It's easy to see where you're going when you follow your heart
For Manhattan public relations exec Rochelle Weiss, everything in life has come easily—good looks, good grades, professional success—until her life is turned upside down by the news that her beloved parents are dying.
Determined to care for them in their final days, Rochelle loses her job, the support of her lover, Phil, and her lifelong belief that everything will turn out okay. Finding herself alone and nearly broke, she has nowhere to go but into the depths of her own unexplored soul. But when she agrees to take over a friend's dog-walking route, Rochelle discovers the abundance of life that lies beyond the trappings of success.
No longer defined by the expectations of others, she struggles to satisfy her own needs, her own yearnings. And yet the closer Rochelle comes to truly understanding what lies in her own heart, the more she realizes that all the pieces of her life must somehow fit together: her parents, her life before their deaths, and her search for a new beginning.
Read an Excerpt
I was always amused, during those long strange seasons of my discontent, at the reaction I received when people at parties asked me about my job and I told them that I was a dog walker. I was prepared for the surprise that flickered across their faces, for the disapproval, however tolerant, that shadowed their eyes. I knew that I didn’t look the part. Dog walkers are marginal, grungy types and I still wore the short leather skirts and long silk chemises that had been my standard corporate uniform during my years at BIS, Business Industry Systems, a public relations agency specializing in high-tech accounts. And then there was the Phi Beta Kappa key that dangled from a thick gold chain. I didn’t wear it to show off. I wore it because my father had had the chain made especially for the key (he was prouder of it than I was) and it would have been a betrayal of a kind to remove it. I waited for them to ask the obvious—why would a Phi Bet spend her days leading a herd of canines through Central Park? I scripted clever answers to parry back and I was always a little disappointed when I didn’t get to use them. It meant that the questioner (usually a yuppie guy on the make) was not really interested in me, that his eyes were already raking the room in search of someone who might be a little more interesting, a lot more appropriate.
Such disinterest startles me still, jostling the conditioning of my childhood. I grew up with the expectation that everyone would be deeply concerned about me, that I had an inviolate claim to their attention, a right to their immediate involvement.
I was, after all, the only child of Holocaust survivors who had married late and then remained childless for almost a decade. I was the miracle in their lives, the wonder child whose very existence was a marvel. When their cousins, Morrie and Zelda (our sole claim to extended family) spoke of me, their voices trembled with disbelief. Who would have expected Lena and Isaac Weiss—she so fragile and pale and he stooped beneath the burden of memories—to ever have a child? And such a child. I listened greedily as they spoke of me—“a face like a flower, hair the color of fire, tall and so smart—you should know from such smartness.” They kissed their fingers into the air and smiled at me, in adoration, in gratitude. My parents’ luck brushed their own lives with hope. “Ah, Ruchele,” they whispered. My name is Rochelle but my family always used the Yiddish diminutive, which sounded to me like a loving prayer.
It seemed only natural to me that I should be the focus of my parents’ lives, the sole claimant of their affection, their aspiration. From grade school on they pelted me with questions; every minute of my day away from them was subject to their scrutiny, their hungering anxiety. My mother packed my book bag each morning, checked that I had my homework, my notebooks, my texts, a sweater, a neatly wrapped lunch. She unpacked it again when I returned, sniffed the sweater and folded it, talking and talking as she moved from room to room in our quiet and orderly Queens apartment. How was school? A test—was there a test? Did I eat my lunch—both halves of the sandwich? That nectarine—it was good wasn’t it, and juicy? Maybe I shouldn’t have bought nectarines—they’re still not in season, but I read that they have a lot of vitamin C and you get so many colds… My mother’s voice would trail off, lost in worries about my cold, memories of her younger brother who had died of pneumonia that had developed from a cold during a cold Polish winter, concern that she had spent too much for the nectarines when my father was struggling to meet the bills. Still, maybe business would get better, maybe my father’s investment in the new buttonhole machine would work out.
My father did not ask about my lunch. He wanted to see my notebooks. He wanted to know if the teacher had liked my composition. He examined my book covers, and if they were at all frayed he immediately sat down at the kitchen table with brown wrapping paper and scissors and fashioned new ones. He studied my test paper, passed his callused fingers across the shiny gold stars and asked how many other children had received stars. He visited his cousins and brought me their discarded National Geographics for my “extra credit” projects. When I entered high school he bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in a gold maple bookcase, which was the bonus gift that year. I keep it still in my apartment, much to the bemusement of my friends who point out that you can do whatever research you need on-line and my computer is a state of-the-art Apple, my signing-on gift from BIS.
