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  • Ken Ilgunas

The parents’ visit

Last month my parents and aunt visited me in North Carolina. My mom and aunt hadn’t taken vacations in a while and because my father was on temporary work disability they figured it was the perfect time to catch up with their firstborn and tour a new city.

It was a bit of a shock for me to see them in Durham. My family and personal life had been segregated from one another for years, so seeing them in town was like bumping into characters from your favorite TV show who you’re never supposed to see in real life. While you might think it would be cool to chance upon George, Elaine, and Kramer at your local coffee shop, it’d probably be a little creepy too.

Their vacation lasted five days, starting with dinner at a swanky restaurant in the trendy part of Durham called Blu, followed by their first tour of the van.

I wondered how that tour would go. My mom—as I’ve shared in past entries—has never been fond of my experiment. In fact, she probably took more pains to keep the van a secret than I did. From what I’ve learned, she’d never hesitate to brag to her friends about her son going to Duke while deliberately failing to mention the whole oh-and-he’s-sorta-living-in-his-van thing.

Whenever I called home, the topic of the van was rarely broached. We’d talk about the weather, my classes, my summer plans. Perhaps she thought if she didn’t acknowledge it, the van might go away. She responded the same way I thought she’d react if I told her I was gay, preferring to hope that I was just going through a “phase.”

Finally, toward the end of our phone conversations—when she couldn’t help herself any longer—she’d say, “You’re going to get in so much trouble when they find out, you know” followed by “It-just-isn’t-normal.”

My dad, on the other hand, never seemed to think that the van was that big of a deal. While he’d never go out of his way to overtly encourage my travels and experiments, he was always passively supportive; the good cop to my mom’s bad. But there were points in the past when even he had hoped that I’d live more conventionally. Whenever I phoned home from Coldfoot, Alaska—where I worked as a tour guide and cook—he’d routinely ask, “So when are you going to get a real job?”

Sometime in between “real” and “job” I’d picture myself as Charlie Chaplin helplessly transported from one end of a factory to the other over a series of conveyor belts and gears. He might as well have asked, “So when are you going to dread waking up five days a week, be forced to work next to people with whom you have nothing in common except that you all hate your jobs, gain twenty-five pounds, and spend eight hours of your day locked up in a cubicle/factory/retail store?” Or, to put it more succinctly: “So when are you going to start hating your life?”

My response was always a cheery and wholehearted, “Never,” prefaced with a hearty guffaw.

I’d already had my fair share of “real jobs.” Since my late teens I’d been a skate sharpener, public skate rink guard, supermarket cashier, cart pusher, landscaper, lodge-cleaner, guide, cook, and UPS package handler. I’d been pelted in the back of my head with ice balls thrown from anarchic third-grade juveniles, in toilet bowls I’d acquainted myself with all forms, matters, and phases of shit, and I’d removed dead pigeons from stacks of lumber at The Home Depot. I’d suffered premature back pains, I’d wasted 20-70 hours a week on unfulfilling, mind-numbing, dishonorable labor, and I’d learned what if felt like to dread waking up five days a week. All for $8/hour or less.

These were all low-end, subordinate positions, and some of the worst that the first-world has to offer, but by the time I’d finished paying off my debt, I had seen enough “real jobs,” “real people” and the “real world”—(all of which seemed hardly “real” to me)—to know that I wanted no part in the world my parents lived in.

Seeing the consequences of their relentless toil certainly didn’t improve my impression of this world, either. My dad had little-to-no feeling in his left hand, possibly the result of Carpal tunnel syndrome from handling factory machinery all his life, or from a spinal injury he sustained when he got hit by a drunk driver on his commute to work. As we walked to the restaurant, my mom limped from an ankle injury caused by 35 years of standing as a nurse. My aunt—though in no physical pain—had plenty of reasons to complain about coworkers, schedules, and the hospital she worked at.

But this was their time off from work; a five day slice of leisure sandwiched in between decades of labor.

As we walked to the restaurant, my mom—as she’s wont to do—assailed me with an unbroken string of questions: “Do you like it down here? Where are some other good places to eat? What is Josh up to these days?” After each question I’d think—not about the question—but about how I’d never get a chance to answer any of them. Baffled bystanders might have wondered who this relentless inquisitor was and why she never paused to assuage her curiosity.

When we got to the restaurant, our waiter introduced himself as “Quentin” who my aunt called “Clinton” for the rest of the meal. We discussed my summer plans. I told them I wanted to read a whole bunch of books, enroll in an independent study course, and hike the John Muir Trail in California. There were the usual grumblings whenever I tell them anything that seems even vaguely outside the norm.

“Kenny, those trails are dangerous,” my aunt said. “You shouldn’t go alone. Some wolves just killed a woman in Alaska.”

When dinner arrived, I shared some of my thoughts on food, namely how I wanted to one day pledge to only buy local, organic and ethically-grown food. My mom and aunt traded eye rolls and quaint expressions. After mentioning some of the ghastly images I’d seen of chickens in the film, Food Inc., my mom blurted, “What do I care? I’m no chicken.”

