The Road Homeby Eliza Thomas
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It occurred to Eliza Thomas when she hit her forties that home might be "someplace you made." A modest cabin in the woods of Vermont seemed like a good place to start. Thomas's funny, heartwarming experiences transform the weekend cabin into a real home--a place where Thomas paints the floor the same color as her grandmother's beach house porch; where hordes of ladybugs come to visit one Indian summer; and the place her adopted baby daughter excitedly recognizes as they make their way through the woods in a snowstorm. In writing that is at once funny and poignant, Eliza Thomas welcomes us into the warm and cozy rooms of her first real home. "A charming memoir . . . Thomas details the joys and problems of rural living."--Publishers Weekly; "Pleasant to read, funny at times, candid and poignant at others . . . by the end of the book, Thomas accomplishes a remodeled future built by hand, and a sense of her life as a narrative leading home."--The New York Times Book Review; "Another back-to-nature/independent woman story? Hardly. Which is what makes Thomas's memoir, THE ROAD HOME, all the more enjoyable. . . . She conveys a very real, living definition of home."--The Boston Globe. A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB and QUALITY PAPERBACK BOOK CLUB selection.
She wanted "privacy but not seclusion," and the cabin was well-situated to her tastes and needs: on a dirt road not far from the highway, in a valley bounded by trees. "It had power and water and a phone line and was as nice as anything I could afford." Thomas, with her dog, Lily (who gets a lot of space here), and her friend Julian, would escape to their cabin periodically; gradually, she begins to enlarge it, to make it into a home. Like Michael Pollan in A Place of My Own (p. 126), she provides an amateur's enthusiastic record of everything from the excavation of the foundations for new rooms to the erection of the walls and roof. There is also much rumination on her life, on being in her 40s, directionless, frustrated, and unhappy. Having hit "rock bottom," she decided to quit her job, move to the cabin and gain "a ready- made sense of purpose and direction" by adopting a baby. Unfortunately, Thomas chooses to present Amelia, her adopted Chinese daughter, in random glimpses and segments, so that we have the child talking and wreaking havoc in the cabin a hundred pages before Thomas closes the book with the story of the adoption itself. There are a few amusing passages, such as Julian's desperate attempts at putting up a TV antenna, and some charming vignettes, such as Thomas's delight and fascination at an infestation of ladybugs.
Though often endearing, Thomas is inexplicably vague about the time frame, the cabin's location, when she adopted Amelia, and other areas that might have drawn the reader closer.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- Barnes & Noble
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Read an Excerpt
Difficulty at the Beginning
Once again, we surveyed the bareness of an unfinished room. Light fixtures, drywall, paint, flooring, trim, were lacking. Ready or not, I went to get Amelia. Julian built her room. I was away three weeks. The trip was very hard; the I-Ching had answered accurately. Julian would reassure me with details of his progress when I called with my great distress.
By the time I waved good-bye to my old life, my panic attack had grown to pure and almost unbearable terror. I hurtled through space in an overcrowded jumbo jet to the other side of the world, off to bring back a total stranger who would dominate the rest of my life. I thought I could see with ghastly clarity what a disastrous venture the whole idea was. There were indeed excellent reasons not to have a child. I should have heeded them all. I must have been crazy. I should have just quit my job again if I'd needed so badly to change.
I was traveling with three other prospective parents. We were to be taken to the orphanage the night we arrived in order to meet and approve our new children before starting the paperwork in another city. Reeling with exhaustion after two full days of travel, we changed our sticky clothes, piled into tiny taxicabs, drove helter-skelter at breakneck speeds through ever increasing poverty, on roads that seemed less and less like roads, to the furthest outskirts of the city. It was too dark to see anything by the time we reached the orphanage. I couldn't believe that any of this was really happening.
It was the middle of the night, the middle of nowhere. The nursery was stark, two tables and a row of cots. The staff hadhanded me a small, pale, skinny, sad-eyed baby. We had an interpreter with us. This one is yours, they said.
She was so different from her photograph, I cried to Julian in my first phone call. They had shaved off all her hair except for a bit at the top. She was so thin and looked so strange to me. How could I love this stranger? Her head was flattened and wedge-shaped from lying in her crib so much. She was so distant; she never smiled. Julian told me he had taped xeroxed copies of her photograph to the refrigerator door and another on the door to her room so he'd see it many times every day. He had set up a work plan for the three weeks. The ceiling of her room followed the line of the shed-style roof. Where it was highest, he planned to build a shelf to store books and toys.
One week later, we returned to the orphanage for a second visit. Amelia looked at me and screamed. She hadn't been well, the orphanage staff said. They hovered about for a while and then brought out another baby. Healthier, they said. Take this one instead, she doesn't cry so much, they suggested with nods and smiles of encouragement. They had meant to be helpful.