My mother monitored my social life. Who did you sit with lunchtime? Who did you play with at recess? Maybe you want someone to come home with you after school? I’ll make cupcakes. She wanted me to have friends. She did not want her own solitude to be a curse upon my childhood.
“When you raise your hand in class, don’t wave it around,” my father counseled. He had attended night school. He understood the American classroom. He wanted me to volunteer the correct answer with dignity. He did not want me to call attention to myself. My mother would nod. She too understood the danger of making oneself conspicuous. They had survived by willing themselves to invisibility in that netherworld from which, against all odds, they had escaped. This I guessed because they never spoke of it.
They both hovered over my bed when I was ill, proffering glasses of juice, bowls of apple sauce, their trembling fingers and moist lips pressed against my forehead. When I fell roller skating they both examined my skinned knee and, each night until it healed, they studied the scab, waiting impatiently for it to fall off, for the new soft pink skin of healing to emerge. My body was their responsibility and they could not, would not, relinquish dominion over it. When I was an infant, I think they must have spread open my diapers, examined each moist stool, perhaps even bent their heads close to sniff my body’s mysterious excretions, to inhale the miracle of my existence. I know that they never slept when I was awake and although I sometimes resented their absorption and wondered how such devotion could be repaid, for the most part I reveled in it. More dangerously, with the casual narcissism peculiar to children—or at least to the child that I was—I assumed that everyone else would share that intense interest in my life, my world.
And for a long time that assumption, that expectation, was reasonably fulfilled. I was smart without being snotty, a precocious child who skipped a grade and brought the teacher sweet poems, but who never, never jumped up and down in her seat squealing, “ I know. I know.” And I was pretty—auburn curls tumbling to my shoulders, my hazel eyes long lashed, my features delicate, my neck strangely long. By adolescence I was taller than most of my classmates, always slender and a natural athlete. High-school audiences cheered as I leaped for baskets on the polished floors of gymnasiums and sped to the finish line at track meets.
Being a star athlete and an academic achiever kept me the focus of attention in high school and then at Collins, the small, excellent New England college where I majored in English, made dean’s list effortlessly, was elected captain of the track team and editor of the yearbook and then glided into Phi Beta Kappa. During those student years everyone seemed as interested in me as my parents had been—my coaches, my teachers, the recruiters who descended on campus our senior year to pluck up talent ready for ripening. I got the key interviews and the BIS rep offered me the job and the computer without even contacting my references. I accepted without reservations. It was at a top firm, pioneering in public relations for computer companies.
And when you’re pretty and smart and geared for success, you’re a magnet for friends. Classmates flocked to my dorm room, called on the phone, courted intimacy. They peppered me with questions the way my parents had. Where did you get that dress? What are you reading? What are you doing Saturday night? What are you writing your soc paper on? I answered their questions with the same equanimity I had offered my mother when she had asked me about sandwiches and nectarines, my father when he asked me about my schoolwork. I accepted their interest as my due. It took me a long time to realize that not everyone really cared that much about my answers, that most people were too wrapped up in their own lives to care at all. The questions were merely pro forma. It wasn’t until my second year at BIS that I noticed that occasionally people barely listened when I replied. My parents would never have believed it and for a long time I had trouble believing it myself. This was me, Rochelle Weiss, sharing information about her life. How could they not be interested? It was difficult to abandon the certainty of childhood, to recognize that I was not, after all, the center of everyone’s universe.
But that was not the only reason why I was disappointed when people failed to ask me how I got hooked on dog walking, which was, admittedly (even I admitted it), a very weird job for some-one like me. I wondered how it was that my listeners didn’t share my fascination with the serendipitous ways in which people find their professions, how they stumble onto their life’s paths. That was something that always intrigued me, that compels me still.
I remember how, as a small girl, I tingled with excitement when we visited our cousin, Morrie, and his family in their spacious Washington Heights apartment. Morrie was a tall, bald man with thick chestnut-colored eyebrows who checked the time on a gold watch that advertised his wealth and authority. My parents deferred to him. He was in import-export. The words sang. Import-export, export, import. I chanted them as I jumped rope and treasured the stamps he gave me. Merchants in Pakistan and China wrote to him. He dealt in spice and leather, chemicals and steel. His was a mysterious and dramatic profession and I wondered how he, with his pronounced accent, so much thicker than my father’s, and his too loud laugh, had managed to find his way into such a complex world.
