved, resourceful, self reliant, close
knit neighborly group, law abiding and church going, Scotch and Irish for the
most part with a smattering of Italians and a few descendants of Hessian mercenaries.
They made good neighbors, good parents, and raised the kind of young people who
would cut short their education so they could help out at home. Most of them had
a deep love of country and a reverence for family that rivaled the Japanese Shintoist.
Young people never hesitated to answer the call to the military when their country
needed them. Sadly, we were a segregated community and I was robbed of knowing
Black people until I went out into the larger world.
As you know my family
and our neighbors were the inspiration for my television series, "The Waltons."
Because of their love for the "Walton family" fans from all over the
world came to visit the area. At first my mother would invite them to "pass
the time of day" on the front porch. She even served her guests tea, but
as time passed, the series became a curse. It attracted an undesirable element,
outsiders, opportunists, a crude element interested in exploiting my life and
my work for their own purposes. Because of a vengeful act of cruelty done to a
member of my family who was representing me, and subsequent attacks on me, I renounced
the oafish group who continue to control the village and all that I did to make
it famous all over the world. If I ever go there again it will only be to visit
the graves of friends and family. It was A. E. Housemon who most ably put into
words what I feel today for a place I once loved:
"Into my heart an
air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again."
my children if I ask to be taken home do not take me to Schuyler, Virginia!
during my first two years at the University of Richmond in the 40's was 29 Willway
Ave. in the West End of the city. Out of the goodness of their hearts three of
my father's sisters took me in so I might take advantage of the scholarship I
had won. In addition to the three aunts the household also included my grandmother,
a female cousin and a maid. I was awkward and countrified, but the ladies took
me in and tamed me as best they could. Already six feet tall, and all wrists,
I fell over things and was tongue-tied much of the time. In a hand-me-down suit
(narrow blue pin stripes) of my Uncle Clay's and my father's only white shirt
which he had contributed to the cause, I was more Icahbod Crane then Joe College.
Still I was surrounded by women and smothered with affection. It was a good time
and I remember it with affection. But I think today, like my mother in Shipman,
I would look at 29 Willway and say, "Take me home!"
War Two I lived (Oh, how I lived) in Paris for two years courtesy of the Army
of the United States. From backwoods boy to boulevardier came easy once I got
over the absurdity of it. I had never even been on Fifth Avenue and suddenly I
was strolling with a girl on La Rue de la Paix! Formidable! When we entered
Paris there were still German troops in the Place de la Concorde, trapped there
by our advancing troops. My fellow soldiers and I were billeted in an apartment
house in Aubervilliers, which had until a day or so before been home to a company
of German WACS. Large photos of Adolph Hitler decorated each room and on a shelf
in the closet I came across a short wave radio and a copy of "Mein Kampf."
The German ladies had left hurriedly and some of their uniforms still hung in
closets in some of the rooms they had vacated. After living in a pup tent in the
hedgerows of Normandy, warm water was an unimaginable luxury. And as soon as all
the Germans were hustled out of Paris I received a Class A Pass and was off to
see The City of Lights! I had a front row seat to see Edith Piaf and Yves Montand
on a joint bill at the Olympia! I attended an all Beethoven series conducted by
Pierre Monsieur at the Palais de Chaillot. I saw a two hundred and fifty pound
lady sing Carmen at the Opera Comique. My office was staffed with English speaking
French girls who proceeded to teach me French. Their good work was undone by one
evil old man, Monsieur Tellier, who under the pretext of teaching me French taught
me the vilest kinds of expressions. The Army lost my records and my mail went
astray. It was six months before mine caught up with me and when I was too busy
being a boulevardier I have to admit I was homesick. The last time I was in Paris
I looked for the old barracks, but the Café des Communists, which had been
located on the corner of our street and the Rue d'Aubervilliers, was gone. The
apartment house had been torn down and a large more imposing building had taken
I have never stopped loving Paris. Some nights when I cannot
sleep I retrace in my mind some of my favorite walks through the city. I used
to take the Metro, get off at just any station and explore whatever part of the
city I found myself in. When I was stationed there the place I called home was
in an industrial area out near Le Borget.
If when I ask you to take me
home, and you children decide to take me to Paris, this time I want to live near
the Bois de Boulogne. The Plaza Athene would be nice.
was home for many years after the war. I rented the third floor of a private residence
in a beautiful area lit by gas lamps on Reading Road. While living there I earned
a degree in broadcasting at the Media Division of the College of Music of the
University of Cincinnati. I found my first job writing scripts at the great Midwestern
radio station WLW. All Ohio girls are beautiful and I fell in love with every
one I met. Fortunately, they and I realized I wasn't ready to settle down and
they sent me packing. Good step, because if I had married one of those Ohio beauties
I would never have met your mother. Cincinnati was good to me, but it was a time
and place of transition. It probably is not the home I may be looking for when
I am in my dotage and lost in the world.