It had made me feel so terrible, I told Julian from a world away. I didn't want to choose. I didn't want a different baby. I just wanted her to be all right. I just wanted me to be all right. I had felt so guilty to be glad to leave the orphanage that afternoon. From the other side of the earth Julian told me he had put in a dimmer so that the light wouldn't bother her eyes when we looked in on her at night. My nephew, expert at walls and drywall taping, had come up for a week to help out. Julian told me that they had made the closet from special, fancy plywood; it looked good, he said. He had already hung up the big blue overalls I'd bought.
It turned out Amelia was sick with gastroenteritis. She was in the hospital for a while, then she was out of the hospital, with me in one of the disconcertingly fancy tourism hotels that we were booked in. I had no experience with sick children. I had no idea how much to worry or not worry, so I worried about everything. She'd awakened crying five times the night before. I walked with her all night, up and down the anonymous halls. The plush hotel in a poor city on the coast of China had perpetual, canned classical Muzak in the halls and stairwells and elevators: the "Minute" Waltz, "Clair de lune," and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, all processed to sound exactly the same. The world was insane. I hadn't slept for many days.
Parenthood was looking very hard to me. I was afraid I would ruin my life, her life, and Julian's as well, if he wasn't careful. Julian told me that he'd finished painting the walls a light, sandy color. He and my nephew were putting down her floor, the same wide pine boards we'd used in the piano studio. They planned to use this for the trim and windowsills as well; it made sense, it would bring the room together, he said.
Then, one day near the end of the trip, she stopped crying. This last hotel provided old-fashioned cribs with wooden beads strung through the slats. I heard an odd scrabbling sound one night; I looked over to my daughter to see her quiet and alert. She was reaching out with her long, thin fingers, kicking up with her skinny little feet, twirling the beads around and around, solemnly learning how to play, all by herself. I watched for a long time. It seemed like a miracle, but it was just her. Her life had changed even more than mine had, but she taught me to trust her, not the other way around. It made me cry, and the next morning she smiled.
And oh, what a smile. She was just right, beautiful, in an interesting, funky kind of way, with her shaved head and spiky tuft at the crown. She was calmer and eating all the time. Already she seemed stronger. When I told Julian this, I could hear his happiness. He said things were going very well. He had brought the comfortable rocker to her room; we could sit with her, watch over her while she napped. He had set up a shelf in the kitchen for her formula and bottles. He'd stocked the cabinets with rice cereal. Her crib was set up, all ready for her.
I made it through the rounds of paperwork. I found out that her Chinese name means "expectation," "anticipation," "hope." The room was on the north side of the house; we'd been concerned that it would seem dark and cold. Julian reassured me that her new room was shady but that it caught the first morning rays of sun through the trees.
"This may be hard for a while," I warned him from another lifetime, the sound of Amelia crying frantically in the background.
"That's all right," he said.
A Room for Amelia
It took two days to travel back. Amelia had diarrhea on the last flight; we were so tired that we sat on the floor outside the occupied restroom and sobbed together. My seatmate must have thought we were way out of control. She spent the first half of the flight studying lipstick advertisements, and the second half applying nail polish. She didn't dare look our way. She didn't realize we were just mother and daughter, getting acquainted.
The closer we got to the Boston airport, the better we felt. We were almost at the end of our first long journey together, almost at the beginning of another. A family was met with crowds of relatives and flashes of cameras. Amelia was plastered to me in her infant sling; we made our way through the throng, blinking at the lights, and found Julian waiting for us. Amelia gave him her heavenly smile.
* * *
Julian was right; her room was lovely. I'd remembered only how small the bare space had seemed, but finished off it was airy and open and interesting with its high, slanted ceiling and built-in shelves. The yellow pine floor and windowsills were golden in the indirect sunlight. It was small, but private too, and filled with the quiet sound of the stream below. Julian had hooked up the heat to her room and put in the prettiest of the old grates we'd collected. Amelia, newly arrived from China, liked it too; it was just what she needed, and gradually she settled down.
One of the women I'd called for advice and information during the long wait had described to me the making of her new family. Her partner had arrived home with their baby all the way from Peru; the adoption had been a long and difficult process. They had been told they would adopt a tiny infant, but their daughter turned out to be ten months old and an early walker as well. This nice woman tried to explain how much had changed. Where there had been empty space, she said, now there was a little girl standing in the doorway; where there had been silence, now there was the sound of a child's footsteps. Where there had been no one just the day before, she said, now there was this small being, and their whole world was different.
We too had somehow managed to make room, and one day there she was. Things fell into place around her. She'd lie in her little crib in the peaceful afternoon light, surrounded by teddy bears and rabbits and beautiful quilts sent by friends and neighbors and relatives. I moved a chest of drawers in for her and hung a print that a friend had given me many years before: a young Tibetan monk, a child really, sitting on the ground, playing a flute.
During the night we would tiptoe into the room to check on her; the dimmer allowed us to turn the light on just a bit. Sometimes she would be wide awake, lying on her back, holding her hands up and turning them slowly around, studying them from every angle, checking every finger. She was fine.
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