My father explained that when Morrie came to America after (there was no need to ask “after what?”), a cousin found him a job as a bookkeeper in an import-export firm. Why not? In Cracow he had been an accountant. Numbers were numbers and Morrie was smart. Soon he learned the business, made suggestions. Soon the owner’s son went off to Mexico to study art and the owner got sick. Morrie ran the business, found an opportunity here, a good deal there. It was pure chance that a job had been found for him in import-export. It could just as easily have been a bakery or a dry-goods firm and there would have been no stamps from Pakistan, no envelopes from China.
I asked Mendy, my American-born cousin, with his sweet breath and long fingers, how he had happened to become a dentist.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” he said. “I was a good science student, and I was good with my hands. That’s important for a dentist, you know. But I couldn’t have afforded to go to dental school. Where would my family have found the money for tuition? But Elias, my mother’s uncle—maybe you remember him—he was a dentist. His son Aaron was developmentally challenged and he worried about him. So he made a deal with me. He would pay my tuition and take me into his practice when I graduated. In return I would always take care of Aaron. A good deal for both of us. So that’s how I became a dentist and that’s why Aaron lives with me and Selma.”
I knew Aaron. He was a gentle man with a vacant smile who sat in a corner at family gatherings wearing an oversize grey cardigan that matched his smooth, pebbly eyes, and endlessly playing with a ball of string. If Aaron had been average he might have gone to dental school and Mendy would never have studied at NYU, never have earned the right to wear a starched white jacket and look into my mouth with a silver-backed mirror, his breath wafting sweetly across my face.
My own father had become a buttonhole manufacturer because of his aunt Rose, his mother’s sister, who had a buttonhole machine in her kitchen. It was her therapy, recommended by the psychiatrist who guided her through a nervous breakdown after her only son was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. It’s mechanical. It will calm her, soothe her, the doctor told my uncle, and he had been right. Plump Aunt Rose,with her pale blue eyes, sat in her kitchen and made buttonholes for small manufacturers. The garments arrived in soft piles, flannel pajamas, cotton blouses, shirts, the buttons in place. She bent over her small machine and carved out the holes while her radio played the soap operas she did not understand and the kitchen grew steamy with the scent of thick soups always simmering on her stove. When my father came to stay with her after the war, she taught him to operate the machine. He liked it. It was warm and pleasant in his aunt’s kitchen. It was a long time since he had known warmth and pleasantness. His fingers flew. The pile of garments grew smaller. The machine was logical, methodical, reliable. So little in his life had been logical, methodical, reliable.
“I got interested. I began to learn more about buttonholes,” he told me.
He learned that some were finished with neat stitching and some remained raw, slits in a cheap fabric that would soon unravel. Some were rounded in satin and some in grosgrain. Each job lot had to be carefully measured. Make the hole too small and the button is forced through, which is no good. Make it too big and the button will pop out, which is also no good. It was necessary to be careful, precise. I thought my father a magician of a kind as I watched him study fabric and button, make his calculations and his decision. This machine gauged just so. That machine for a more elegant job.
He bought his own machines, rented a loft. He had a small factory and after a few years my mother no longer had to worry about the price of out-of-season nectarines.
I would wonder what my father would have done if Rose’s son had not been killed, if her psychiatrist had been less wise or had suggested a different form of therapy. What if she had been crafting baskets or sewing beads onto purses when he arrived, so exhausted, so untrained. Would he have busied himself with strips of wicker, gleaming bits of jet? Life’s course I know was uncharted, chance and choice rising and ebbing in uneasy, unpredictable currents.
I think of my own friends, of Carl who is studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Berkeley. NYU Med wait-listed him for a year and he took a job at the register at Barnes & Noble. Someone returned a philosophy text and because it was a slow day, he read it through, his mind and heart racing. By the time NYU found a place for him he was already packing his bags for California. Then there’s Brett, who is in the window-sash business because his girlfriend got him a job with her uncle who manufactured them. Brett had majored in architecture and graduated just as the economy and construction ground to a standstill, so he was glad of any job at all. He figured out a new design for window sashes and presented it to her uncle, who bought it and eventually made him a partner. Brett broke up with the girlfriend, but he’s now a window-sash magnate. Cousins Mendy and Morrie redux. Chance, circumstance and suddenly a life.