“Well, aren’t you worried about what you put into your body? Or the consequences of factory farms?”

“I’m sixty. I don’t care. I’m going to die soon, anyway,” she said.

“She’s been saying that since she was thirty,” my aunt added.

When the food came, my father and I wolfishly gobbled down our entrées without commentary while my mother and aunt critiqued their meal’s finer points. My aunt would periodically tilt her head back, and declare, “Delicious,” adding, “Best [insert entrée] I ever had.”

After the three of them squabbled to pay the bill, we walked over to the van for their long-awaited tour.

Once we got within eyeshot of the Econoline, my mom approached warily, slowing her gait as she got closer, as if she was nearing a wild animal.

“Ken, you need new tires!” my dad exclaimed, swiping his index finger over the balding treads.

As they circled the exterior, my mother maintained a dignified silence, trying, but failing, to hide her scowl. My aunt muttered under her breath, “Kenny, I can’t wait till you move out of this thing.”

I realized, of course, that living in a van isn’t normal, but I still thought it was a little strange for them to think that it was strange. Especially when you consider my family’s history.

My father emigrated from Scotland to Canada in the 1970’s as a young man, seeking work in Canada’s factories. His ancestors came from Lithuania. My mom’s grandparents were immigrant Poles who settled in Western New York. My mom and dad met in Canada, had me and my brother, and when I was six we moved to a rural-turning-suburban neighborhood in the town of Wheatfield, New York.

We were one of the first families to have a home built in our development so my brother and I would catch frogs and skate on a pond on an undeveloped lot next to our home. Within a few years, though, families came, houses were built, our pond disappeared, and the woods we built forts in were denuded.

As I watched the land change around me, my family changed too. We moved away from relatives in Canada and my grandparents died when I was a boy. Aside from my aunt and the ancestors in Scotland who I’d never meet, I had no extended family. I didn’t have a sense of identity with my ever-transforming neighborhood nor did I have any historical ties to country, community, and home.

I was like a sapling in a pot, nurtured on-the-go. I learned more about change than normalcy, an ambulatory existence than a stationary one. Really, between the many early boyhood changes to which I was exposed and my family’s nomadic history, it should have been no surprise that my home would come to have wheels.

But my parents had discontinued their wandering ways. They sunk their roots into Wheatfield. This was their American dream. They’d both grown up in working class families. My mom shared a small flat with her parents and two siblings in North Tonawanda, NY. My dad grew up in a house crowded with seven brothers and a sister in a blue-collar Scottish town. My mom, as a girl, was embarrassed that her mom had a chicken coop in the backyard. My dad, as a boy, got fruit for Christmas. They were born into industrious middleclass families who knew that you could make it by moving around and working hard.

My parents had spent their careers moving up. From flat to home, city to suburb, middle class to a few echelons higher in the middle class. All that hard work. All that climbing. All that moving around. And all that investment—time, money, and love—they put into me. And this is what their son lives in: a van—an ironic symbol, no doubt reminding them of the poverty they worked so hard to escape.

They all stuffed into the van, sat on the bed and I gave them a tour. I showed them my stove, my food, the TV and laundry basket.

It’s hard to think of moving back as moving forward; of climbing down the economic ladder as “climbing up.” It’s hard for parents to think of their son as “successful” when “success” is measured largely by the amount of security, comfort and wealth one has. While my parents appreciated and strove to attain these things, they, thank goodness, knew that these were not the only things to live for. They valued temperance, honesty, honor, loyalty, a puritanical work ethic while allowing themselves the pleasure to savor moments of idleness. So, from their tutelage I gathered what lessons struck me as right and true, while casting a skeptical eye at those not in accord with my sense and judgment.

Poet Kahlil Gibran says parents—who he addresses as “you”—may house their children’s bodies but not their souls because “their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit… You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

Seeing my parents crunched in the van, laughing, and telling self-deprecating jokes, I knew that—in some ways—the apple had not fallen far from the tree. My mom—who’d caught me surreptitiously scribbling the day’s events into a notepad for this very entry—would occasionally dictate for me: “Mom is unhappy” or “Mom’s worried about son.” I overheard one of the many faux arguments my parents perform that ended with my dad beaming, “I just changed them today! Geez. How many times do you want me to change my underwear in a week?”

Yet I was different, too. I wanted my “arrow” to soar above and beyond the “real world” of which they were a part, through poisoned clouds, over inky oceans, and past suburban sprawl to a house of tomorrow where I mustn’t pay for the things I want with a life of monotonous labor. I love my van for the freedom it allows me. They love their two-story house for the security it provides them. Why can’t both these worlds be real? Why must one be considered crazy by virtue of it being abnormal?

We spent another four days and many meals together. By the end, they were itching to get back home and back to work. While we didn’t leave with differences explained, insights gleaned, or new appreciations for one another’s ideologies, there was a mutual and silent acceptance for each other’s values, beliefs, and livelihoods. While differences tried to yank us apart, a few family-saving commonalities bound us together.

Before they took off, they handed me a bag of food and tried to stuff hundred dollar bills in my pockets. I gave them hugs and said goodbye.


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