I left Cincinnati to devote full
time to the writing of a novel. Home was a cottage four miles outside of Mena,
Arkansas in the Ouachita Mountains. The building was a small stone cottage that
had been built by a Belgian artist named Benti. I found the place through an ad
in "The Writer's Digest" (Paradise on Five Dollars a Day). I rented
it sight unseen. It was one of the most productive writing locations I have ever
known and while there I wrote the best stuff I have written before or after. There
was no electricity, no telephone, no radio, no running water, no kitchen. My only
companion was a six foot long black snake that ventured from under the house and
into the living room when the sun went down and scared the hell out of me. There
was one other drawback to such High Living. You have never known thirst until
you live in a dry county, and that part of Arkansas in those days was DRY! I had
to walk four miles to the Oklahoma border for a beer. I wrote well that summer,
but when the leaves began to fall and the first frost came to Rich Mountain I
packed my beat up old portable Royal, caught a ride to Mena with the rural mail
carrier, took a bus to Hot Springs, and then went by train to Virginia. If you
are looking to take me home, don't take me to Arkansas. I might get thirsty and
I don't think I could make that hike to the Oklahoma border any more.
York was my spiritual home. It was where I had always known God intended me to
be. Ever since I had read the E. B. White essay "Here is New York" I
knew that I had to go there. When I eventually arrived there it was with the elation
of achieving a long sought after goal. It mattered not at all that I had only
two dollars left after I paid my first month's rent for a room off of 96th Street
and Riverside Drive. I passed the Christmas holidays enjoying any diversion that
was free, mostly they were concerts of Christmas music that ranged from Bach cantatas
in the Episcopalian Churches to Russian folk songs in a Ukrainian Chapel not far
from where I lived.
New York was generous from the day I arrived. In a
short time I found a job at NBC and could hardly believe that my office was on
the second floor (Room 211) of the RCA Building. My window (yes, window in an
office in the RCA Building we have come a long way from the back woods of Virginia
here!) looked out over the Radio City Music Hall sign which in time would advertise
the premiere of a movie based on one of my books! With a steady income I was able
to move to 546 West 87th Street in an apartment that was advertised in The New
York Times: "For the Discerning Few!" I managed to convince the owner
that I was "discerning" and moved in! It was actually one large room
stripped down to its original brick walls, now painted white. You entered on a
landing and a stairway led down into the "sunken living room." The kitchen
was hidden behind folding doors and the bed disappeared under the stairway. I
bought my first car, an ancient Ford Convertible!
were to become even headier when I met and married your mother. We had two apartments
in The Village and I will still accept either of them as "home" because
we were happy in both places.
The first apartment, right after we were
married, was a loft in a professional building on 13th Street. There was an upstairs
bedroom with a view of the downtown New York skyline that, in the words of my
jazz worshipping friend, Jack Wilson, claimed was "too good for white people."
There was no stove so your mother cooked on a hot plate and a portable electric
oven and frying pan, which had been wedding gifts. We had Clementine, the first
of our neurotic Cocker Spaniels. We went to the theater to see plays and musicals.
We even had a place in the country - a cottage on a small lake up in Westchester.
We knew lots of other young people, writers, actors, musicians, artists. It was
a party! We could not have been happier.
The second Village apartment was
at 44 West 12th street. It was a "garden" apartment. It had all sorts
of wonders including an actual garden where I planted wild flowers which I collected
along back roads up in Westchester Country. It had a fireplace and the first night
we moved in, not knowing that it was inoperable, we started an enormous fire and
smoked everybody out of the apartments above us. It had a glassed-in back porch
which we called the "Ice Palace." It became our bedroom after you people
were born and when we would wake sometimes on a winter morning, snow would have
fallen during the night and the entire room would be encased in snow and ice.
The apartment had an interesting history. The last tenant had been a composer
and the song "When the Red, Red Robin, Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along" was
supposed to have been written in our living room. We left New York reluctantly
because television had moved to the West Coast and we chose to move with it. And
because of the responsibilities of parenthood and the fact that the city was changing,
it had become a party that we could no longer attend. But even now when we are
in New York we walk past 44 West 12the Street and wonder who lives in "our
In Los Angeles we rented a house for a brief time and
then one weekend after I had started selling scripts work, we were driving around,
lost in the hills above Studio City, and came upon a house for sale. It is the
same house where we now live, a wood and glass structure with a sweeping view
of the valley and the San Gabriel's on beyond. You know the house. You grew up
here and the house still echoes with the sounds of your voices and the memories
of you as children, your growing up and the mixed emotions we felt upon seeing
you leave for college knowing that whenever you came home again it would be to
visit. It was our dream house when we found it and it still is today.
and if I become cloudy minded as my mother was toward the end, when I am unable
to drive, yearning for some home that I can't even identify, I will probably ask
you to "take me home." When that happens, humor me as we did my mother.
Drive me around the block and back again and tell me that I am "home."
It should satisfy my longing to be back in a place and time where I have enjoyed
the happiest years of my life. That place is still here where my fondest memories
live, where I am growing old and crotchety, where in spite of the passing years,
your mother still manages to be an anchor and to keep me in touch with some shreds
of reality. The old place looks nice. We've rebuilt the deck around the pool and
put down a new floor in the kitchen. A family of rabbits found their way into
the back yard recently. How lucky we were to be lost that day we came upon this
old house on this winding street in the rolling hills below Mullholland Drive
in Studio City, California.
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