Home, Black Dots and History
Being in Maryland this past week, I was reminded of two things: how much I miss my family and friends and how depressing I find the area of my birth. Prince Georges County is perhaps the most misbegotten stretch of suburban decay in all of America. Buildings sag and crack, cars rust and whine, roads heave and buckle, strip malls fade and eventually fall down only to be replaced by newer, no less decrepit generations. And everywhere you look people appear stricken. miniature mirrors reflecting their inanimate surroundings – mothers frown in line at the grocery store with raw-faced toddlers at their sides; men idle on sidewalks and at gas stations, arms and faces as slack as forgotten laundry; students, city workers and tourists watch for trains with heads bent low over damp newspapers and battered cell phones. Overhead, the sun refuses to shine, hung low in a sky laden with sadness and unshed snow.
And yet, it is home.
Although I don’t actually like Maryland, I’m comfortable there in a way I’ve not been able to replicate since leaving in 1995. I’m not sure, and it would take hours of therapy I can’t afford to find out, but I think this has more to do with my present life than my past. Although not rural, my current house in Fort Mill, South Carolina is miles from any type of excitement. My neighbors, all younger, perkier and blonder than I’ll ever be, have toddlers and responsibilities I can barely remember much less relate to. We speak, but superficially. Friendship is, it seems, out. For entertainment, I drive half an hour to meet other writers, go to the movies and take piano lessons in Charlotte. Yoga is twenty minutes away, as is Qi Gong and the nearest coffee shop – which because I can’t stand the silence of an empty house, is where I work. About the only thing I do that doesn’t burn half a tank of gas is cook, garden and play Super Mario.
Maryland is different. I was born there, went to school there, worked got married had a child lived there for 32 years. In addition to my brother Eric and his family, my aunt and uncle are there, as are my cousins, neices, sisters-in-law and several good friends. I still go back to my old job, drive by my old house, buy soap at the Smile Herb Shop and eat barbeque at Red Hot and Blue. Although the area is depressing – it’s in a way I’m familiar with. A Rizzo/Shirley relatives-living-in-trailors sort of way. That’s where the past comes in. My father (a Rizzo) was a hard-working man of great compassion and lousy judgement. He was also the most unlucky person I’ve ever known, starting with the day he was born as an only child to parents obsessed with children and ending the day he died a wrenching, painful death. Still, my brother is a close second. In spite of being warm, funny and smart – he never found his niche and so he flounders. As he stumbles about looking for a purpose in this world, drunk drivers smash into his car, termites infest his termite-proofed house and strays from three neighborhoods down limp to his door bearing diseases and kittens and begging for food. His wife and kids love him, but it seems to be against their better judgment.
In an attempt to explain and thus refute his many misfortunes, Eric developed a theory about fate based upon a trio of dots. There are, in this theory, three levels of luck in the world, all with a corresponding dot. Red signifies really good luck, the kind associated with fame, fortune and a good chin. Tan signifies reasonable luck, insuring that the bearer will land a decent job, marry well and sire/birth talented though not exceptional children. Black dots, Rizzo dots, signify horrible luck – leading to dead-end jobs, various forms of mental illness and/or jail. According to Eric, all Rizzos labor beneath the black dot. Although no Rizzo can aspire to a red dot, they can – as I did – marry one and thus attain tan status, increasing the likelihood that drunk-drivers, termites and starving kittens will pass them by.
Eric’s theory has, over the years, proved remarkably reliable, one might even say self-fulfilling, with the only exceptions being our children – all of whom have genes only lightly tainted by the stigma of the black dot. Eric’s oldest daughter is brilliant, with a Phd in molecular, biological, cellular something. His youngest is a gifted and determined writer. And my daughter, a lighting technician for Wooly Mammoth Theatre in DC, graduated from college and immediately ensconced herself in a profession she loves. That all three struggle mightily with the whole social thing is simply proof of their ancestry.
Perhaps my dottage (not to be confused with my dotage) is enough to explain the nearly unrecognizable lack of self-consciousness I enjoy in my hometown. We’re all misfits in this life – normal being no more than a out-dated, poorly defined word – but as with everything, there are degrees of deviation. Fleeing Maryland so long ago, I thought to leave the gloom behind. I don’t know, though. In trying to understand my love/hate relationship with the place I still call “home,” I can’t help recalling the words of a friend, who once cautioned me against the lure and promise of escape.
“Just remember,” he said, “you can take the girl out of PG County, but you can never take PG County out of the girl.”
As much as the idea disturbs me – I think he might have been right.