Then there’s my college roommate, Melanie, a psych major who hated psychology and had no idea how she would live after graduation. Now she runs a flower shop on the east side, not far from my apartment, haunts flower shows and speaks knowledgeably about stargazers and jonquils. All because her mother befriended an elderly neighbor who, for years, had brought her a small bouquet from the flower shop where she worked. When the old woman became ill, Melanie’s mother managed her mail, rationed out her painkillers, set up a buzzer system between their apartments. Each morning she brought her a bowl of oatmeal, each evening she carried in a bowl of soup and spooned it into the old woman’s mouth. Acts of loving kindness. The neighbor was widowed, childless, utterly alone. What else could one do? When the old woman died it was revealed that she had owned the flower shop and had willed it to Melanie’s mother. The deed was transferred the week that Melanie graduated, the timing fortuitous, almost magical. Melanie’s mother, a divorced woman, was a teacher who loved her work. The decision to offer Melanie the shop was obvious. And so, because her mother carried bowls of soup across a dimly lit hallway, Melanie spends her days arranging long-stemmed roses and advising brides-to-be about their flowers.
When Melanie tells the story of how she came to be a florist, she makes it sound like a fairy tale with her mother the beneficent queen and she herself the fortunate princess. It is a conceit for which I forgive her, because she is Melanie who dyed her hair magenta and because she understands why I spend my days walking dogs and even approves of my decision.
“It’s not forever,” she said once. “Nothing’s forever. Was BIS forever?”
My answering laughter was tinged with bitterness. Once I had thought so, that is if I’d thought about it at all. I liked my job, my successes were easily achieved as they always had been. Like an accomplished swimmer, I knew how to overcome the occasional cramp of discontent. After ten years I was scooting pretty rapidly up the corporate ladder, going straight from the training program to assistant manager of a key account and later, when Ellie the senior manager had the requisite nervous breakdown after a bad divorce and an even worse love affair, I slipped easily into her job. It was supposed to be temporary, but Ellie’s recovery was slow and I came up with ideas that the client loved and that actually worked. I really peaked when I organized the sponsorship of a Special Olympics event for one of our clients, orchestrating a press conference at which the CEO stood in the midst of a group of kids who were all wearing sweatshirts with the company logo. The wire services picked up the photo, the client was in heaven and I received a dozen yellow roses and a terrific bonus check from Brad Forman, the BIS vice president in charge of my division. I knew there was no way Ellie was ever going to reclaim that account.
My professional success neither surprised nor thrilled me. It had come as easily as the medals I had won at track meets, as the Phi Beta Kappa key that my mother still insisted on polishing. And I wasn’t smug—at least no one ever accused me of that. It was noted that I worked hard, said the right things at meetings, smiled at the right people. What did give me great pleasure each week was my paycheck. I loved being a high earner. I was the daughter of parents who had endured poverty and now everything I wanted was easily affordable.
Copyright ©2005 Gloria Goldreich
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a wonderful book, one of the best I have read in a long time. Gloria Goldreich is an amazing writer.
As someone working in the publishing industry, I have many many fiction manuscripts cross my desk...so I'm too tired to read a book at the end of the day. But I'd learned about Walking Home and made it a point to get it...and it is a wonderful read. Goldreich has captured a life and lives, some of which are very familiar to me, and with her character studies she has created a world that sometimes has no answers, only questions, no solutions, only struggles, no happiness, only grief -- but it is a familiar world...and she has done wonders with it. I also lent Walking Home to my mother. She claims it's the best book she's ever read...and she's read some excellent books and classics in her lifetime. She is insisting on buying several copies of the book to distribute as gifts to friends. That is a compliment in itself!
Rochelle Weiss would do anything for her beloved parents, Holocaust survivors, who had her late in life and gave her unconditional love. Her boss Brad fires her from her public relations job at Business Industry Systems and her boyfriend Phil dumps her when she asks for a leave of absence to take care of her dying parents. Stunned, she loses her optimistic outlook fostered by her parents that everything will work out okay.--- Rochelle earns money walking canines; shockingly she finds the work calming her ravaged soul, and enables her to think about the future and all the good things that have happened to her thanks to the love and nurture of her parents. Though she will mourn her loss, Rochelle knows her life will continue to be great regardless of what she does because of her memories of her parents and some new real friends she has met while WALKING HOME.--- Gloria Goldreich provides her audience with a deep poignant character study of an individual who seems in some ways as a modern Job as everything goes wrong from the moment her mother calls her with the news. The story line is driven totally by Rochelle as she reflects on her past love and glory, her present woes, and ultimately on a future that she knows will once again be filled with love and glory. Fans will appreciate her roller coaster ride from rosy colored optimist to gloomy pessimist back to pragmatic optimist as she overcomes the failures of her boss and her boyfriend and eventually the deaths of her parents in this powerful look at a terrific person making it in a world turned upside down on her.--- Harriet Klausner